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Nell Shipman
Nell Shipman Photoplay Nov 1918.png
Shipman in 1918
Helen Foster-Barham

(1892-10-25)October 25, 1892
DiedJanuary 23, 1970(1970-01-23) (aged 77)
OccupationActress, screenwriter, director, producer, animal trainer
Years active1910–1947
Ernest Shipman
(m. 1910⁠–⁠1920)

Charles H. Austin Ayers
(m. 1925⁠–⁠1932)
Partner(s)Bert Van Tuyle (c.1918 – 1924)

Nell Shipman (born Helen Foster-Barham; October 25, 1892 – January 23, 1970) was a Canadian actress, author, screenwriter, producer, director, animal rights activist and animal trainer. Her works often had autobiographical elements to them and reflected her passion for nature.[1] She is best known for her work in adventure films adapted from the novels of American writer, James Oliver Curwood.

Shipman started two independent producing companies in her career: Shipman-Curwood Producing Company and Nell Shipman Productions. In 1919, she and her husband, Ernest Shipman,[2] a film producer, made the most successful silent film in Canadian history, Back to God's Country.[3]

Personal life

She was born as Helen Foster-Barham in Victoria, British Columbia. Her parents were Arnold and Rose Barham. She grew up in a middle-class family.[4] From an early age, she developed a respect towards animals. She was passionate about animal rights and advocated for them in Hollywood. She developed her own zoo, containing more than 200 animals.[5]

In 1904, her family moved to Seattle, Washington. A year later, she left home and joined the Paul Gilmore travelling theatrical company.[4]

When Helen was 18 years old, she met and married Ernest Shipman, a 39-year-old theatrical impresario.[4] Their son, Barry Shipman, was born a couple year later in 1912.[6]

While married to Ernie Shipman, Nell engaged in a six year long affair with actor Bert Van Tuyle. They eventually split during the filming of The Grub Stake, because of Van Tuyle's deteriorating mental state.[4]

Two years later, in New York City, Shipman met and married a painter named Charles Ayers with whom she had two children named Charles and Daphne. They separated in 1934.[6]

At the end of her life, Shipman moved to Cabazon, California, where she continued writing.[6] She died there in 1970 at age 77.[citation needed]


After marrying Ernie Shipman, the couple moved to Hollywood, where the American film industry was developing. During this time, Nell Shipman sold the rights to her novel, Under the Crescent Moon to Universal Studios (they wanted to make a six-film serial of the book).

Nell Shipman started acting in Universal, Selig & Vitagraph studio productions. Between 1915 and 1918, she played several leading roles, including her debut in God's Country and the Woman (1915), based on a short story by American writer James Oliver Curwood. Shipman directed, produced, and acted in this film. She was one of the first directors to shoot her films almost entirely on location.[7]

Throughout her life, Shipman wrote many scripts and short stories. One of her stories was adapted for the American film Wings in the Dark (1934), starring Myrna Loy and Cary Grant (1934).[4] In 1925, Shipman wrote three essays called "The Movie That Couldn't Be Screened." Additionally, she wrote a children's book titled "Kurly Kew and the Tree-Princess: A Story of the Forest People Told For Other-People" (1930). Most of Nell Shipman's work had autobiographical elements to them.[1]

Nell Shipman turned down a contract with Samuel and Goldwyn in favor for independent cinema. Her preference for independent cinema led her to starting two producing companies, Shipman-Curwood Producing Company and Nell Shipman Productions.[7]

Neither she nor Ernest Shipman had been able to repeat their success with Back to God's Country. Other directors made new versions of the film, by the same title, in 1927 and 1953.

Shipman's last major project was her autobiography, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart.[3] It was published posthumously by Boise State University through their Hemingway Western Studies Series. The university also houses the Nell Shipman Collection at Albertsons Library. Many of her films were preserved and are available through the library.[8]

Shipman-Curwood Producing Company

During her recovery from Spanish influenza in 1918, Shipman created a production company called “Shipman-Curwood Producing Company", in partnership with James Curwood.[4]

Her husband, Ernest Shipman, convinced a consortium of Calgary businessmen to invest in Alberta, Canada. They incorporated a company, Canadian Photoplays Ltd., on February 7, 1919, with a $250,000 investment.

The company produced one film, based on Curwood's short story, "Wapi the Walrus." Shipman adapted this for the screen herself. The 73-minute film (at 18 frames per second) was shot in Los Angeles, San Francisco and on location near Lesser Slave Lake, Alberta, Canada by director David M. Hartford.[9] It was released as Back to God's Country, to capitalize on her success in God's Country and the Woman.[10] Shipman also played the lead in the film, which featured her in a very brief, but controversial nude scene. A promotional advertisement for the film had a line drawing of a nude Nell, shown from the back and frolicking with several animals. Part of the caption read: "Don't book Back To God's Country unless you want to prove the Nude is NOT Rude."[11]

Back To God's Country was a major Canadian and international silent film hit. Despite the film's success, Curwood did not like the fact that Shipman changed the plot of his short story. She changed the protagonist of the film from Wapi the Great Dane, to Delores.[12]

