Incredibly, it has been 20 years since Nell Shipman’s films first graced the screens of the Giornate. Festival veterans will remember them with fondness. But for all those who may be discovering them afresh, or for the very first time, here are some introductory facts about the lady and her career. See the films, and enjoy!
Nell Shipman (1892-1970) was born Helen Barham, in Victoria, British Columbia. Her family moved to Seattle, Washington, when she was about 5 years old. As a teenager she joined a theatrical company that toured Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. At 18 she married Canadian film entrepreneur Ernest Shipman. In California, before and after the birth of their son Barry (later the writer of such classic serials as Flash Gordon), Nell began writing scenarios, most notably a series for Universal, “Under the Crescent.” Supporting roles followed in Universal, Fox, and Vitagraph productions. In 1915 Shipman was selected for the lead in immensely popular author James Oliver Curwood’s outdoor drama God’s Country and the Woman. This was the role that gave her a nickname, and placed her on a path to brief fame and long-lived, undeserved obscurity, a victim, other writers have observed, of the rising studio system and a Hollywood patriarchy.
In 1919, adapting a Curwood short story and re-titling it Back to God’s Country, Shipman starred in what became an international hit that is, today, the earliest surviving feature film shot (partially) in Canada. Now separated from Ernest, she founded Nell Shipman Productions in 1920. She proceeded to make a series of two-reelers and feature films in California, Washington, and, finally, at her wilderness studio-camp, Lionhead Lodge, on the shores of Priest Lake in the panhandle of north Idaho. Shot on location and often in the most arduous of conditions, Shipman’s films (beautifully photographed by Joseph Walker and Robert Newhard) strike most contemporary viewers as remarkably relevant. They are “Indies”. They are “Green”, expressing a reverence for Nature, and espousing kinship with wildlife, not its domination or extermination. Equally notable? A Shipman production always casts a woman as its hero, assisted by a faithful animal friend. - Tom Trusky
THE GRUB-STAKE (Nell Shipman Productions, Inc., US 1922)
Regia/dir: Bert Van Tuyle, con/with Nell Shipman; scen: Nell Shipman; f./ph: Joseph B. Walker, Robert S. Newhard; mont./ed: Nell Shipman, asst. Bert Van Tuyle; cast: Nell Shipman (Faith Diggs), Walt Whitman (“Skipper” Diggs), Alfred Allen (Mark Leroy), Lillian Leighton (Dawson Kate), George Berrell (Michael Murry [“Malamute Mike”]), Hugh Thompson (Jeb, Kate’s son), C.K. Van Auker (The Mountie), Ah Wing (Wong, Leroy’s assistant), Marjorie Warfield (art student), Lloyd Peters (bartender), Lady (Malamute Mike’s dog); l. or./orig. l: 8 rl.; DVD, 100’; mus: The Bijou Orchestrette; fonte copia/DVD source: Idaho Film Collection at Boise State University.
Didascalie in inglese / English intertitles.
Nell Shipman’s magnum opus chronicling a woman’s attempt to master career and relationships in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle, the Klondike, and the Alaskan wilderness – “Lost Valley”) re-screens fully restored. Previously shown in a 35mm b&w version at Pordenone in 1987, this version (prepared for the DVD series “The Nell Shipman Collection, Volume III”) has been electronically tinted. Tinting instructions found on the surviving BFI negative of The Romance of Lost Valley – the British release title for The Grub-Stake – have been followed for this restoration. The DVD version is taken from the Canadian Archives print of the film; its new score was composed and performed by the Idaho musical group, The Bijou Orchestrette (John Hayes and Eberle Umbach). – Tom Trusky
AT LIONHEAD: NELL SHIPMAN IN IDAHO, 1922-1925 (The Idaho Film Collection / Pretty Good Productions, Inc., US 2007)
Regia/dir, f./ph: Paul Brand; scen: Tom Trusky; cast: Larry Townsend, Janet Davis, Nancy Hanks, Bonnie Bedelia, Tom Trusky, Bud Justice; DVD, 55’, col., sonoro/sound; fonte copia/DVD source: Idaho Film Collection at Boise State University.
Versione inglese / English dialogue and narration.
This in-depth documentary chronicles Shipman’s personal and professional activities: her arrival at and departure from the Minnehaha Studio in Spokane, Washington, in 1922, her transporting family, cast, crew, equipment, and zoo to north Idaho wilderness that same year, and the ultimate collapse in 1925 of the company (and her relationship with lover Bert Van Tuyle) at her studio camp, Lionhead Lodge, on the shores of Priest Lake, Idaho. Highlights of the program (a supplementary feature on the DVD “The Nell Shipman Collection, Volume III”) include an expedition to locate the grave of Shipman’s star dog, Tresore, a Great Dane who was poisoned at Lionhead, and forays on lake and land to discover the site of Lone Star Ranch, owned by Shipman confidante (and co-star) Belle Angstadt. The program concludes with recent (2007) discoveries of company records and never-before-seen photographs of “The Girl from God’s Country”. – Tom Trusky