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For the next four years, Nell Shipman made movies independently, as Nell Shipman Productions. “Life as an Independent maker of Motion Pictures was good!” she wrote. Her director and new companion was Bert Van Tuyle, who had served as company manager for Back to God’s Country. They shot their first four films in California: three shorts, The Trail of the Arrow (1919), A Bear, A Boy, and a Dog (1920), and Something New (1920), and one full-length feature, The Girl From God’s Country (1921). The latter film, financed by a syndicate headed by the theater magnate William H. Clune, was filmed on location in the Sierras, a two-day horseback trip from the closest dirt road. Nell played twin sisters, shot in double exposure. It was a sprawling twelve-reeler that featured, in Nell’s words, everything from “dog sleds to airplanes, earthquakes to snowslides.” After the gala premiere in Los Angeles, it was cut back to nine reels. Nell saw the shortened version in a theater in Santa Ana and was enraged. She urged exhibitors not to book it. Such sabatoge was unheard of. “Was I blackballed from the business? I really don’t know for certain…[but] I packed my toys and moved north.”
North was Spokane, Washington, where Nell began work on her next film, a tale of Alaska she called The Grub-Stake. Local businessmen sold stock to finance the picture. Their studio was sitting idle, so they saw in Nell a business opportunity. Along with a cast and crew Nell brought to Spokane a menagerie of wild animals she had acquired during the production of her earlier films. By her own account there were more than one hundred animals: bears, wolves, dogs, bobcats, beavers, skunks, elk, deer, eagles, a cougar, and more. Once filming with the human actors was completed in the studio, she moved on, in the summer of 1922, to Priest Lake, Idaho, for location and animal scenes. Nell felt as if her move to Idaho was a homecoming. “This was my country,” she wrote in her autobiography, “the one spot in all God’s world where [I] belonged.” There, “Nature and her wild children would act for me…not as animated puppets but living, breathing images of wilderness, purity at its divine source.”
Priest Lake, Idaho, would be Nell Shipman’s home for the next two and a half years. She finished filming The Grub-Stake there, then returned to Hollywood with Bert Van Tuyle to edit the film. The animals remained at Priest Lake, cared for by a skeleton crew of attendants. Nell spent hours in the Hollywood lab herself, cutting and splicing, before taking the finished product to New York in search of a distributor. That business done, she returned to Idaho to winter there and begin work on a series of shorts, Little Dramas of the Big Places.
Nell spent 1923 and most of 1924 at Priest Lake working on the Little Dramas and planning her next full-length features. She became a well-known figure in the community. News of her activities appeared frequently in the Priest River Times and other local newspapers. She built her own movie camp on the eastern side of the Priest Lake and named it Lionhead Lodge. But by the end of 1924, her financial situation was extremely precarious. Because her distributor went bankrupt, The Grub-Stake had not been widely shown and was a financial failure. Creditors were suing. She had no income. Life in Idaho had become a prison of “work and worry…debt and suffering.” Nevertheless, she headed off to New York in hopes of securing financing for a new motion picture. “Not a bumbling little short but a real Feature with which I’d recoup, stage that long-awaited comeback,” she wrote. But the comeback never came. She found no backers for the new film, and a judge in Idaho ruled that her animals had to be sold to pay her debts. The San Diego Zoo saved the day and took them all. And Nell moved on. She stayed in New York and moved into a brownstone she shared with the artist Robert Emmett Owen and his wife Wylda. The Owens introduced her to the next love of her life, a portrait painter from New England named Charles Austin Ayers.
Temperamentally Nell’s opposite, Charles Austin Ayers introduced Nell to his large New England family and a lifestyle far removed from the rigors of Idaho or the world of film finance. “He’s different from anyone we’ve ever known,” Nell wrote to her twelve-year old son Barry, still in school in Spokane. But Ayers was no better off financially than Nell, so she instinctively turned to writing to support herself. She wrote as he painted. She penned a memoir of her Idaho experience, published in three issues of the Atlantic Monthly in the Spring of 1925. And then she was ready for new adventures. She sent for Barry and the two of them moved with Charles to Florida, where her ex-husband, Ernest, waited with a prospective film deal. Ernest Shipman’s project did not materialize, so Nell wrote stories inspired by local lore. A novel, The Tamiami Trail, was published in serial form in several Florida newspapers. This Florida sojourn was a short one, however, for in the Spring of 1926 Nell, Barry, and Charles boarded a steamer bound for Spain, in search of subjects for the artist as well as a low cost of living. They rented a villa outside the seacoast town of La Coruna. Hardly more than a month after their arrival, Nell gave birth to twins Charles Douglas and Daphne Anne Ayers.
New motherhood did not slow Nell down, however. In the Fall she went to England, where she visited movie studios and proclaimed in a British trade journal that London could become the “film centre of the world.” On her return to Spain, she found her twins weaned but her financial situation desperate. British relatives grudgingly lent support, but she and Charles had to return to America and find work. They returned to New England, but by November 1927 they were settled in Sarasota, Florida, where Charles opened a studio. The Sarasota press greeted them like conquering heroes, hailing their choice of Sarasota as a home in headlines and feature articles. In March 1928 Nell was the Queen of the Pageant of Sara De Sota, an extravaganza sponsored by circus magnate John Ringling. The month of May found her in Miami starring in a one-act play she wrote entitled “Are Screen Stars Dumb?” performing alongside her son Barry.
Nell’s performances in Sarasota and Miami were her last acting roles, however. From then on, until the end of her life, she concentrated on writing. Always on the move, rarely staying in one place more than a year, she moved across country with twins and Barry and Charles in tow. The next seven years found her in various locales: Taos in New Mexico; Glendale, Sausalito, Los Angeles, Requa, Klamath, Venice, and Big Bear in California; and back East, in Connecticut and New York. Sometimes all five of them were together; sometimes they were separated. Despite all the moves, these were her most productive writing years since the early days with the studios. Dial Press published three books: Kurly Kew and the Tree Princess (a novelization of one of her Little Dramas), and two stories of the North Country, Get the Woman (1930) and Abandoned Trails (1932). Get the Woman was serialized inMcCall’s Magazine as “M’sieu Sweetheart.” Good Housekeeping published a reminiscence of her filmmaking days entitled “This Little Bear Went to Hollywood” (1931). In 1933 she left her household behind in California and moved to New York to work as a story developer for George Palmer Putnam, recently named head of Paramount Studios’ editorial board. Once again the movie bug bit her; she wanted to make movies again, and she wanted Barry—now 21 and a writer himself-- to work with her.
After school was out in 1934, Nell drove back to California in her new Pierce limousine to bring Charles and the twins to New York. Her relationship with Charles Austin Ayers, however, was foundering. By the Fall, she and Charles had separated. “We staged a terrible renunciation scene,” she wrote to Barry, and their ten-year relationship was over.
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