Nell Shipman was an almost impossible woman. Not so much difficult to deal with as difficult to deter not by wind, rain or snow and certainly not by lack of financial backing or even a man... She made films in the harshest of conditions and, here, she turned adversity into Canada’s most successful silent film.
Before we begin: consider the similarities between the films of Victor Sjöström and Nell Shipman? Lots of snow and scenic splendour but whereas the Outlaw and his Wife faced some fearsome drifts you had the feeling that the crew would be snuggly back in their chalets after the shoot whereas the Shipman operation was further out in all ways.
Strapped for cash and occasionally nearly drowning in rapids or under the ice at Priest Lake, Nell Shipman was a stunt woman too. Her stories may contain corn but… just hear her roar!
Directed by David Hartford and based on Nell’s adaptation of James Oliver Curwood’s short story: Wapi, the Walrus, Back to God’s Country took the actress back to the character and scene of her previous hit, God’s Country and the Woman (no, not Yorkshire but somewhere far cooler, the stunning mountains of Alberta…).
According to biographer Kay Armatage, Shipman knew the limitations of her source material saying that it “was trash as a movie; a mere outline, a character study of a Great Dane dog and how he reacted to the need of the woman he loved…” but she knew what to do to spice things up: melodrama, pure evil, skinny dipping – at length – and a dog sled chase across the ice that would have done Abel Gance proud. The cinematography of Dal Clawson and, especially, Joseph Walker, who had learned a trick or two from working with Billy Bitzer, is stunning throughout and here he seems to be mounted on a third sleigh following the two in jumpy action mode.
|Action on the ice|
But Shipman also liked Walker because he knew how to make her look good in the daylight by opening the lens as wide as he could without over-exposing, rendering her in well-rounded contrast against a softened hard landscape. It’s these details that make Nell so good – she controlled so much of these productions and, whilst they were intended s escapist entertainment she arguably had a message concerning the environment and animal conservation well before those words were in common currency.
Armatage sees a lot of subtext in the way Shipman draws Inuit characters – women brought in to entertain sailors and who she tries to help, as well as wise old “yellow men” (she affords more respects than the cringe-worthy phrase might convey to modern readers) as well as her approach to nature. This was still, as she says, a moment in cinema history “dominated by independent and artisanal innovation… and maverick individualist entrepreneurship”. Before the studios and the men – literally – took charge and forced women like Shipman and Lois Weber out.
Shipman was a populist though and not averse to using her own physique to sell her film even playing on her nude scenes in the publicity: “Don’t book Back to God’s Country unless You want to prove that the Nude is NOT Rude!” Well done Bioscope for taking the brave decision in this instance!
Armatage again sees this surprising sequence as evidence of Shipman’s forthright desire to both challenge existing social mores as well as express her ideas of liberation through nature. Her nudity is shared by a bear (and yes, Nell made a private joke about a bear behind!) as well as two baddies who look on lustfully only to be repelled by said Grizzly – more likely Brown – Bear?
What is so clear to even less academically-qualified modern viewers is Shipman putting herself willingly at the centre of male gazing. But then she was so remarkably in control as her energies moved her ever forward.
|A woman's best friend|
She reportedly clashed with the author over her expansion of the female lead’s role at the expense of the four-legged “hero” but this was Nell’s show and she was running it.
After an introductory segment showing how Wapi the Great Dane (actually played by two dogs, Tresore and Rex) fell into the hands of viscous criminals we are introduced to the idyllic wilderness retreat of Delores LeBeau (Nell) her father Baptiste (Roy Laidlaw) and her fiancé Peter (Wheeler Oakman) a government cartographer.
|Boo! Rydal thinks it's rude|
Into this wilderness paradise comes a snake in the form of hard-going psychopath Rydal (Wellington A. Playter) who has already killed a Mountie before he spies the naked Delores and decides she’s the one for him. Rydal feigns injury to inveigle himself into the household with his side kick (Charles B. Murphy) and is only prevented from raping Delores by her father knifing his buddy.
He pretends to arrest the old man and then throws him in rapids losing out on his prey as she leaps into the water in a vain attempt to try save him. We clearly see Nell riding the rapids: I hope it was a warm day…
The years pass and Delores and Peter live in the city. Duty calls him onto a boat to the frozen North for cartographical work and you’ll never believe who the ship’s captain is!? Yes, it’s Rydal and he’s out to finish what he started.
|Even in her city aprtment, Delores dreams of her wilderness|
Injuring Peter 200 miles from the nearest doctor, Rydal thinks he only has to wait it out until Delores husband passes on but he reckons without his targets indomitable spirit and her super-natural way with animals. Diving into a fight between a mad Great Dane – yes Wapi! – and huskies she forms an instant bond and makes a four-legged friend who’ll stick with her through thick and thin…
Miles from nowhere… nature will always find a way.
Back to God's Country has some front and you can’t help but love it and Nell’s spirit. John Sweeney played along and got with the mood: romance, the great outdoors and life or death chases across the snowscapes all captured with pin-point piano-precision!
We learned a lot more about Nell in the first half with a screening of Girl From God’s Country (2014), Karen Day’s vibrant documentary on Nell and her legacy. There were fascinating interviews with Shipman’s great-granddaughter, granddaughter and son all of whom radiate with pride at what she achieved. I hope she knew how much she was valued by the time of her death in 1970.
The film also reveals the forgotten legacy of a generation of female silent film pioneers – not just Nell, Alice Guy and Lois Weber but also minority filmmakers, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Miriam Wong.
Women were pro-actively squeezed out of the pictures by the male studio system and even today levels of directors, producers and writers are not at the same level as the 1910’s.
|OK. It's not rude!|
Kay Aramatge's biography, The Girl from God’s Country: Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema is available form all the old familiar places...
Back to God’s Country is available on a cracking MilestoneDVD along with Something New – Nell’s car advert turned adventure romance. Recommended.