Thursday, 10 March 2016

The revenant… The Grub-Stake (1923)

“… no one who has not gone for broke, all out, all of the way… knows what it means to watch the unreeling of twelve-thousand feet of film which carries his colours to victory or defeat.” Nell Shipman

A revenant is a “visible ghost” returned to haunt the living and in Nell Shipman’s case the spectre both inspires and amazes. This was a woman who not only overcame impossible financial odds to make this film but who relocated her crew, cast and zoo to the frozen wastes of Ohio before climbing 6,000 feet to film the climax in which she dangles herself off a sheer rock face. DeCaprio you’re a wimp!

The hills are alive
By the time Shipman and partner/co-producer/nominal co-director Bert Van Tuyle came to make this film they were on their uppers and their company was in deep financial trouble. They sold their house in California, their car and even their piano to help finance The Grub-Stake as well as raising contributions from 300 subscribers. Their final budget was $180,000 which for an undertaking of this scale was hopelessly inadequate but Shipman had a vision and she wanted it realized.

Nell’s spirit comes through in her written words and as the above quote shows, she had a sense of humour to match her drive. She needed it as this was the biggest risk imaginable for the “Girl from God’s Country”, as she was named after two successful films featuring her battling the elements of Ohio.

Nell Shipman: in the studio and out of doors
As she suggests below, Nell's script for The Grub-Stake has everything in it and the kitchen sink – which her character Faith Diggs uses to run a home laundry business. It’s a high energy film which cuts quickly and moves at pace, possibly reflecting the challenges of its low ratio of film shot to film required – just 50,000 feet from which to edit those precious “12,000”.

The breathless finale was filmed atop Lookout Mountain – at 6,727 feet the highest in the region and more than a couple of thousand up on Ben Nevis, Britain’s champion peak – having to lug equipment up on the backs of protesting pack horses. Honestly Nell, you could have picked an easier location but no she went high and it is rewarded as the views make for a stunning backdrop as she hangs onto a tree root on the side of a sheer cliff face. It’s a stunning conclusion that sets the emotions and the pulse racing – to all her other attributes add stunt-woman and her editing (who else) is superb.

Nell hangs on tight
As Nell later said: “…it had a sockeroo finish! It brought to customers that dimple we aim to create so it may cup their shed tears…”

The plot is how you hipsters say, “bat-dropping” crazy, and shows Nell’s lively mind in overdrive creating an improbable world just around the bend from our believable own. Nell plays Faith Diggs a woman who combines work in an artist’s materials shop with life modelling and a home laundry service.

Skipper watches the ships and waits...
She does all this to care for her ailing father, a retired mariner named Skipper (Walt Whitman – the other one) who spends his days looking out of his window at the tall ships in the harbour. He puts his light in the window to illuminate Faith’s way home and already you can see the richness of Shipman’s ideas with any florid over-invention being counterbalanced by a lightness of tone in the intertitles.

But Shipman’s acting provides the clearest signal of her intent. She stands tall as the model wrapped in white cotton, standing as a partially-exposed mummy in front of a class of eager scribblers, her face mock serious yet soon gurning in horror as she has to shuffle out to deal with a customer.

Bare shoulders!
Bizarrely that customer is the film’s villain popped into pick up some brushes and paint for a friend up in the Yukon – the script is full of such long shots and intricate connections and this won’t be the last we see of those brushes… Mark Leroy is a gambler and business man played by Alfred Allen (who Wikipedia wrongly makes 36 at the time of the film when he was actually 56 and he looks it!) but Faith can’t see that only a charmer who takes an interest in her.

Faith loses her two art jobs after the proprietor returns to find her bare-shouldered. She traipses the streets looking for work and runs into Leroy again just as she is on the point of selling her improbably long hair. He invites her round on the pretext of photographing said locks but when she arrives she reveals they’ve all been chopped for cash. No matter, he didn’t really want to take her pic… he has more business-like concerns.

Well, would you trust this man?
Looking to make a new start for her and Skipper, Faith jumps at Leroy’s offer of a “grub-stake” – an advance on adventure based on a share of the returns, but rebuffs his attempts to take an early payback in kind. They travel north by ship and in a moment of calm madness, faith accepts a marriage proposal from the middle-aged manipulator… let’s say Faith is green; let’s say she trusts too easily and that she has, indeed, too much faith.

