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Nell Shipman – Biography

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Nell Shipman, image,
This image was scanned from an original glass slide in the Northernstars Collection.

Nell Shipman: The Woman from God’s Country
by Ralph Lucas – Publisher

It would seem like the young Helen Foster Barham was always in a hurry. Born to British parents in 1892, she was drawn to acting and joined a touring vaudeville company, which is where she met Ernest George Montague Shipman, who was quite a bit older. Shipman had been born in Hull, Québec in 1871 yet they married in 1910 and a year or so later moved to Southern California. At the time Helen Barham was just 20-years-old, Ernest Shipman was 41.

In California, Nell Shipman shifted her acting talent from the stage to the movies. Driven toward success by some invisible force, she wrote and acted in various short films for Vitagraph, Selig and Universal Studios and in just three years was ready for something bigger.

She was just 23 in 1915 when she was cast to play “the woman” in the Vitagraph production of God’s Country and the Woman. Based on the wilderness stories of James Oliver Curwood, Vitagraph spent more than $90,000 on the production, which was a fairly substantial amount of money in those early days of film. The investment was worth it and God’s Country and the Woman did extremely well at the box office. Ernest and Nell returned to Canada to work on a sequel. Released in 1919, Back to God’s Country was not only a critical and financial success, but contained Nell in the first nude scene ever shot in Canadian cinema. Back to God’s Country went on to be the biggest box-office success of any Canadian film during the silent era. As her career blossomed, Nell’s youth, exuberance and good looks took their toll on her marriage. A year after Back to God’s Country was released she divorced Ernest and returned to the United States where she established her own production company. Nell had also met and fallen in love with the former race car driver, Bert Van Tuyle.

Nell Shipman,
This Lobby Card for Back to God’s Country was scanned from an original, 1 of 4, in the Northernstars Collection.
Her first production with her own company was a car-chase feature titled, Something New. The title echoed the change in her personal life. Nell co-starred with Bert Van Tuyle, and he was also co-director of the film as well as a partner in Nell Shipman Productions. According to most film historians, Van Tuyle was primarily responsible for the financial disaster of the 1920 film The Girl from God’s Country. Hoping to recoup their losses, Shipman Productions released The Grub-Stake in 1923 along with a handful of short titles. A classic melodrama, The Grub-Stake stars Shipman as Faith Diggs, a laundress with an ailing father, who accepts backing from the dastardly Leroy to open a laundry in the Klondike—whereupon Leroy’s evil intentions are revealed. Faith flees by dogsled and gets hopelessly lost in the wilderness before a typical silent era melodramatic final act. It wasn’t a success and Nell Shipman Productions was in serious trouble. In 1924 came White Water. It turned out to be the last major film the company produced. Because Nell Shipman Productions didn’t have access to reliable distribution sources, Shipman made no money from the film and in 1925, Nell Shipman Productions went bankrupt.

Shipman only made a few more movies, but out of the limelight she was happy and she continued to write. Her most famous work after so much early success was 1935’s Wings in the Dark. It was a story about a seeing-eye dog, and starred Myrna Loy and Cary Grant. Ernest Shipman, by the way, continued to produce movies for some time after he and Nell went their separate ways, including Cameron of the Royal Mounted in 1921 and The Man from Glengarry in 1922. He died in New York in August of 1931 when he was 59.

Nell Shipman’s autobiography, The Silent Screen & My Talking Heart was published by the Boise State University Press in 1987, 17 years after she passed away. Her son, Barry Shipman, had been born in 1912 in South Pasadena, California and grew up to be an actor and screenwriter. He died in 1994 in San Bernardino, California.

Also see: Nell Shipman’s filmography

Northernstars logo imageThis biography was originally written in 2002 and updated in 2012. It is Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Lucas and may not be reproduced without written permission. Click here for more information about copyright.

The glass slide for The Grubstake and the lobbycard, 1 of 4 for Back to God’s Country, were scanned from originals in the Northernstars Collection.