Showing posts with label Nell Shipman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nell Shipman. Show all posts

Monday, December 10, 2018

Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers

curated by Shelley Stamp

In collaboration with the Library of Congress, Kino Lorber and film historian Shelley Stamp have curated an impressive and comprehensive collection of early female directed films. Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers is a 6 disc Blu-ray set (also comes in DVD format) that contains over 50 films ranging from shorts, feature films and incomplete movies. The set also includes 8 short informational documentaries, various commentary tracks and original music. What began as a Kickstarter campaign now is is a bonafide piece of film history that any movie buff would be proud to own.

We talk about Pre-Codes, that time period after the silent film era and before the strict enforcement of the Hays Code, when filmmakers had more free rein on releasing films with explicit content. But what about the pre-studio era of silent films? In the early days of motion pictures, the art form wasn’t taken seriously. This opened doors for African-American, Jewish and Female filmmakers to use their creative talents in a new field. Being a film director was a viable career for women because there was no set gender standard. According to film historian Cari Beauchamp, there were over 100 movie studios in the 1910s and between 1920 and 1933 those consolidated into only 7. Along with the male-dominated unions and guilds that sprung up during this time, female filmmakers were shut out making room for the male directors who would take over Hollywood. For one glorious period in early film history however, there was an output of great films that ranged in breadth, depth and subject matter.

“The films that these female pioneers wrote, produced, and often directed have an emotional depth one doesn’t find in other films.” – Ileana Douglas

Included in Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers are 58 of these films, each offering a look into an incredible time in the early history of film. Each disc is arranged by theme and a handful of the films included are exclusive to the Blu-ray set which makes that one even more valuable. With 80% of silent films lost, it’s incredibly important to appreciate what we have and that includes incomplete films. According to Rob Stone, Moving Image Curator for the Library of Congress, fragments tend to languish in vaults and are even more forgotten than whole surviving films. I’m grateful that the Pioneers set includes fragments as well films with some damage, restored to the best of the ability of the preservationists who worked on this project.

Each of the 6 discs contains extras, either commentary tracks or documentaries, averaging about 15 minutes each, on different subjects. These documentaries add real value to the set and I encourage you to watch them before tackling any of the films. They provide context and background information that is crucial to appreciating the movies you are about to see. The talking heads in these docs include principal curator Shelley Stamp as well as other curators, film historians, experts, archivists, preservationists, etc. My only small critique is that these extras start rather abruptly and could have used a short intro for more ease in viewing.

In addition to the docs and commentary is a 76 page booklet which includes an introduction by Ileana Douglas, an essay on the history of female filmmaking by Shelley Stamp, essays on the restoration and spotlights on one particular film and one particular filmmaker, information about the Women’s Film Preservation Fund and a thorough index of credits for the films included in the set. It’s a substantial booklet that reads like a film history book on its own. Another element that adds a lot of value to the set is the original music by silent film accompanists and composers such as Ben Model, the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, Renee C. Baker, Makia Matsumura, Maud Nelissen, Dana Reason, Aleksandra Vrebalov, etc. I was particularly struck by the score for Back to God’s Country (1919) by Dana Reason and Salome (1923) by Aleksandra Vrebalov.

Going through the Pioneers set was an education in itself. It’s feminist film history in a box. These trailbrazers set a precedent that film history has forgotten and it’s up to us to make sure those lessons are not lost. The subject matters range from gender identity, marriage, adultery, birth control, religion, sexual abuse, etc. However not all of these directors were progressive proto-feminists. Lois Weber for example was a former missionary and had very conservative views. As we’ve learned over the years of studying the history of film, the more perspectives the better.

Some of my favorite films in this set include Mabel Normand’s comedies, Alice Guy Blache’s rags-to-riches-to-rags short A Fool and His Money (1912), Zora Neale Hurston's ethnograph vignettes of African-American life in rural Florida circa 1928, Lois Weber’s controversial feature Where Are My Children? (1916) (starring Tyrone Power Sr.!), Weber’s marital drama Too Wise Wives (1921) (featuring a very young Louis Calhern), Nell Shipman’s Back to God’s Country (1919) (she’s my favorite of the early female filmmakers) and Nazimova’s fantastical Salome (1923).

The Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers set contains the following:

Disc 1: Alice Guy-Blaché 
Disc 2: Lois Weber
Disc 3: Genre Pioneers
Discs 4 & 5: Social Commentary
Disc 6: Feature Films Era

Directed by Alice Guy-Blaché 
Greater Love Hath No Man (1911)
Tramp Strategy (1911)
Algie the Miner (1912)
Canned Harmony (1912)
Falling Leaves (1912)
A Fool and His Money (1912)
The High Cost of Living (1912)
The Little Rangers (1912)
Burstup Homes' Murder Case (1913)
The Coming of Sunbeam (1913)
A House Divided (1913)
Matrimony's Speed Limit (1913)
The Ocean Waif (1916)

Directed by Lois Weber
On the Brink (1911)
Fine Feathers (1912)
From Death to Life (1912)
Hypocrites (1912)
The Rosary (1913)
Suspense (1913)
Lost By a Hair (1915)
Sunshine Molly (1915)
Idle Wives (1916)
Scandal (aka Scandal Mongers) (1916)
Where Are My Children? (1916)
Too Wise Wives (1921)
What Do Men Want? (1921)

Directed by Helen Holmes
Hazards of Helen Ep. 09: Leap From the Water Tower (1915)
Hazards of Helen Ep.13: The Escape on the Fast Freight (1915)
The Hazards of Helen Ep. 26: Wild Engine (1915)

Directed by Grace Cunard
Purple Mask, The; Episode 5, Part 1 (1917)
Purple Mask, The: Episode 12 (Vault of Mystery) (1917)
Purple Mask, The; Episode 13, Part 1 (The Leap) (1917)
A Daughter of "The Law" (1921)

Directed by Mabel Normand
Caught in a Cabaret (1914)
Mabel's Blunder (1914)
Mabel Lost and Won (1915)
Mabel and Fatty's Wash Day (1916)

Directed by Nell Shipman
Back to God's Country (1919)
Something New (1920)

Directed by Ida May Park
The Risky Road (1918)
Bread (1918)
Broadway Love (1918)

49 - '17 (1917) directed by Ruth Ann Baldwin
The Colleen Bawn (1911) script by Gene Gauntier
That Ice Ticket (1923) directed by Angela Murray Gibson
Ethnographic Films (1929) directed by Zora Neale Hurston
The Call of the Cumberlands (1916) directed by Julia Crawford Ivers
Motherhood: Life's Greatest Miracle (1925) directed by Lita Lawrence
Eleanor's Catch (1916) directed by Cleo Madison
Her Defiance (1916) directed by Cleo Madison
The Song of Love (1923) directed by dir. Frances Marion
Salome (1923) produced by Alla Nazimova
The Red Kimona (1925) directed by Dorothy Davenport Reid
Linda (1929) directed by Dorothy Davenport Reid
When Little Lindy Sang (1916) directed by Lule Warrenton
The Cricket (1917) directed by Elsie Jane Wilson
The Dream Lady (1918) directed by Elsie Jane Wilson
Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingle with the West (1916) directed by Marion E. Wong

Extras/Short Documentaries
An Introduction to Series
About the Restorations
Alice Guy-Blache
Lois Weber
Mabel Normand
Serial Queens
Social Commentary
The End of an Era

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers for review.

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!

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.

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