Story Girl 

Nell Shipman, the little lass who "went up on stage" and never came down

"An attempt to story one's life has no single theme. If I wish for a leit-motiv in this patchwork of past happenings I'd symbolize it as a magic mantle, a covering into which was woven the warp and the woof of dreams..."


—Nell Shipman, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart

The primary thing to ken about Nell Shipman, one of Idaho's earliest indie filmmakers, is that she was a storyteller, first and foremost. This visionary vocation was a trade treasured above her work as wife, as mother or as businesswoman. She felt called to be a teller of tall tales, epic adventures of life-and-death dogsled chases through snowy straits, blind airmen making ludicrously improbable landings, and desert shootouts with mustachioed bandits. So when you hear of her history—as she would have had you believe—it's a feast best seasoned with a Bunyan-sized grain of salt.

As Nell told it, it began like a fairy story. It was a windy October in Victoria, British Columbia, and Helen Foster-Barham, aged all of 10 days, was dead. Now this may have been 1892, but Little H. wasn't birthed in a snowbound Saskatchewan outpost or a far-north fishing village. This was the capital city of a well-peopled Canadian province, where a dutiful and degreed doctor would certainly know the difference between a kiddie cadaver and a tot with a timid ticker. So Mother Barham ran with her blue and breathless baby to the cliffside above the Straits of Juan de Fuca, mourning this little life lost, the expat English family's anchoring Canadian connection.

But then, an eyelid flicker, an infant's intake of breath. As Little H.—who would later adopt the appellation of Nell—inhaled the salty air mixed with the scent of heather and pine, Shipman believed a sprite must have secretly entered her soul as well.

"Was there a dark-skinned bit of wild elf skittering among the sweet broom, born on the wayward sea-breeze, looking anxiously for a dwelling?" she would ask in her posthumously published autobiography, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart. "A soul in limbo hanging between the Devil and the deep?"

A changeling, then. Certainly a scrap of Fair Isle folklore might explain how this impish girl, all elbows and eagerness, born with a proper English pedigree, would take to the stage and, shimmering, become an actress. A scrappy 13 when she first toured with stage sensation Paul Gilmore's traveling company, young Shipman became acquainted with the lousy living quarters, crummy chow and slim salaries of an on-the-road show bizzer, but the stage, the lights, the thrill of the theater taught the underaged ingenue the postures and poise that would harness her star.

And then, in 1910, came Ernest, the provider of Shipman's marquee surname and the man who took her to Hollywood. What a decade they had: a rip-roarer years before the gaiety of the '20s. Alongside her sophisticated husband--21 years her senior—Shipman scribbled serial screenplays, not the least of which was the six-part Egyptian adventure Under the Crescent (1915) or the bona fide blockbuster Back to God's Country (1919), a million-and-a-half grosser in those days, when that kind of cash was bank. Shipman bore a son, Barry, in 1912 and her first screen appearance, a godawful never-released melodrama titled The Ball of Yarn, followed the next year.

By mid-decade, Shipman was regularly working both sides of the camera, inking out the vamps and virgins she'd enact onscreen. Fifteen flicks, excusing the rookie misstep, and a book (the novelized Under the Crescent), and Shipman was cookin'. But whatever puckish prankster or fiendish gnome had nipped inside her way back when wasn't ready to leave its nest and let Shipman peramble down the easy path. With her customary capriciousness, she turned down a contract with the studio that would become Tinseltown titan MGM.

"Probably as silly a move as a neophyte ever made," she wrote. "But this was in the period of curly blondes with Cupid's-bow mouths ... This long-legged, lanky, outdoors gal, who usually loped across the silver screen in fur parkas and mukluks, simply gagged at such costuming. And had the nerve to refuse it."

So the Shipmans forged their own path. If the bigs wouldn't make the pictures her way, then she'd do it herself. They hitched up with author James Curwood to form a Calgary-based production company. Only one film was made before Curwood balked at Shipman's creative control. But Back to God's Country, featuring a society-shocking skinny-dip that became the basis of its ad campaign, is considered one of the early jewels of Canadian cinema and its most successful silent film. Following a near-fatal flu bout, a falling-out with Ernest and just as quick a falling-in with manager Bert Van Tuyle, Shipman, having finished with Hollywood, was ready to build her own studio. And so, to Idaho.

"They called her 'Story-Girl' because she listened to the voices of the wilderness and translated what she heard."


               —Intertitle, The Trail of the North Wind (1924)

 In a way, Shipman never quite got over Canada. Sure, she'd fashioned fictions of the Far East, with imperiled princesses concealed in pyramids, or a Southwestern shootout touting the Maxwell auto—an early example of product placement—but her heart always compassed north. Canada was God's country, the great white wastes and untamed topography of the Yukon, Nunavut and Newfoundland. But Idaho's Priest Lake, pooled at the foothills leading north to the Selkirk mountain range of B.C., was a near-flawless facsimile and would become Shipman's Northern Territory.

