Friday, 25 March 2016

Top gear… Something New (1920)

“… 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
The first was a female buddy two-reeler Trail of the Arrow, in which Nell and her pal Marjorie Cole (they co-owned a sports car in real life) take off like Geena and Susan in order to race a misogynist (Bob Battle) over the Mojave Desert. The film is sadly lost but if there were any doubts as to Nell’s intentions – apart from demonstrating her car’s superior engineering - she made it crystal clear: “I have proven that woman is on a par with man in driving a car, as she is in every other walk of life.”

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 takes control right from the off with a framing sequence showing her poised under a tree with her typewriter waiting for inspiration to strike. She sees her partner-to-be Bert Van Tuyle driving a handsome Maxwell car and chatting to a man on horseback: the new and the old… eureka, her ideas arrive and she starts pounding on the keys.

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
Nell – her character isn’t named – instantly clocks Bill’s smile in what Kay Armatage notes is a “reversion of the specularization process…”, and heads off to her uncle’s gold mine… A gold mine? In Mexico you say?! Won’t be long before it’s attacked by bandits! And it is as the nasty Agrilla Gorgez (Merrill McCormick) strikes Sid to the ground and his band of desperados begin to load his gold onto their horses. Nell hides away with their dog (Laddie the Dog!) but disobeys Sid’s orders by trying to save him forcing a Mexican standoff with the Mexicans. Nell gives way to save her kin and is taken away to their hideout in Devil’s Kitchen leaving the old man trussed up to die…

Gorgez played a mean guitar
Enter Bill who arrives in time to rescue Sid and to be told of Nell’s fate… but there are no horses left on the farm, how can Bill follow the gang? Well, the Maxwell not only has lines of sleek elegance but also an unrivalled suspension system and fuel consumption to die for… there’s nowhere four legs can go that four wheels can’t follow!

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...
The car rolled three times in the picture each time leaving its human cargo intact and that doesn’t include the moment when “The Girl” – hands actually tied behind her back for effect – fell off one of the bandit’s horses and banged her head on a  rock…

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!
You can’t help but shift in your seat as the Maxwell crawls its way over huge boulders, occasionally getting stuck but always managing to find a way forward. Bill gets shot in the head and then shoulder but Nell manages to avoid their crashing over a cliff and even reverses into a boulder pushing it down onto the pursuing pack.

Nell at the wheel
Shipman makes the most of her budget – a mere $14,000 – and makes an adventure that still entertains and one that spoke volumes about her own resourcefulness and commitment.  William M. Drew commented that “…Nell Shipman mastered the action-adventure genre to an extent unmatched in cinema history by any other woman director.” He also highlights Something New’s “harmonizing motifs” uniting “the masculine and the feminine, industrialism and environmentalism…”

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!
I watched the Milestone films DVD which also includes Back to God’s Country which I’m saving for a live screening sometime, somewhere… It’s available direct on the Milestone site.

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...
Model 25 Maxwell touring cars originally cost just $695 and had high-tension magneto ignition, electric horn, an (optional) electric starter and an innovative shock absorber to protect the radiator as can be seen in the film. One has recently been sold by Bonhams for $5,720 - full recommissioning required.

“Now the moral is, be it motor or maid – there is always something new!”


  1. Great review Paul. We will be showing Back to God’s Country in the next Bioscope season.

    1. Thanks Amran - I'm really looking forward to seeing that live! Best wishes,Paul