Saturday Night Spotlight #23: Nell Shipman

One of the pioneering women of both Canadian film history and world cinema, Nell Shipman (1892-1970) wore many hats in her career: actress, screenwriter, director, producer and even an editor. All melodramas with action-driven plots set in the great outdoors, her features and shorts were always co-directed by Bert Van Tuyle, whom she married in the 1920s. Together they founded a film company, Nell Shipman Productions Inc., in 1920. Before and after being a filmmaker Shipman had an active career as a writer, publishing many novels, short stories and plays and co-writing a screen story, “Eyes of the Eagle,” that was adapted into a Myrna Loy-Cary Grant vehicle, Wings in the Dark (1935). Shipman’s autobiography, The Silent Screen & My Talking Heart, was published in 1987 and another collection, Letters from God’s Country – Nell Shipman: Selected Correspondence & Writings, 1912-1970, was published in 2003. The same year that the letters were published, Kay Armatage’s biography of Shipman, The Girl from God’s Country: Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema, was also released. More information on Nell Shipman’s papers, which now belong to the Boise State University Library in Idaho, can be found here.

Something New (1920) – Shipman and Van Tuyle not only co-direct but also co-star in this feature film, an adventure story that runs about 57 minutes in its current restored version. A Western tale of a heroine kidnapped by Mexican bandits, it remains one of Shipman’s best-remembered movies. (It has been released on DVD along with another Shipman-starring feature, the 1919 film Back to God’s Country, which was notorious for showing its leading lady doing full-frontal nudity, prompting the question “Is the Nude Rude?”) The husband and wife team also wrote the screenplay and Shipman produced the film. Cinematography was done by Joseph Walker, who would go on to have a very distinguished career photographing such classics as It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), His Girl Friday (1940) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). (You can watch Something New in its entirety here.)

The Grub Stake: A Tale of the Klondike (1923) – Shipman wrote the story for this Alaska-set Western, again photographed by Joseph Walker and co-produced by Nell Shipman with her first husband, Ernest Shipman (they were married from 1910 to 1920). The film is a full-length feature lasting about 100 minutes, an impressive running time for the silent era – pre-Greed, anyway. (You can watch the entire film here.)

Trail of the North Wind (1924) – Shipman wrote the scenario for this short film that shows her battling snowy terrain; she also produced the film and possibly (though it’s not confirmed by records) co-edited it too. (You can watch a six-minute clip here.)

White Water (1926) – Although only Bert Van Tuyle received onscreen credit for directing this short film, which runs about 27 minutes, Shipman received billing for her roles as lead actress, screenwriter and co-producer (with Walter Greene). The race to save someone caught in a dangerous river current gives Shipman the chance to show off her canoeing skills as she rushes to the rescue, even swimming against the strong tide when the boat turns over. (You can watch the film here.)

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