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Revisiting the Forgotten History of Pioneering Female Filmmaker Nell Shipman

Check out our exclusive excerpt from "Film Censorship in America: A State-by-State History" by Jeremy Geltzer about the forgotten filmmaker and the adventurous spirit that marked all of her works.

Nell Shipman

Film Censorship in America: A State-by-State History

Editor’s note: The following is an exclusive excerpt from “Film Censorship in America: A State-by-State History” by Jeremy Geltzer. The book, which follows Geltzer’s previous effort “Dirty Words & Filthy Pictures: Film and the First Amendment,” will be released on December 19. In this excerpt, Geltzer explores the forgotten legacy of pioneering female filmmaker Nell Shipman.

Far from the soundstages of Hollywood, Nell Shipman ventured into the wild to produce movies that celebrated independent women in exciting scenarios. Although Shipman’s name may no longer be familiar, she deserves to be remembered as one of cinema’s important female pioneers.

Nell Shipman was born in British Columbia and arrived in Southern California by 1912. She found success as a writer—winning both first and second prize in a scriptwriting contest. In the early days of Hollywood before corporate structure was set in place, several women were able to develop behind-the-scenes power. These women achieved a high level of creative control: Anita Loos and Marion Fairfax at Paramount, June Mathis and Frances Marion at MGM, Beta Breuil and Helen Gardner at Vitagraph, and Mary Pickford at United Artists. Universal was the most female-friendly, employing Lois Weber, Ruth Ann Baldwin, Grace Cunard, Cleo Madison, and Ruth Stonehouse above the line. While these women filmmakers earned respect in social message films and costume dramas, Nell Shipman was in a class by herself as a real-life adventure hero.

Shipman could not be confined to the safe space of a studio stage. She earned notice at Vitagraph for her starring role in “God’s Country and the Women” (1916), shot in Big Bear, California. The “Moving Picture World” raved the film was “an ideal blending of dramatic story material, beautiful locations and impressive acting.” Shipman moved to Universal to make “The Melody of Love” (1916) in Lake Tahoe. Having proven her box office draw, she could focus on independently produced passion projects set in the untamed territory of her youth. The “Moving Picture World” gave “Back to God’s Country” (1919) the distinction of “having been made farther north than any other dramatic picture”—in Alberta, Canada. “The Girl from God’s Country” (1921) was Shipman’s biggest film yet. This north-woods epic pitted the resilient starlet against Mother Nature herself—with fires, earthquakes, and an unrelenting frozen winter. Production proved too much for Shipman’s male colleagues. Co-director Bert Van Tuyle suffered a frostbitten foot. Leading man Ronald Byram caught pneumonia on location, dropped out, and died before the film’s release.

“The Girl from God’s Country” hurt Shipman in other ways. The film’s budget was too extravagant and put her production company deep in the red. To continue making outdoor films, she relocated to Upper Priest Lake, Idaho, setting up a base of operations at Lionhead Lodge. Along with her crew and the standard movie equipment came Shipman’s personal menagerie. This motley supporting cast included bears, beavers, cougars, coyotes, deer, eagles, elk, marmots, muskrats, owls, porcupines, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, and wolves, as well as dogs and cats. Ten buildings were built to house these temperamental costars. Far from Hollywood Central Casting’s reserve of character actors, Shipman’s critters took on important roles, playing comic relief, heroes, and villains.mIn one memorable scene in “Back to God’s Country,” Shipman skinny-dips in a crisp mountain stream. A pervy prospector ventures closer to take a peek, but as he comes around a boulder a lounging bear scares him away. Nature, nudity, hints of naughtiness, and a funny animal—Shipman had honed a blueprint for popular outdoor adventures.

As Hollywood’s studio system solidified in the early 1920s there was less room for a maverick filmmaker making movies on her own terms. By 1925 creditors took over Shipman’s Idaho ranch. The bank claimed Shipman’s assets but was unable to provide proper care, and her animals starved in their cages. The Kaniksu National Park ranger cried out for aid and donations, and San Diego responded. The city’s zoo took in several of the surviving animals.Shipman had achieved success during the pioneering days of moviemaking, but her tale arrived at a sad conclusion.

Jeremy Geltzer is a Los Angeles based entertainment and intellectual property attorney who has worked for major movie studios, including Paramount, Warner Bros., and Lionsgate. Prior to his legal career, Geltzer was a writer and producer at Turner Classic Movies.

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