Nell Shipman’s “Little Dramas of Big Places” at CDA Library
Honestly, Nell, no animals were harmed in the writing of this column. Decades before anti-cruelty standards were established in Hollywood, many of our fine furry friends, particularly the dogs and horses used in westerns and biblical epics were shot, beaten and driven off cliffs by directors all in the name of a good take.
When actress/filmmaker and animal rights advocate Nell Shipman packed up her entire menagerie of wild critters and relocated north to Priest Lake, Idaho in 1922, she was thumbing her nose at the cruel insensitivity she perceived in Hollywood. Not only did Shipman sense that her beloved animal co-stars were unhappy in la-la land, but also that her own carefree, proto-feminist nature had grown beyond the boundaries of the materialistic, male-dominated mainstream film industry.
She risked her career with the move, and ultimately lost, but Shipman’s time in North Idaho was captured in a series of short films which are now considered groundbreaking by modern film makers and many others and which will be featured tonight in a free mini film fest at the Coeur d’Alene Public Library, located downtown at 702 E. Front Avenue.
If Shipman was born approximately a hundred years later, she would have been the oddball lovechild of Grizzly Adams and Pamela Anderson. With the former, she shared a lust for the isolation of nature, an almost psychic connection to the animal kingdom and a penchant for lots of wild, bushy hair. Like Pam Anderson, she was born near Victoria, British Columbia, had notorious man problems, and shocked viewers with her full nudity, not in a Playboy Video Centerfold but in 1919’s silent feature Back to God’s Country. Also like Anderson, if she were alive today she’d be appearing in ads for PETA, sneering and glaring with those kohl-covered eyes, giving fur the cold shoulder. Actually, probably not fur, since she appears to be wearing some sort of chinchilla on her head in many of the surviving photographs of her Priest Lake days, but who can blame a girl for trying to stay warm in those frigid early winter times with no polypropylene thermal underwear?
According to legend, it was Lake Coeur d’Alene that gave Nell Shipman her first therapeutic dose of North Idaho’s beauty. She was 18 and starring in a travelling production of a play when her sprained ankle was treated with too much morphine, as was pretty much every imaginable ailment in that opiate-crazed era. She was forced her to drop out of the show while travelling through Spokane and she spent a while recovering in Coeur d’Alene. She would later write, “I found myself in my homeland. The forested mountains of Idaho seemed to cascade down the slopes and carry me to their shining heights, cradle me in topmost boughs, soothe me with song. Show business was forgotten.”
She reluctantly returned to Hollywood, where she birthed both a son and a successful career writing screenplays, with her industry big-wig husband Ernest Shipman as her agent. Acting fever struck Shipman and she became a bona fide star with God’s Country and the Woman, a film in which she developed her trademark persona: a tough, smart Sheba who’s forced to save the lives of various pathetic, helpless men who’ve fallen prey to the wilderness due to their innate stupidity and lack of the ingenious resourcefulness she possesses. Even with silent film, her sense of wit and whimsy comes through in the captions; “Dumb as an oyster, but still sometimes an oyster hides a pearl.” It was at the height of her Hollywood career in 1922, that Shipman made headlines by turning down a massive Samuel Goldwyn contract, divorced Ernest and returned to North Idaho to create her own Nell Shipman Productions.
“Ultima Thule” was how she described Priest Lake, and she wasn’t talking about a cool rack system for atop her SUV. It’s a medieval phrase meaning “a place beyond the borders of reality.” Once she arrived in her wintery utopia, she barged her animals and equipment across the icy lake and began filming a series of “two reels”, short nature dramas starring her, a whole lot of snow, and various wild and deadly beasts. She wasn’t the sort of girl who was scared of a little old bear; in fact she kept one named Brownie as a pet along with Laddie the dog, horses, raccoons, skunks, wildcats, porcupines, wolves, coyotes, an elk and an eagle, among others.
Shipman set up her zoo and film studio headquarters at Mosquito Bay, dubbing it Lionhead Lodge, where she lived only a brief two and half years until problems with her second husband and her films’ lack of success caught up with her emotionally and financially. Deeply in dept and suddenly sick of the isolation and winter blahs, she donated her animals to the San Diego Zoo and fled to New York in hopes of a comeback that never did come. She went on to travel the country extensively, her escapades inspiring a lifelong writing habit she kept until her death in 1970 in Cabazon, California. Her home was ransacked by thieves on the very day of her burial and most of her life’s work was seemingly lost forever. Astoundingly, the film reels began turning up nearly twenty years later on the dusty back shelves of thrift stores and junk shops, with about half a dozen unearthed to date.
Nell Shipman might have been forever forgotten into history like Tracey Gold had these “lost films” never made their way into the hands of Tom Trusky, director of the Hemingway Western Studies Center at Boise State University. Trusky has worked tirelessly since the late 80’s to reignite interest in Shipman’s life and career and she is now rightly recognized as a pioneer in her field, the premier Northwest filmmaker, and a symbol of female strength and early environmentalism. Along with Nell’s surviving son Barry, he established the Shipman Archives at BSU and has shown her films and lectured across the US, Canada, and Europe.
Tonight in the Community Room of the library, Trusky will be speaking and showing three of these seldom-seen films from Shipman’s “Little Dramas of the Big Places” series. The films are dark and grainy with eighty years of age but are still a lot of fun to watch, although you won’t catch that infamous nude scene on this family-oriented night. Ultimately, the leading lady’s innovative talents and way with nature is certainly captivating but even Nell would agree that the true star of the films is gorgeous Priest Lake itself, looking as pristine and perfect then as it does now.