HippFest director Alison Strauss on groundbreaking writer and director Nell Shipman
The irrepressible director of The Grub Stake was an early cinema pioneer
'[It] epitomises our programming ethos, which values out-of-the-ordinary film experiences fostering diversity and discovery,' says Strauss. 'We relish a chance to present a film made by someone whom most people have never heard of, and Nell is crying out to be celebrated. It's almost criminal that she has been effectively written out of film history.'
In a role that reflects her own off-screen character, Shipman stars as feisty young Faith, lured to the Yukon by promises of marriage and gold. When she discovers she has been duped by her lover, she sets off on her own mountain quest for the precious metal, complete with thrilling chases, fights and a breathtaking clifftop finale.
Born Helen Foster-Barham in Canada in 1892, Shipman began a successful acting career in her teens but turned down a lucrative contract with producer Sam Goldwyn because she didn't want to be 'prettified'. Instead, she left the studio system in search of creative independence and became a voracious filmmaker unafraid to take risks in the pursuit of her vision.
'She became known for playing adventurous women, often filming on location in hazardous landscapes,' says film lecturer and Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema author Ellen Cheshire. 'Her first big hit was God's Country and the Women (1915), adapted from the novel by James Oliver Curwood, which she wrote and starred in. In 1918 she founded Shipman-Curwood Producing Company and produced, wrote and starred in Back to God's Country [directed by David M Hartford]. Released in 1919, it had a controversial marketing campaign capitalising on her nude scene: "Don't book this movie unless you want to prove that nude is not rude!"'
Although the film was popular and profitable, it did not bring Shipman the success she so richly deserved. 'Her abandoning of the Hollywood studio system in pursuit of her own way of making films was disapproved of,' says Cheshire, 'and caused a rift with the establishment that would plague her until she died.'
After establishing Nell Shipman Productions with co-star Bern Van Tuyle, for whom she left her theatrical impresario husband Ernest, Shipman also left Hollywood to make films in Idaho, including The Girl From God's Country (1921) and The Grub Stake. Sadly, however, little of her work remains in existence. 'Once sound film had taken hold, many of the silent films were junked, forgotten or ignored,' says Cheshire. 'Shipman spent years trying to get those writing the history of Hollywood to acknowledge her and, when she was living in poverty, she wrote to the Motion Picture Relief Fund seeking support. Their reply, in 1969: "We can find no record of your name in any film credit." Shipman died the following year.'
While Shipman's story is incredible, it is, says Cheshire, far from unique, as more women were employed in the film industry in the earliest days of cinema than they are now. 'That is a shocking and troubling notion,' says Cheshire, who will be giving a talk at HippFest highlighting the achievements of Shipman and her contemporaries, 'which is why there are movements around the world to address the gender disparity in film and television production.'
And it's also why HippFest is dedicated to celebrating the works of such filmmakers. 'Other women like Mary Pickford, Anita Loos, Alice Guy-Blache and Lois Weber were influencing cinema, but I do think Nell was unique because of her irrepressible self-sufficiency,' says Strauss. 'When you learn about her, you imagine that she would have changed the course of filmmaking, yet it's hard to trace her influence because she's been overlooked by film historians. And I don't think she thought of herself as a champion of anyone's cause, she just wanted to make entertaining movies for audiences to enjoy.'
The Grub Stake, Hippodrome, Bo'ness, Wed 22 Mar; HippFest runs from Wed 22–Sun 26 Mar, full programme released Tue 7 Feb.