Nell Shipman (born Helen Foster-Balham; October 25, 1892 – January 23, 1970) was a Canadian actress, author, screenwriter, producer, director, and animal activist/trainer.
Shipman in 1918
October 25, 1892
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
|Died||January 23, 1970 77) (aged|
|Occupation||Actress, screenwriter, director, producer, animal trainer|
Ernest Shipman (m. 1910–1920)
Charles H. Austin Ayers (m. 1925–1932)
|Partner(s)||Bert Van Tuyle (c.1918 – 1924)|
Her works often had autobiographical elements to them and reflected her passion for nature. Throughout her career, she started two independent producing companies called Shipman-Curwood Producing Company and Nell Shipman Productions.
She is best known for her work in adventure films adapted from the novels of American writer, James Oliver Curwood.
She was born as Helen Foster-Barham in Victoria, British Columbia. Her parents were Arnold and Rose Barham. She grew up in a middle class family. From an early age, she developed a respect towards animals. She was passionate about animal rights and advocated for them in Hollywood. She developed her own zoo, containing more than 200 animals.
In 1904, her family moved to Seattle, Washington. A year later, she left home and joined the Paul Gilmore travelling theatrical company.
When Helen was 18 years old, she met and married Ernest Shipman, a 39-year-old theatrical impresario. Their son, Barry Shipman, was born a couple year later in 1912.
While married to Ernie Shipman, Nell engaged in a six year long affair with actor Bert Van Tuyle. They eventually split during the filming of The Grub Stake, because of Van Tuyle's deteriorating mental state.
After marrying Ernie Shipman, the couple moved to Hollywood, where the American film industry was developing. During this time, Nell Shipman sold the rights to her novel, Under the Crescent Moon to Universal Studios (they wanted to make a six-film serial of the book).
Nell Shipman started acting in Universal, Selig & Vitagraph studio productions. Between 1915–1918, she played several leading roles, including her debut in God's Country and the Woman (1915), based on a short story by American writer James Oliver Curwood. Shipman directed, produced, and acted in this film. She was one of the first directors to shoot her films almost entirely on location.
Throughout her life, Shipman wrote many scripts and short stories. One of her stories was adapted for the American film Wings in the Dark (1934), starring Myrna Loy and Cary Grant (1934). In 1925, Shipman wrote three essays called "The Movie That Couldn't Be Screened." Additionally, she wrote a children's book titled "Kurly Kew and the Tree-Princess: A Story of the Forest People Told For Other-People" (1930). Most of Nell Shipman's work had autobiographical elements to them.
Nell Shipman turned down a contract with Samuel and Goldwyn in favor for independent cinema. Her preference for independent cinema led her to starting two producing companies, Shipman-Curwood Producing Company and Nell Shipman Productions.
Neither she nor Ernest Shipman had been able to repeat their success with Back to God's Country. Other directors made new versions of the film, by the same title, in 1927 and 1953.
Shipman's last major project was her autobiography, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart. It was published posthumously by Boise State University through their Hemingway Western Studies Series. The university also houses the Nell Shipman Collection at Albertsons Library. Many of her films were preserved and are available through the library.
Shipman-Curwood Producing Company
Her husband, Ernest Shipman, convinced a consortium of Calgary businessmen to invest in Alberta, Canada. They incorporated a company, Canadian Photoplays Ltd., on February 7, 1919, with a $250,000 investment.
The company produced one film, based on Curwood's short story, "Wapi the Walrus." Shipman adapted this for the screen herself. The 73-minute film (at 18 frames per second) was shot in Los Angeles, San Francisco and on location near Lesser Slave Lake, Alberta, Canada by director David M. Hartford. It was released as Back to God's Country, to capitalize on her success in God's Country and the Woman. Shipman also played the lead in the film, which featured her in a very brief, but controversial nude scene. A promotional advertisement for the film had a line drawing of a nude Nell, shown from the back and frolicking with several animals. Part of the caption read: "Don't book Back To God's Country unless you want to prove the Nude is NOT Rude."
Back To God's Country was a major Canadian and international silent film hit. Despite the film's success, Curwood did not like the fact that Shipman changed the plot of his short story. She changed the protagonist of the film from Wapi the Great Dane, to Delores.
Nell Shipman Productions
She created "Nell Shipman Productions" with Bert Van Tuyle in 1919, and established herself as an independent producer. She focused on the major themes she enjoyed: wild animals, nature, feminist heroes, and filming on location. She produced, wrote, co-directed and starred in The Girl From God’s Country (1921) and The Grub Stake (1923). Both films were not successful.
She transported her zoo of animals on barges up to Priest Lake, Idaho, where she made several short films at Lion Head Lodge. One of the films made there was called The Grub Stake (1923). It cost around $180,000 to produce. The film was never distributed, because the American distributor went bankrupt and during the subsequent litigation, the film became tied up in the legal proceedings. Van Tuyle became increasingly unstable, and hostile locals killed her animals. Shipman and Van Tuyle got lost in the wild for two days during a violent snow storm in January 1924. They encountered and were saved by two brothers, Joseph and Fred Gumaer.
