Shipman, Nell (1892–1970)

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Shipman, Nell (1892–1970)

Canadian-born actress and filmmaker. Name variations: Helen Foster Barham. Born Helen Foster Barham in October 1892 in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada; died in January 1970 in Cabazon, California; married Ernest Shipman (a writer), in 1911 (divorced 1920); married Charles Ayers (an artist), in 1925 (divorced 1934); children: (first marriage) Barry Shipman (b. 1912); (second marriage) twins Daphne and Charles (b. 1926).

Wrote, produced, and starred in numerous films, including God's Country and the Woman (1916), Baree, Son of Kazan (1918), Back to God's Country (1919), Something New (1920), A Boy, a Bear and a Dog (1921), The Girl from God's Country (1921), The Grub Stake (1922), The Light on Lookout (1923), Trail of the North Wind (1923); The Golden Yukon (1927); wrote screenplay for what became Wings in the Dark (1935); also wrote novels, including Get the Woman (1930), and an autobiography, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart (1987).

Nell Shipman, born in 1892 in British Columbia, Canada, left home at a young age to pursue an acting career in vaudeville. In 1912, she and her husband Ernest Shipman moved to Southern California. Within two years, Shipman had established herself as a writer for the early film industry's major studios, including Vitagraph, Selig and Universal. Along with other women film pioneers like Mary Pickford and Frances Marion , she was able to as sume a position of power and freedom that would be denied to women once the Hollywood studio system became en trenched in the 1920s.

In addition to writing scenarios, Shipman gained popularity as a film star in 1916 with the release of God's Country and the Woman, a wildlife adventure film which she also produced and directed. In it, the young heroine is terrorized by the same villain who had raped her mother years before, and she is rescued from his clutches by her husband and a pack of dogs (which eat him). It was a huge success, and earned Shipman the nickname "The Girl from God's Country." Like most of Shipman's other works, God's Country and the Woman featured the relationship between a strong heroine and the natural world, portraying humans as part of a larger order. The movie also featured the classic Shipman triangle in which the heroine is threatened sexually by a villain who is subsequently killed by a good man with whom she is united.

Much of the film's appeal stemmed from its dazzling winter snow scenes that captured the excitement of the wilderness; Shipman always preferred to shoot on location, even after constructed studio sets came into fashion as inexpensive substitutes. To further authenticate her movies' settings, she kept a menagerie of nearly 200 animals that she raised and trained, and they starred with her (with credits) in her subsequent "God's Country" films. Very often a Shipman heroine has a dog to thank for protecting her virtue, as in the film Baree, Son of Kazan (1918). Shipman relied heavily on melodramatic plots, the beauty of the north country wilderness, and the appeal of her animals to sell her films to audiences.

Having earlier rejected a seven-year contract offered by Samuel Goldwyn (a decision she later regarded with some regret), in 1920 she formed her own production company, Nell Shipman Productions, divorcing her husband at the same time. Priest Lake, Idaho, became the new home for her collection of animals and a small cast and crew, where she produced movies along the same lines as her Hollywood pictures. (An area of Priest Lake State Park is now called Nell Shipman Point, in honor of the first filmmaker to shoot in Idaho.) She wrote the screenplay for, starred in, co-directed and trained the animals for the company's 1921 release The Girl from God's Country, which was shot on location over a six-month period. Several other films followed, but the lack of a major distributor forced an end to the independent company in 1925, when Shipman donated her animals to the San Diego Zoo and married artist Charles Ayers. Some critics have cited her failure to evolve the plots and characters of her movies along with the changing tastes of her audience as a reason for the company's demise.

Shipman scaled back her involvement with the movies after this point, although she continued to write prolifically. She began penning films for the "talkies," in addition to the novels Get the Woman (1930) and the autobiographical Abandoned Trails. Her last feature film release was The Golden Yukon (1927). A script she wrote for a movie she had hoped to produce was later filmed as Wings in the Dark (1935), starring Myrna Loy as a stunt pilot and Cary Grant as a blind ex-aviator. Shipman died in 1970. Her autobiography, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart (1987), is a fascinating account of the early days of Hollywood, a world in which women briefly were as successful and powerful as men.


Acker, Ally. Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema 1896 to the Present. NY: Continuum, 1991.

Rainey, Buck. Sweethearts of the Sage. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1992.

Unterburger, Amy L., ed. Women Filmmakers & Their Films. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1998.

Ginger Strand , Ph.D., New York City