Friday, June 10, 2011

IOU: The Grub-Stake (1923)

Who I owe: Poet and Musician John "Jack" Hayes from Robert Frost's Banjo and I met March of last year. We had breakfast in Concord, MA and during breakfast John told me about a silent film that he and Eberle composed and performed the music for. The movie was The Grub-Stake (1923). He also told me a lot about Nell Shipman and sent me a copy of The Nell Shipman Collection Volume 3 which contained The Grub-Stake. I had the film in my to-watch stack for too long. Way too long. Now I'm making amends and discovering how wonderful Nell Shipman, the movie and the music all were. Thanks John!

In John's Words:  Eberle Umbach and I composed the music to Nell Shipman’s “The Grub-Stake” in 2005-2006, following our first silent film score, for Shipman’s “Back to God’s Country,” which we composed in 2004-2005. The late Tom Trusky, director of the Idaho Film Collection, commissioned our score for the release of Shipman’s complete existing works in a DVD collection. Mr Trusky was a wonderful man, a Shipman scholar and largely responsible for the re-discovery of her work, and he was very kind and supportive of our music.

The score uses 18 instruments, from the very familiar, like the guitar and the flute, to the more obscure, like the zither, melodica, slide whistle and marimba, as well as variations on common instruments, such as the tenor guitar, toy piano and the plectrum banjo. Eberle and I wrote the score so that it could be performed live as written, so there were a lot of instrument switches! But at least one of us keeps a steady background of music going throughout the entire film, and we play as a duo the majority of the time.

We incorporated a number of different musical genres in the score—from ragtime to bossa nova, and with a number of other musical gestures in between. Eberle in particular strove to capture an old-time Americana feel in much of the music. When we scored and performed these silent films, we did so under the name of the Bijou Orchestrette.

Review: First of all, let's talk about Nell Shipman. Wow. What a woman. Hailing from Canada, Nell Shipman was a one-woman movie making machine. She founded the Shipman Curwood Producing Company as well as the Nell Shipman Productions. Nell Shipman wrote, acted, directed, produced, marketing, funded and cast her acting crew. And this is in the 1910s and 1920s! Early film history has a severe deficit of female directors. So for Nell Shipman to be able to do what she did is amazing. She was independent, a business woman and creative to boot. Also, she shot a lot of her films on location, in the wild and did a lot of "stunts" herself. She was also an animal trainer and used some of her animals in The Grub-Stake. Wow! I'm so impressed by her. I'm also hypnotized by Nell. She wasn't a gorgeous woman but she has a very inviting face and a curvaceous figure. I couldn't help but be mesmerized by her on screen.

The Grub-Stake (1923) was one of Shipman's biggest pictures. With a $180,000 budget, she shot the film on location in Washington State and Idaho (even though the plot mostly takes place in Alaska). Unfortunately, the distributor of the film went under so the film never made it out to theaters. And it also bankrupted Nell Shipman's production company. She couldn't take care of her animals financially after that either and had to send them to the San Diego Zoo. A sad ending to a good project.

The film follows the story of Faith Diggs, a small town girl whose father is in poor health. She takes on odd jobs (and even sells her to make ends meet and to help her dad out but it isn't enough. So Faith grub-stakes an older businessman. What does the term grub-stake mean?

Basically, she promises to work for the man, and then accepts his proposal of marriage, in exchange for his help. The man brings Faith and her father to Alaska. But turns out the man has sold Faith to a brothel! And he's already married! What's a girl to do? She escapes with a friend, her father and a bunch of sled dogs and finds refuge in the wilds of the Klondike. She gets separated from her father for a while, befriending some bears and other wild animals. And the drama continues as she falls in love with another man and her "husband" sends out a bounty hunter for her (and the dogs she stole). The film moves at a steady pace but doesn't have that many dull moments. Nell Shipman really milked the ending though, which could have been much shorter than it was.

I think John and Eberle did a wonderful job with the music. The different instruments suited the plot which was very varied itself. I loved the American folk feel to it and it's pretty cool that a film from Idaho has music played by residents of that state! I'm sure composing music for a silent film is no easy task so kudos to John and Eberle for doing such a fantastic job giving sound to such a vibrant film.


  1. Oh wow! So cool to see another blogger writing about Nell Shipman! I actually live in Idaho, and have been to Nell Shipman film festivals in the past. She really was (and still is) very underrated in terms of her accomplishments and contributions. I'm glad more people are getting exposed to her work. Great post!

  2. Thanks for the lovely review, Raquel! Nell Shipman really was an amazing figure & she deserves all the recognition we can give her. Eberle & I felt it was a real privilege to be able to compose music for her films, & interestingly, Tom Trusky felt it was important that Idaho musicians compose the score for The Grub-Stake!


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