“… the Maxwell went places no horse or even men on foot could traverse! We drove it over rocks bigger than itself, up canyons hub-deep in sand.”
In which Nell Shipman turns a car commercial into the World’s first horse and car race adventure film… and in which the resourceful one-woman cast and crew made a statement about equality and modernity.
After the huge success of Back to God’s Country and with her marriage to Ernest Shipman disintegrating, Nell headed south to make independent films in California. Then, as now, you took what commissions you could get and she was asked by the Hudson-Essex Automobile Agency to make two commercials for the Maxwell car.
|Maid, man and motor|
Cars and movies had developed side by side and men had become more associated with the former than the latter with “women drivers” being regarded as… well the mere fact the gender was appended says it all. Before Nell, Mary Pickford, Bebe Daniels and fellow actor-director Mabel Normand were among women taking the wheel in winning ways but Something New drove the point home even harder.
|The new and the old|
Nell plays a "Writer Woman" who is sent to stay with her Uncle Sid (L.M. Wells) in Mexico where she seeks atmosphere and adventure. As her uncle waits he chats to a Maxwell car driver, Bill Baxter (Bert) and, not knowing how his niece has grown up, they both assume she is the bookish blue-stocking that first emerges but no, it’s the handsome, wholesome woman laughing at their presumption in the coach.
|Laddie the Dog and Bert Van Tuyle|
|Gorgez played a mean guitar|
So begins the epic chase that forms the bulk of the action as the Maxwell is put through its paces over rock and dune, through sagebrush and sand across impossible gradients in pursuit of the bandits. It’s not much of a plot but, like the Maxwell’s tyres, it’s gripping… partly because of Nell’s editing but also because there are clearly moments of genuine danger.
|Consider the remarkable suspension and road-holding of the Model 25...|
Bill finds the bandit’s lair and arrives just in time to rescue Nell from a fate worse than death at the hands of Gorgez and then things really kick on as he gets injured trying to hold off the men and Nell drives to his rescue. Now it’s the woman’s turn to drive and Nell takes on the same rocks and the same angles as her former racing car driver pal Bert only now they have a gang on their heels firing bullets.
|Men on horseback... ha!|
|Nell at the wheel|
The relationship between The Girl and Bill is one of “true comradeship” and, what Armatage also sees as “…a new sexual partnership” between an emancipated woman and her equal. Something new indeed!
|Laddie's the only one not smiling!|
Kay Armatage’s biography The Girl from God’s Country: Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema is published by the University of Toronto Press and available from Amazon and others.
William M. Drew’s quotes are from the intriguingly titled Something New: Speeding Sweethearts of the Silent Screen 1908-1921. His website is here.
|Innovative shock absorbers in action...|