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Nell Shipman in a nice portrait for the great outdoors.
Nell Shipman (25 October 1892 – 23 January 1970) was a Canadian actress, author and screenwriter, producer, director, and animal trainer. She was a Canadian pioneer in early Hollywood. She is best known for her work in James Oliver Curwood stories and for portraying strong, adventurous women. In 1919, she and her producer husband, Ernest Shipman, made the most successful silent film in Canadian history, Back to God's Country.
Nell Shipman: A Biographical Sketch
by Alan Virta
Nell Shipman’s life in show business began on the repertory and vaudeville stages and spanned the eras of silent film, radio, the talkies, and television. She toured with the likes of Jesse Lasky, Paul Gilmore, Dick Sutton, and Charles A. Taylor in the first decade of the twentieth century, made silent films in the 1910s and 20s, and spent the next forty years writing novels, plays, film scenarios, and short stories. She lived in Los Angeles and New York, Miami and Seattle, New England, Arizona, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., but it was in Idaho where she came closest to achieving her dream: making movies on her own, on location in the wild, with complete creative and artistic control. That experience came to an abrupt and bitter end, but Nell never gave up her dream and remembered Priest Lake, Idaho, as her “Ultima Thule, the one spot in all God’s world where [she] belonged.”
Nell Shipman was born Helen Foster Barham on October 25, 1892, in Victoria, British Columbia. Her British-born parents, Rose and Arnold Foster Barham, had come to Canada with her older brother Maurice just a few years before. While she was still small the family emigrated to the United States, settling in Seattle, Washington, where young Helen studied music and the dramatic arts. The Barhams made one trip to England when Nell was a child; it was after a visit to the theater in London (she wrote in her autobiography) that she knew she had to become an actress. When Paul Gilmore’s traveling company came through Seattle, she convinced her parents and her drama teacher to allow her to audition for the role of ingénue in Gilmore’s comedy, “At Yale.” She won the part, and at age thirteen went on the road. From then on she was seldom at rest until her family finally convinced her to settle down and retire in California at the age of seventy-three.
Nell Shipman’s youthful stage career took her across the country in both dramatic and musical roles. She spent one summer in New York City and another in Alaska. Sometimes her mother traveled with her, sometimes not. Stranded more than once when a company went broke, Nell returned home to Seattle between tours. Then, at age eighteen, she was cast in a traveling production of Rex Beach’s play, “The Barrier.” The company manager was a thrice-married, thirty-nine year-old Canadian named Ernest Shipman, a veteran promoter and producer. He wooed her and they were married on tour. When a sprained ankle treated by too much morphine forced her to drop out of the production in Spokane, she recuperated nearby on the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. “I found myself in my homeland,” she wrote. “The forested mountains of Idaho seemed to cascade down the slopes and carry me to their shining heights, cradle me in topmost boughs, soothe me with song…Show business was forgotten.” She was not destined to stay long in Idaho this time, however. When she recovered, she rejoined Ernest on the road. After his last show closed, they moved to California and rented a house in South Pasadena. There, in February 1912, Nell gave birth to a son, Barry. And Nell and Ernest Shipman entered the brand new world of Hollywood.
With his flair for promotion, Ernest Shipman went to work as an agent and publicist for Universal and other studios. Nell began to write film scenarios, but was frustrated by the lack of recognition story writers received in Hollywood. She wrote an article for West Coast Magazine in 1912 calling for the inclusion of the scenario writer in the film credits. Grossett and Dunlap published her first novel, Under the Crescent, in 1915, a romantic thriller adapted from scripts for a Universal serial. When her son was a little older, she began to act once more, mainly for Vitagraph, appearing onscreen with silent stars William Farnum, Lou Tellegen, Jack Kerrigan, William Duncan, and Gayne Whitman. The defining motion picture of her early career was God’s Country and the Woman (1916), a James Oliver Curwood tale of the North Woods. Shot partially in the San Bernardino Mountains at Big Bear, California, it featured the outdoor, on-location shooting that would later become Nell’s own trademark as a filmmaker. Nell played a role that would occur throughout her film career: a strong, resourceful female who came through to save the day.
Nell Shipman quickly became a star. Samuel Goldwyn offered her a seven-year contract, but she declined. What she wanted to do as much as act was to make movies herself. In 1918, she formed an independent production company with James Oliver Curwood to make more tales of the North Woods. Financing for their first effort, Back to God’s Country, was arranged by Ernest Shipman, who convinced businessmen in Calgary that a film starring his wife was a sound investment. And it was. Filmed partially in the frozen wild country of Lesser Slave Lake in northern Alberta, it reportedly returned its investors a fine profit. But conditions filming in the Far North were harsh and remote. One actor died, and word did not reach Nell Shipman until well after-the-fact that her own father had passed away while she was on location.
After Back to God’s Country, Nell Shipman withdrew from her association with Curwood to make films on her own. “I think that perhaps you have made the biggest mistake of your life,” Curwood wrote back, but she was intent on going her own way. At the same time, she separated from Ernest Shipman. Their divorce, a year later, was front- page news in the Los Angeles newspapers.
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