"Did you ever come to a place and instantly recognize it as your Ultima Thule, the one spot in all God's world where you belonged?" she wrote. "Where your roots could go deep into the soil which would forever nourish you, where inspiration and spiritual blessing welled up from the earth to top the tallest tamarack, spread to the encasing bowl of sky, return on every waterway to feed you everlastingly? Such a spot, so it seemed to me, was Priest Lake, in Idaho."

The year 1923 saw the newly formed Nell Shipman Productions company pioneering to the panhandle, encamping at the grandly named, grossly underinvested Lionhead Lodge—a conclave of cabins and cages in which to nest the fledgling film company. Three films deep, most recently an aptly titled adventure The Grub Stake (miners' argot for a financier's funds), Nell Shipman Productions was a swell looker of an operation, hosting a summer picnic for locals and housing a coterie of camera-trained critters ranging from birds to bears.

Ah, the animals. Years earlier, Shipman had witnessed the death of a bobcat, shocked with electricity to make it bristle on cue, the sort of on-command cruelty common in the early film industry. Well, it shocked her, too.

"We humans do not own animals," she wrote. "We borrow their companionship."

Shipman was determined to create films picturing the pastoral connection between forest femmes and feral four-footers without a provoked performance. On set, these "wild ones" were coddled and cooed at, coaxed into position by burbles and becalming cuddles. She allowed no "in-case" pistols or prods to be used on the animals, once halting a shot mid-bearhug when she sighted a weapon's gleam.

"I was often asked if I were not scared, working with the bear, wolves, cougar, any of the supposed vicious beasts," she wrote. "Truth is, I was afraid to be scared ... I would not allow a gun on the sidelines because the fact of the weapon connotated a possible need and was the seed of fear."

What a marvel, this modest Lionhead library. A pretty quintet of shorts, poetically named Little Dramas of the Big Places. Serial scenes of woodland wonders as Shipman, playing "Story-Girl" Dreena, cavorts with God's creations, converts loggers into lovers and comforts crippled children. Adventures abounded as the virtuous heroine braves blizzards and rapids to rescue her backwoods neighbors, often assisted by forest friends. Son Barry, brought up from California, won a featured role requiring a fall through the ice. When the shots of Barry and Shipman's waterlogged struggles to safety weren't deemed convincing by the star, the boy was belt-dragged back into the wet. Shipman would have it her way. He, as stubborn as she, chose never to work with his mother again. Of the five shorts, only four were completed; a final fairy story called The Love Tree (1926) only memorialized by a few phantasmagoric frames.

On screen, at least, it was a pretty picture. But the company, backed almost entirely by outside investors, wasn't selling any work. Its first two films, tied up in distribution litigation, had dried up most of Shipman's grubstake. A self-admitted bad businesswoman, she was parceling out IOUs to cast and crew and poaching wildlife to feed the pets. Starvation was staved off with a few poorly paying promotional appearances.

January 1924 was marred by one terminal sign of the end. It wasn't to be the finale of Lionhead Lodge, but it marked the beginning of its death. Bert, Shipman's partner, lover and sometimes leading man, had chanced a bit of foot frostbite while filming Back to God's Country, a minor malady overshadowed by the lead actor's death due to pneumonia. Ignored nearly five years, the infection had festered, until the gnawing, agonizing pain outgrew his grasp of sane behavior. Bert couldn't think, couldn't sleep—that goddamn gangrenous lumpstump! He abandoned Lionhead Lodge for the deep winter snows, determined to reach either Spokane, Wash., or a cold death.

"It was then that I saw his eyes and realized that the worst had happened ... He had broken," she wrote. "He seemed to hate me. I was some terrible creature who had kept him suffering and was even now executing a fiendish dance of glee over his condition."

And here, in a scenario almost perfectly prefigured in one of the Little Dramas, is where that Bunyan-sized salt-grain really sets the flavor. Shipman chased after Bert, her snowshoes somehow shuffling her faster than Bert's nine-dog sled, and caught him in time to hole up under a log to await rescue. After a local logger chanced upon the two, Shipman and Bert convalesced in Spokane, where a sacrifice of three toes was required on his part. A return to Lionhead, and a year passed with scant Shipman commentary. But it was a silence colored dusky, not golden. The following Christmas was when it all broke again.