Nell Shipman Productions

She created "Nell Shipman Productions" with Bert Van Tuyle in 1919, and established herself as an independent producer. She focused on the major themes she enjoyed: wild animals, nature, feminist heroes, and filming on location. She produced, wrote, co-directed and starred in The Girl From God’s Country (1921) and The Grub Stake (1923). Both films were not successful.[4]

She transported her zoo of animals on barges up to Priest Lake, Idaho, where she made several short films at Lion Head Lodge. One of the films made there was called The Grub Stake (1923). It cost around $180,000 to produce.[1] The film was never distributed, because the American distributor went bankrupt and during the subsequent litigation, the film became tied up in the legal proceedings.[4] Van Tuyle became increasingly unstable, and hostile locals killed her animals.[8] Shipman and Van Tuyle got lost in the wild for two days during a violent snow storm in January 1924. They encountered and were saved by two brothers, Joseph and Fred Gumaer.[13]

In 1925, Shipman's company went bankrupt.[14] In total, they produced ten films.[4]

Cultural legacy

  • For three years, from 1917 to 1920, Nell Shipman lived in what has been preserved as The Doctor's House Museum in Glendale, California. Her mother died here in 1918 during the flu epidemic. Shipman described the site of the house in her autobiography as on a "tree lined dirt road, away from the hub bub of Hollywood".[citation needed]
  • “Nell Shipman Point” is a piece of land in Priest Lake, Idaho. It is named after her because The Grub Stake (1923) was filmed there.[15]
  • The Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock was commissioned to write a one-act play about Shipman's life called Moving Pictures (1999).[16]
  • All of Nell Shipman's surviving films are available on DVD from Boise State University, which holds a collection of materials about her.
  • Nell Shipman is considered by Canada to be the "First Lady of Canadian Cinema."[15]


Year Title Role Ref.
1913 The Ball of Yarn Screenwriter, actress [6]
1913 One Hundred Years of Mormonism Screenwriter [6]
1914 Outwitted By Billy Screenwriter, director [6]
1915 Under the Crescent Screenwriter
1915 The Pine's Revenge Screenwriter
1915 God's Country and the Woman Lead actress [4]
1916 The Fires of Conscience Actress
1916 Through the Wall Actress
1917 Baree, Son of Kazan Actress [4]
1917 The Black Wolf Actress
1917 My Fighting Gentleman Actress [4]
1918 The Girl from Beyond Actress
1918 The Home Trail Actress
1918 Cavanaugh of the Horse Rangers Actress [4]
1918 The Wild Strain Actress
1919 Back to God's Country Screenwriter, lead actress
1920 Trail of the Arrow Writer, producer, actress, director [4][6]
1920 Something New Writer, producer, actress, director [4][6]
1920 Saturday Off (renamed A Bear, A Baby, and a Dog) Writer, and producer [4]
1921 The Girl from God's Country Writer, actress
1923 The Grub-Stake Director, screenwriter, producer [4]
1924 White Water Writer, director, producer, and actress [6]
1935 Wings in the Dark Screenwriter [4]
1946 The Clam-Digger's Daughter/The Story of Mr Hobbes Producer, writer, producer [4][6]


  1. ^ a b c Trusky, Tom. "Nell Shipman." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013.  <>
  2. ^ "Ernest Shipman – Ten Percent Ernie"
  3. ^ a b Monroe, Dawn E. "On The Job: Canadian Women of Achievement". Famous Canadian Women. Archived from the original on August 31, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Trusky, Tom (1988). "Nell Shipman: A Brief Biography". Griffithiana: 252–258 – via ProQuest.
  5. ^ D.J. Turner, "Who was Nell Shipman and why is everyone talking about her?", The Archivist No. 110 (1995,) Magazine of the National Archives of Canada.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Armatage, Kay (2003). The girl from God's country: Nell Shipman and the silent cinema. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, University Of Toronto Press - M.U.A.
  7. ^ a b "Nell Shipman". Library and Archives of Canada. Retrieved November 5, 2019.
  8. ^ a b The Silent Screen & My Talking Heart, by Nell Shipman and ed. by Tom Trusky, Hemingway Western Studies Series (1987)
  9. ^ The Light on Her Face, Joseph Walker, ASC and Juanita Walker, (The ASC Press, 1984), pp.88–107.
  10. ^ "Ten Percent Ernie," Embattled Shadows – A History of Canadian Cinema 1895–1939, by Peter Morris, (McGill-Queen's Press (1978), pp. 95–126.
  11. ^ Moving Picture World, July 24, 1920
  12. ^ Smith, Judith. "Nell Shipman: Girl Wonder from God's Country". Cinema Canada: 35–38.
  13. ^ Spokane Daily Chronicle, Saturday, January 19, 1924
  14. ^ "Nell Shipman". Canadian Film Encyclopedia.
  15. ^ a b York, Lorraine; Lee, Katja (2016). Celebrity Cultures in Canada. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. pp. 19–35.
  16. ^ Grace, Sherill (Spring 2002). "Creating the Girl from God's Country: From Nell Shipman to Sharon Pollock". Canadian Literature: 92.


Further reading

  • "Dreams Made in Canada – a history of feature film, 1913 to 1995" – an article by Sam Kula, Archivist, Archives and Government Records The Archivist No. 110 (1995), Magazine of the National Archives of Canada.

External links

This page was last edited on 3 December 2021, at 04:07
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