Nell Shipman

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Nell Shipman
Nell Shipman Photoplay Nov 1918.png
Shipman in 1918
Helen Foster-Barham

(1892-10-25)October 25, 1892
DiedJanuary 23, 1970(1970-01-23) (aged 77)
OccupationActress, screenwriter, director, producer, animal trainer
Years active1910–1947
Ernest Shipman (m. 1910–1920)

Charles H. Austin Ayers
(m. 1925; his death 1964)
Partner(s)Bert Van Tuyle (c. 1918 – 1924

Nell Shipman (born Helen Foster-Balham; October 25, 1892 – January 23, 1970) was a Canadian actress, author and screenwriter, producer, director, and animal trainer. She was a Canadian pioneer in early Hollywood. She is best known for her work in adventure films adapted from the novels of American writer James Oliver Curwood, and for portraying strong, vital women.

In 1919, she and her producer husband, Ernest Shipman,[1] made what became the most successful silent film in Canadian history, Back to God's Country. She performed one of the first on-screen nude scenes in this film.[2]

Life and career[edit]

She was born as Helen Foster-Barham in Victoria, British Columbia. Her family moved to Seattle, Washington in the United States when she was 13 years old. She started stage acting and joined theatrical stock companies before working in film.

From an early age, she developed a respect toward animals and later fought for animal rights in Hollywood; she spoke out against animal cruelty. She rescued many animals and ultimately developed her own zoo, containing more than 200 animals of all sorts.[3] When Helen was 18 years old, she met and married Ernest Shipman (December 17, 1871 – August 7, 1931), a 39-year-old theatrical impresario.

Film career[edit]

After marrying, the Shipman 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).

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.[citation needed]

In 1918, Shipman contracted Spanish influenza during the international epidemic and nearly died. She lost all of her thick, long hair and had to wear a wig temporarily. She was lucky that her hair grew back.[4]

During her recovery, she decided to create a production company called "Shipman-Curwood Producing Company," in partnership with the American author. Her husband, Ernest Shipman, convinced a consortium of Calgary businessmen to invest in Alberta, Canada becoming a major film location destination; they incorporated a company, Canadian Photoplays Ltd., on February 7, 1919, with a $250,000 investment. The company produced only a single film, based on Curwood's short story, "Wapi the Walrus." Shipman adapted this for the screen herself. It was released as Back to God's Country, to capitalize on her success in God's Country and the Woman.[5]

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."[6]

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. The cameramen were Dal Clawson and Joseph B. Walker, who later gained fame as the chief cinematographer for Frank Capra, who became a noted Hollywood director.[7] Back To God's Country was a major Canadian and international silent film hit.

Although the movie was extremely successful and earned a 300% profit, the businessmen made no further investment in the company. Curwood was infuriated with Shipman because she had changed the plot of his short story. She changed the protagonist of the film from the Great Dane dog, Wapi, to Delores, the female lead. Shipman wrote that character as a strong heroine: she saved the male lead and in doing socreated an independent character and feminist role model.[8]

After shooting Back to God's Country, Shipman and her co-star Bert Van Tuyle, with whom she was having an affair, moved back to Hollywood. She subsequently divorced Ernest Shipman.[9]

During this period, she created "Nell Shipman Productions" with Van Tuyle, 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 successful.[10]

While living in Spokane, Washington, Shipman made a film called The Grub Stake (1923), which cost around $180,000 to produce. The film was never distributed. The American distributor went bankrupt and during subsequent litigation, the film became tied up in the legal proceedings. During this time, Shipman tried to maintain her production company. She transported her zoo of animals on barges up to Priest Lake, Idaho, where she made several short films at Lion Head Lodge. Van Tuyle became increasingly unstable, and hostile locals killed her animals.[11] 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.[12]

Later that same year, Shipman's company went bankrupt and she broke up with Van Tuyle.[9] She sent her surviving animals to the San Diego Zoo because she was unable to pay for their maintenance.

She moved across country and also traveled. Eventually, she started writing 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). Shipman moved to the California desert, where she continued writing for the rest of her life.

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.

Ernest died in 1931 at the age of 53, due to cirrhosis of the liver. Their son, Barry, became an actor and a singer. He married actress, Beulah McDonald, in 1934. He later had a successful career as a writer for movies serials, television and feature films.[13]

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 died at Cabazon, California at the age of 77.

Personal life[edit]

Nell married Ernest Shipman (1871–1931) in 1910. They had one child, Barry (b. 1912). The couple divorced in 1920. She also had a several-year relationship with Bert Van Tuyle (1878–1951), who co-founded Nell Shipman Productions; their relationship lasted from c. 1918 to 1924.

In 1925, Shipman married Charles H. Austin Ayers (1889–1964). They had twin daughters, born in 1928. They were married until his death.

Cultural legacy[edit]

  • 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".[citation needed]
  • The Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock was commissioned to write a one-act play about Shipman's life. It was performed in 1999 by the Theatre Junction Resident Company of Artists in Calgary, and was directed by Brian Richmond.[citation needed]
  • All of Nell Shipman's surviving films are available on DVD from Boise State University, which holds a collection of materials about her.[14]


(Either or all: writer/director/producer/star)


  1. ^ "Ernest Shipman – Ten Percent Ernie"
  2. ^ Dawn E. Monroe, On The Job: Canadian Women of Achievement, Famous Canadian Women
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ D.J. Turner (1995)
  5. ^ "Ten Percent Ernie," Embattled Shadows – A History of Canadian Cinema 1895–1939, by Peter Morris, (McGill-Queen's Press (1978), pp. 95–126.
  6. ^ Moving Picture World, July 24, 1920
  7. ^ The Light on Her Face, Joseph Walker, ASC and Juanita Walker, (The ASC Press, 1984), pp.88–107.
  8. ^ Peter Morris (1978)
  9. ^ a b "Nell Shipman". Canadian Film Encyclopedia.
  10. ^ Peter Morris (1978), note 19, p. 296.
  11. ^ The Silent Screen & My Talking Heart, by Nell Shipman and ed. by Tom Trusky, Hemingway Western Studies Series (1987)
  12. ^ Spokane Daily Chronicle, Saturday, January 19, 1924
  13. ^ [1] "Barry Shipman, A Biographical Sketch," Library, Boise State University website.
  14. ^ Boise State University


  • 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.

Suggested reading[edit]

• "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.

External links[edit]