A flirtatious dance with a young actor pseudonymed Sid—though no Sid ever appeared in a Shipman production—stopped cold as jealous, brooding Bert trained a gun on Shipman. Emulating the past winter's desperate gamble, she walked coatless out onto the ice, searching for the thin spot that would open the "dark silence." But her boy, her "Baree" was the one who would chase her down, take her from this wild place to Spokane and civilization. And that, the final little drama of that great big place, was truly the end. Shipman never returned to Lionhead. The menagerie was sold to the San Diego Zoo, her costumes and manuscripts lost in a fire, and Shipman became a nomad.

"The time drifts by, eaten up by the daily worry dozen and the first thing you know it's been too long—like my whole stay back here. Long—God! An eternity. But necessary, every single minute of it—and the end not in sight, yet—but the hopes—oh, so high!"

—Letter from Shipman to Barry (1934)

Hollywood had shut its doors to Shipman, favoring the bosomy charms of Clara Bow and Betty Blythe, and the rise of the Big Five studio system ensured that independent productions would get no play. So Shipman wandered and wrote—screenplays, storybooks, scads and scads of letters. In New York City, she met husband No. 2, Charles Ayers, then on to Florida, Cuba and Spain, the 1926 birthplace of twins Charles and Daphne. A new lover in 1935, the self-styled Baron Amerigo Serrao, made films, too. A rented house in New Mexico was vacated for its new tenant, Georgia O'Keeffe.

But, from Hollywood—nothing. Though Shipman received one final screen credit—as one of five writers for the Cary Grant talkie Wings in the Dark (1935)—her face never shone silver again, no sound man ever snared her voice. Year after year of "no." Year after year of romantic Bohemian starvation, garreted in tiny apartments. Tiny paychecks for tossed-off magazine fodder. But no movies. A few books and a couple decades on, Shipman gave up trying for that star, perhaps embarrassed by her faded beauty, perhaps ready to let the old dog finally lie quiet. Thirty years to live a lifetime, then a fallow 50 to live it all down. In 1970, a year after completing her final work, an autobiographical adventure painted purely in the colors of her own imagination, the screen siren passed into that long-ago sought "dark silence."

"What is a star but a far-away glimmer, an impossible goal, a thing at the end of a telescope, a faulty human drawn into close focus by continued repetition of an image, a substance to fall blazing or fade unseen? The star dies but the picture lives on, at least in memory."

   —Nell Shipman, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart

Tom and Nell

It was a dog's death, a poisoning 60 years earlier that turned Boise State English professor Tom Trusky onto Nell Shipman in the early 1980s. She had eulogized her envenomed screen companion in a 1923 news bite published in the Priest Lake Times, an item that piqued the poet's curiosity.

"He was buried with all honor ..." she wrote. "And over his grave is written: 'Here lies Champion Great Dane Tresore, an artist, a soldier and a gentleman. Killed July 17 by the cowardly hand of a human. He died as he lived, protecting his mistress and her property.'"

After encountering this epitaph, Trusky tracked down Barry Shipman, Shipman's son, to inquire about the suspicious circumstances of Tresore's demise.

"When my dad answered the phone in San Bernardino, Calif., he heard a voice from Boise, Idaho, ask, 'Who killed Tresore?'" said Nina Shipman Bremer, Shipman's granddaughter. "That phone call from Tom Trusky to Barry Shipman was the beginning of a long, exciting and highly productive friendship between Tom and the Shipman family."

Trusky would spend the next two and a half decades working to restore the shine to Shipman's name, publishing her autobiography, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart (1987), and her copious correspondences, Letters from God's Country (2003), through Boise State.

"Nell's autobio strikes me as the big winner," Trusky wrote BW in October 2009, just a month before his own death. "I fear [archivist Alan] Virta and I OD'd the public with Nell info in her letters!"

Trusky also scoured the globe to procure and restore her films, including Tresore's star-making appearance in Back to God's Country (1919). Thanks to his repeated and sometimes pushy efforts—once holding an irritated archivist on the phone until a forgotten negative was discovered in a back-room depository—the extant of Shipman's films are all available for a new audience on DVD.

"There is no question that Tom Trusky brought Nell back to life," said Kay Armatage, professor of film studies at the University of Toronto and respected Shipman historian. "He wanted to make her a household name."

In a 1984 letter from Barry, one month after that auspicious first phone call, the screen star's son expressed his excitement for the future plans Trusky was fashioning.

"Mr. Tom, don't ever stop feeling the way you obviously can," he wrote. "Your poking around in ancient, archaeological humanness should be welcome as a mother's kiss."

He never did. With Trusky's passing on Nov. 27, 2009, a great champion of the Shipman legacy made his final exit. His contributions to film history and Shipman scholarship will not be forgotten.

"Tom used to keep me updated on all things Nell," said Bremer. "I'm going to miss that and his wacky and wonderful way with words. I'm sure, if there's a heaven, that Nell, Dad and Tom are having the time of their afterlives together."

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