- For three years, from 1917 to 1920, Nell Shipman had lived in what had been preserved as The Doctor's House Museum in Glendale, California. Her mother died here in 1918 during the flu epidemic. Shipman described the site of the house in her autobiography as on a "tree lined dirt road, away from the hub bub of Hollywood".
- “Nell Shipman Point” is a piece of land in Priest Lake, Idaho. It is named after her because The Grub Stake (1923) was filmed there.
- The Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock was commissioned to write a one-act play about Shipman's life called Moving Pictures (1999).
|1913||The Ball of Yarn||Screenwriter, actress|
|1913||One Hundred Years of Mormonism||Screenwriter|
|1914||Outwitted By Billy||Screenwriter, director|
|1915||Under the Crescent||Screenwriter|
|1915||The Pine's Revenge||Screenwriter|
|1915||God's Country and the Woman||Lead actress|
|1916||The Fires of Conscience||Actress|
|1916||Through the Wall||Actress|
|1917||Baree, Son of Kazan||Actress|
|1917||The Black Wolf||Actress|
|1917||My Fighting Gentleman||Actress|
|1918||The Girl from Beyond||Actress|
|1918||The Home Trail||Actress|
|1918||Cavanaugh of the Horse Rangers||Actress|
|1918||The Wild Strain||Actress|
|1919||Back to God's Country||Screenwriter, lead actress|
|1920||Trail of the Arrow||Writer, producer, actress, director|
|1920||Something New||Writer, producer, actress, director|
|1920||Saturday Off (renamed A Bear, A Baby, and a Dog)||Writer, and producer|
|1921||The Girl from God's Country||Writer, actress|
|1923||The Grub-Stake||Director, screenwriter, producer|
|1924||White Water||Writer, director, producer, and actress|
|1935||Wings in the Dark||Screenwriter|
|1946||The Clam-Digger's Daughter/The Story of Mr Hobbes||Producer, writer, producer|
- Trusky, Tom. "Nell Shipman." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013. <https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-ymha-rg65>
- "Ernest Shipman – Ten Percent Ernie"
- Dawn E. Monroe, On The Job: Canadian Women of Achievement, Famous Canadian Women
- Trusky, Tom (1988). "Nell Shipman: A Brief Biography". Griffithiana: 252–258 – via ProQuest.
- D.J. Turner, "Who was Nell Shipman and why is everyone talking about her?", The Archivist No. 110 (1995,) Magazine of the National Archives of Canada.
- Armatage, Kay (2003). The girl from God's country: Nell Shipman and the silent cinema. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, University Of Toronto Press - M.U.A.
- "Nell Shipman". Library and Archives of Canada. Retrieved November 5, 2019.
- The Silent Screen & My Talking Heart, by Nell Shipman and ed. by Tom Trusky, Hemingway Western Studies Series (1987)
- The Light on Her Face, Joseph Walker, ASC and Juanita Walker, (The ASC Press, 1984), pp.88–107.
- "Ten Percent Ernie," Embattled Shadows – A History of Canadian Cinema 1895–1939, by Peter Morris, (McGill-Queen's Press (1978), pp. 95–126.
- Moving Picture World, July 24, 1920
- Smith, Judith. "Nell Shipman: Girl Wonder from God's Country". Cinema Canada: 35–38.
- Spokane Daily Chronicle, Saturday, January 19, 1924
- "Nell Shipman". Canadian Film Encyclopedia.
- York, Lorraine; Lee, Katja (2016). Celebrity Cultures in Canada. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. pp. 19-35.
- Grace, Sherill (Spring 2002). "Creating the Girl from God's Country: From Nell Shipman to Sharon Pollock". Canadian Literature: 92.
- Armatage, Kay (2003). The girl from God's country: Nell Shipman and the silent cinema. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-8542-3.
- Pollock, Sharon (2003). Sharon Pollock Three Plays: Moving Pictures. Toronto ON: Playwrights Canada Press. ISBN 0-88754-656-0.
- Shipman, Nell (1987). The silent screen & my talking heart: an autobiography. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University. ISBN 0-932129-04-8.
- Walker, Joseph (1984). The Light on Her Face. A S C Holding Corp. ISBN 0-932129-04-8.
• "Dreams Made in Canada – a history of feature film, 1913 to 1995" – an article by Sam Kula, Archivist, Archives and Government Records The Archivist No. 110 (1995), Magazine of the National Archives of Canada.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Nell Shipman.|
- Nell Shipman Website
- Canadian Film Encyclopedia [A publication of The Film Reference Library/a division of the Toronto International Film Festival Group]
- Nell Shipman at the Women Film Pioneers Project
- Nell Shipman at Canadian Women Film Directors Database
- Nell Shipman on IMDb
- Nell Shipman Biography
- Canadian Encyclopedia Article on Nell Shipman
- The Nell Shipman Exhibit at City of Glendale, CA
- Nell Shipman at AllMovie
- A Brief History of Nell Shipman by Joel Zemel ©1997
- Silent Era Nell Shipman
- Nell Shipman Collection at Boise State University
- Famous Canadian Women
- Barry Shipman (Nell's son)