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Nell Shipman

Director, Producer, Screenwriter, Actor
(b. October 25, 1892 Victoria, British Columbia - d. January 23, 1970 Cabazon, California)

Canadian-born independent filmmaker Nell Shipman was a pioneering director, writer, producer and actress – one of very few Canadians making feature films in the silent era and certainly one of the first Canadian women to direct and produce a feature film. Although the prevailing notions of silent film starlets are of simpering woman-child, helpless waif or sultry vixen, Shipman was one of many stars whose persona was that of a courageous, energetic heroine, a modern woman who drove automobiles, traversed great expanses to defeat the villain, openly expressed sexual desire and even rescued the hapless hero.

Shipman began acting at age fourteen and wrote her first script in 1912, the year she went to Hollywood with her husband Ernest, who promoted her films. In 1916, when she starred as the robust heroine in God’s Country and the Woman, she became known as "the girl from God’s country." As a contract Vitagraph star, she achieved her greatest success in Back to God’s Country (1919). Scripted by Shipman (from a short story by James Oliver Curwood), this film showcased her voluptuous beauty, wilderness skills, rapport with animals and intrepid heroism and featured the first nude scene in Canadian cinema. Her only Canadian film, it was shot near Lesser Slave Lake, Alberta, under conditions so extreme the male lead had to be replaced. It became the most successful Canadian feature of the silent era, reaping profits of three hundred per cent, and cemented Shipman’s reputation as a star.

While on location with Back to God’s Country, Shipman was wooed by handsome production manager Burt Van Tuyle. When the shoot was over, Shipman left Ernest and returned to California with Van Tuyle. She dared to continue in the business as an independent, heading her own company – Nell Shipman Productions Inc. – as writer, producer, director, star and occasional editor. She proved especially enterprising as an independent producer, following a successful formula of making the most of a shoestring budget; when the Maxwell Motor Company hired her to make Something New (1920) to promote its latest automobile, Shipman completed a feature with only the budget for a short film. Aspiring solely to popular success, she took on industrial projects while trying to raise money for features that would invariably reprise her "girl from God’s country" character and feature her stable of wild animals that constituted the largest privately owned zoo in North America.

Shipman went bankrupt in 1924, a fate that befell all the independents of the silent era as the major studios consolidated their production, distribution and exhibition monopolies. That same year, she broke up with Van Tuyle, who had co-directed several of her films, and her collection of animals was consigned to the San Diego Zoo. She spent the rest of her life trying to get back into the movies – The Story of Mr. Hobbs (1947) is evidence of her determination – while supporting herself and her family as a journalist and novelist.

Shipman was the subject of the Canadian Retrospective series at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival®, which included screenings of the features Back to God’s Country, Something New, The Grub-Stake (1922) and The Story of Mr. Hobbs (shown without its final reel), along with the short films A Bear, A Boy and a Dog (1921), The Light on Lookout (1923), The Trail of the North Wind (1923) and White Water (1924).

Film and video work includes

The Ball of Yarn, 1913 (writer; actor)
One Hundred Years of Mormonism, 1913 (writer)
Outwitted by Billy, 1913 (writer)
The Shepherd of the Southern Cross, 1914 (writer)
The Pine's Revenge, 1915 (writer)
The Widow's Secret, 1915 (writer)
Under the Crescent series, 1915 (writer)
The Fires of Conscience, 1916 (actor)
God's Country and the Woman, 1916 (actor)
The Melody of Love, 1916 (writer; actor)
Son o' the Stars, 1916 (writer)
Through the wall, 1916 (actor)
The Black Wolf, 1917 (actor)
My Fighting Gentleman, 1917 (co-writer with Doris Schroeder) a.k.a. A Son of Battle
The Wild Strain, 1918 (actor)
Baree, Son of Kazan, 1918 (actor)
Cavanaugh of the Forest Rangers, 1918 (actor)
A Gentleman's Agreement, 1918 (actor)
The Girl from Beyond, 1918 (actor) a.k.a. Texan Romance
The Home Trail, 1918 (actor)
Something New, 1920 (co-director with Bert Van Tuyle; co-writer with Bert van Tuyle; editor; producer; actor)
A Bear, a Boy and a Dog, 1921 (writer; editor; producer; actor)
The Girl from God's Country, 1921 (co-director with Bert Van Tuyle; writer; producer; actor)
The Grub-Stake, 1923 (co-director with Bert Van Tuyle; writer; editor; producer; actor) a.k.a. The Romance of Lost Valley, a.k.a. The Golden Yukon
The Light on the Lookout, Little Dramas of the Big Places series, 1923 (co-director with Bert Van Tuyle; writer; editor; co-producer with Bert Van Tuyle; actor)
The Trail of the North Wind, Little Dramas of the Big Places series, 1923 (co-director with Bert Van Tuyle; writer; co-editor with Aubrey Overmeyer; co-producer with Bert Van Tuyle; actor)
White Water, Little Dramas of the Big Places series, 1924 (co-director with Bert Van Tuyle; writer; editor; co-producer with Bert Van Tuyle; actor)
Wings in the Dark, 1935 (co-writer with Philip D. Hurn)
The Story of Mr. Hobbs, 1947 (writer; editor; producer) a.k.a. The Clam-Digger's Daughter [note: unfinished film]

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