Monday, July 25, 2011

The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart by Nell Shipman

The Silent Screen & My Talking Heart
by Nell Shipman
Third Revised Edition - 2001

Nell's secret for working with wild animals who could sense and would react dangerously to human fear:

"Truth is, I was afraid to be scared. I operated on fear like a surgeon and somehow managed to cut it from the hidden recesses of my Id or boiled out the malignancy from my consciousness... I abolished it."

It is a fact that Nell Shipman was an incredible woman. She was an actress, animal trainer and activist, filmmaker, producer, mother, wife, adventurer, stunt woman, business woman, traveler and free spirit. After having seen The Grub-Stake (1923) and reading about her life and work online I wanted some more information. There were two books in print and I decided to go with Nell Shipman's autobiography The Silent Screen & My Talking Heart because I really wanted to read about her life from her own words.

Nell Shipman was born as Helen Foster-Barham in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada in 1892. Nell became a nickname she acquired later on and Shipman is the surname of her first husband. Nell Shipman stuck ever since. Her autobiography starts from the point of birth when her mother and father are about to bury her because she turned bright blue and stopped breathing. Then by some miracle she revived just before they arrived at the burial plot. Nell liked to think she was a changeling and that a free roaming spirit switched places with the original soul in the body. With that, Nell Shipman was off to an auspicious start. She had an early love for acting which her mother encouraged. At a very young age, she performed in theater and traveled and lived with other actors. While she had a pretty decent stage career, Shipman's real talent lied in the fact that she was comfortable in nature, could perform dangerous stunts and had a way with animals. This made her perfect for playing "The Girl" roles in movies that were filmed outdoors. She married at the tender age of 18 to Ernest Shipman who was a theatrical producer. The book chronicles her early life, her marriage, her career and the early years of her first son. It goes from 1892 until 1924 even though Shipman wrote the autobiography much later in her life (she passed away in 1970).

The title of the book suits it very well. Nell Shipman was a silent film actress and so while we don't hear her voice she definitely gets her chance to talk in this book. In fact, the book is very hard to follow because it reads as one very long rant. Nell Shipman recounts each film shoot and each adventure with lots of details but only a little insight. Nell rambles on and on as she teases out each memory out of the recesses of her mind. I found myself skimming over a few parts because frankly they didn't interest me. Some of the more action filled parts made me slow down. I really want to read this book, not skim it, so trudging through the rambling was a chore but worth the effort.

There are some memorable insights. Nell Shipman was a writer after all and some of her language was quite beautiful. I was very intrigued by how she referred to the loss of her virginity on the marital bed as "a painful gymnastic". I've never heard or read a phrase that described that moment from a young woman's point of view in better terms than that one. Also, the book has pictures of Nell in various stages of life and career which give us a different kind of peek into her life that the writing does not.

What interested me most in reading this book was the film The Grub-Stake (1923). It's financial failure single-handedly brought down her career, her movie studio Nell Shipman Productions, her home and took all her beloved animals away from her. Nell devotes a good amount of time to this but not all the details are there. There are a lot of holes but you do learn about how much she loved animals, her talent for training them and interacting with them and how much of a loss it was when she had to close down the famous Lionhead Lodge (her haven in Priest Lake Idaho that housed a lodge, barns, tents, homes for her animals, trails, etc., the book includes maps of the Lake and the Lodge) and send her animals off to the San Diego Zoo. She spoke a lot about her beloved black bear Brownie who was one of the most well-behaved animals she had. She also talks about her rambunctious bobcats Bobs and Babs and Tresore, her Great Dane watchdog who was heartlessly poisoned. Throughout the book, especially the latter half you really get a sense that she had a wonderful talent for working with animals.

So why didn't she become an animal trainer, a circus performer or a zoo keeper? Her greatest passion was acting. Later on in life, she found that she still had stories to tell but those opportunities for her to act them on film were few and far between. Throughout the rest of her life she wrote plays, short stories, novels, screenplays and children's books. She even wrote the story that would become the film Wings in the Dark (1934) which starred Myrna Loy and Cary Grant.

This book is flawed. Even her son Barry Shipman, who wrote the afterword and was also the one to encourage his mom to write the book, admits that not everything is here. We are missing all the interesting post-1924 years. The writing is beautiful at some points and a bit robotic at others. And you really have to mine for the insights because they are hidden in midst of a lot of rambling. There is an essay at the end of the book written by Peter Morris which contextualizes Nell Shipman's work and life into feminist history. That also adds something to strengthen the weak book.

If you are really interested in Nell Shipman or in early film history it's worth the effort it takes to read it. She was a very fascinating woman and like the many men who were drawn to her over the years you'll be charmed by her too. I purchased the last new copy of the Third Revised Edition from and I'm feeling a bit guilty about this. Barnes & Noble doesn't carry it and Borders (which is currently going out of business) never carried it. It was part of the Hemingway Western Studies Series published by Boise State University and their Bronco Store seems to be selling new copies of the Third Revised Edition. Google Books has a preview of the book you can see here. I'm curious about reading her collection of letters and The Girl from God's Country: Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema by Kay Armatage. Maybe I'll learn more about Shipman from these two books than I did her autobiography.

I just want to thank John of Robert Frost's Banjo once again for introducing me to Nell Shipman. He composed and performed music for the DVD release of the film The Grub-Stake (1923). Also, please take a moment to read my review of The Grub-Stake which was part of my IOU Series. If you want to watch any of Nell Shipman's films, the 3 volumes of The Nell Shipman Collection are available to purchase online.

Full Disclosure: If you didn't read it above, I bought the last new copy had. Darn it!


  1. Enjoyed this post on Nell Shipman's book. I've not read it, but I do admire her film work. She was unique.

  2. Thanks so much, Raquel, for continuing to spread the news about the remarkable Nell Shipman to your readership. Her work really should be better known!


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