Dawson Kate evaluates the greenhorn's fashion sense
Reality bites once they arrive not once but three times… Leroy provides Faith with a new dress and invites her to a “party” at the local dance hall. The folk there are mighty friendly, especially the men but not Dawson Kate (Lillian Leighton) the “he-woman” (according to the intertitle) who runs the saloon with a rod of iron and a heart of rare softer metal. He soon reveals to Faith that firstly this ain’t no party, secondly hubby already has a wife… and thirdly Leroy has bought Faith here to trade as a sex-worker.

Overhearing the truth Faith is shocked to the core but then she hears that Leroy’s set his manservant (Ah Wing) to poison her father…

Malamute Mike and his best friend
At the start of the film we’re shown an old but intrepid frontiersman atop a hill with his faithful hound but by the time we see the man again he has become the town drunk, Malamute Mike (George Berrell) trailing around the string he used to tether his four legged friend in the belief that old Tucson is still there. He’s kicked out of the dance hall just in time to head to Skipper’s house and to slow down the poison plot long enough for Faith to come to the rescue.

Leroy duly thwarted, the trio have to flee before he finds out. Mike, drunkenly-deluded that he found some gold high in the mountains and at the end of the rainbow… decides to take them there. They take Leroy’s dogs and sleds and head for the frozen North.

Faith climbs higher
Now Shipman’s love of nature takes over and there are glorious segments in the snow. Faith has to forge on alone after their sled runs out of snow and ends up going higher and higher, lost in the upper perma-frosts forests as Mike goes for help from Kate’s son Jeb (Hugh Thompson), who lives in their cottage practicing his art and is indeed the person for whom Leroy bought the materials for right back at the start.

Faith discovers the bear necessities
There follows an interlude in which Faith survives the cold in just a linen shirt and winter dress, wandering lost until seeking refuge in a cave already occupied with a friendly brown bear… The sequence shows Faith communing with all manner of creatures – more bears, raccoon, badgers, marmosets, deer and wolves. All are at peace with this gentle soul although in reality the wolf sent to snuggle up as Faith sleeps, lunged at Nell’s face and later had to be put down.

Jeb arrives from nature
Spring seems to have sprung and one day as Faith sits watching two bears play-fighting in the stream Jeb arrives and almost rescues her before being told there is no need.

Now the stage is set as the two youngsters fall for each other, Jeb spots Mike’s marker for the gold and they find his old dog still in his old shack! Lots of things fall into place whilst the tension is ramped up as Leroy comes looking for the girl and the gold!

Jeb and Faith bond over nature and the arts
“Fact is, viewing the scenario from the wrong end of time’s telescope, The Grub-Stake bears a strong resemblance to a Soap Opera!” Nell Shipman

She was not wrong but the opera is well produced and the soap not so soft once the action kicks in and a battle begins culminating in that real-life cliff-hanger. Before that Shipman battles Alfred Allen in a no-holds barred scrap that she looked like she could easily win.

Location shooting on frozen Priest Lake - same spot as the image at the top!
The Grub-Stake is packed full of Shipman’s determination and charm but whilst it initially did well its distributor, American Releasing Corporation – who hadn’t even paid an advance – went broke. Other, better, offers came in too late after Nell had signed the deal – almost as green as Faith.

Nell again“…this picture was a real grub-stake gamble for a proprietor who must strike it, must pan out!”

Y'see Leo... you have to work with the bear; don't fight it!
Luckily British rights were secured – not that Nell saw any of the money – which ensured that the BFI ended up with the only extant copy. This was used by Idaho Film to create the From Lionhead Lodge DVD which is part three of their Nell Shipman Collection which comes complete with surviving shorts from the Little Dramas of the Big Places series and a short documentary narrated by Shipman’s grand-daughter and great grand-daughter in 1987 – the family creative spirit lives on. There’s also a suitably homely accompaniment from John Hayes and Eberle Umbach.

My Amazon Shipman shipment
The disc is available sporadically from Amazon (I may have grabbed the last copy!) whilst there also an excellent biography by Kay Armatage, The Girl from God's Country: Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema, from which I gleaned so much interesting background and lifted the quotes above – also available from Amazon.

Watching and reading about Nell was another inspiration from Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema Edited by Melody Bridges & Cheryl Robson and available from Aurora MetroBooks. It features much on Nell including a fascinating and exciting chapter from film-maker Karen Day whose documentary on Nell I can’t wait to see in full!

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