Back to God’s Country (1919) + The Girl from God’s Country (2015)

Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum, Lambeth

                                                            19 October 2016

Tonight’s Kennington Bioscope provided a welcome opportunity to catch up with a couple of films that I had missed when they were shown at the Worthing World of Words (WOW) festival back in June. First up was a documentary on the life and work of film-maker and actress Nell Shipman, The Girl From God’s Country (Dir. Karen Day, 2015).  This was followed by one of Shipman’s best known films, Back To God’s Country (Dir. David Hartford, 1919).

Nell Shipman is, today, an almost forgotten female pioneer of silent film. Born in Canada in 1892 she moved to California as a teenager where she began to star in films at the age of 14. By 1912, she had begun writing scripts for some of the films she starred in and by 1914 had started to direct and produce her own films.  Shipman collaborated with writer James Oliver Curword to bring a number of his short stories to the screen, most notably Back to God’s Country.  Following this film’s success she went on to form her own company ‘Nell Shipman Productions’, relocating to the wilds of Priest Lake in Idaho, to fulfil her passions for wilderness, wildlife and location shooting.   Here she produced, wrote, co-directed and starred in The Girl From God’s Country (1921).  But Hollywood investors in the film were apparently unhappy and seized the print, re-editing it before release. Shipman’s response was to place advertisements in the trade press comparing their actions to Chinese men who deform women’s feet by binding them! This further alienated relations between Shipman and the film majors.  Her second independent feature, The Grub Stake (1922) struggled to find a distributor and eventually made her no money.  Despite producing a number of more successful out-door two-reelers, Shipman’s production company eventually went bankrupt.  She almost died during a severe storm, her menagerie of animals was sold off and she left Idaho, never to make another film.  Despite some occasional script and short story writing most of her subsequent plans for film work came to nought and she died, destitute, in 1970.

In many ways, Nell Shipman was decades ahead of her time.  A feminist, an environmentalist and a campaigner for animal rights long before such terms had ever been coined, she was a successful actress, screen-writer, animal trainer, producer and director and also performed her own stunts (which proved almost fatal on more than one occasion).  Her films were distinguished for their portrayal of women in brave, strong-willed, adventurous roles, often coming to the rescue of the male lead while her passion for outdoor location shooting in the wildest of settings and conditions gave her films a rugged and realistic quality often lacking in other Hollywood productions of the time.

The evening’s first film, The Girl From God’s Country, was introduced by Melody Bridges, co-editor of the book ‘Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema’.  The film presented a portrait of Shipmen’s life and work, in part using a dramatised documentary format, highlighting her independent spirit and her portrayal of strong, independent women.  One segment recreated an event when, during a film shoot, she was required to fall out of a canoe and be rescued by the leading man.  But in the event it is she who ends up rescuing the male lead, almost at the cost of her own life.  Also of interest was a commission she took in 1920 to make a commercial for the Maxwell Car Company.  The outcome was a 57 minute feature, Something New, a western in which she, her co-star and their dog escape from the villains by driving their Maxwell car over increasingly tortuous and seemingly impassable desert terrain.

But the film was much more than just a chronicle of Nell Shipman’s life and work. It detailed the significant role played by women in early silent cinema, highlighting not only the work of more prominent women pioneers such as Lois Weber and Alice Guy Blaché but other much more obscure individuals including those of Chinese and African-American origin. It showed how they were effectively silenced by major studios, a situation which has persisted to the present day.  In particular, the film postulated that by the early 1920s the small independent film companies where women prospered were being swallowed up by the increasingly influential major studios which were run on much more commercial lines, akin to the rest of corporate America, an environment where women were conspicuous by their absence, so it was only a matter of time before women were also excluded from the film industry.  The film was also interesting in looking at means by which this persistent gender bias could be overcome and looked, for example, at the work of the Geena Davis Institute on Bias in the Media.  Overall, this was a fascinating and informative documentary, both on Nell Shipman herself and the wider role of women in silent film.  (This film does not appear to be available on DVD/Blu-Ray or online.)

It was followed by the feature Back To God’s Country, probably Nell Shipman’s most renowned starring role.  Based on the James Oliver Curwood story, Wapi The Walrus, Shipman as script writer takes considerable liberties with the storyline (which was to result in the ending of her partnership with the author), changing the focus from that of Wapi the dog to her own role of  Dolores LeBeau.  The film was a major box office success, generally regarded as the most successful Canadian silent film of all time.

In the film, Dolores (Nell Shipman) lives in a wilderness with her father Baptiste (Roy Laidlaw). When Peter Burke (Wheeler Oakman) arrives at their cabin, he is welcomed, and soon he and Dolores are in love. Nearby, criminal Capt. Rydal (Wellington Playter) has killed a policeman.  Seeing Delores swimming naked Rydal later attacks her and kills her father before escaping.  A year later, Dolores and Peter, now married, have embarked on a sailing ship when Dolores discovers the captain to be Rydal who then conspires to seriously injure Peter. When the ship anchors near Blake (Charles Arling)’s trading post, Dolores tries to get help for the dying Peter, but Blake tells her the nearest doctor is two hundred miles away. Seeing Blake whipping his dog Wapi, she protects and befriends the animal. When Blake agrees to provide her with dogsled team to reach the doctor Dolores overhears him and Ryland plotting to kill Peter.  Delores shoots Blake and departs with Peter but Rydal pursues them.  Wapi comes to her aid by attacking Rydal’s dog team and they all escape and return to their earlier wilderness.

It has to be said at the outset that Back To God’s Country is not a great film, in fact it’s a bit of a melodramatic pot boiler, often lacking in logic and with villainy just for the sake of villainy.  Wheeler Oakman is something of a cardboard cut-out of a leading man so it’s no surprise that the heroics are all down to Nell while Wellington Playter (where did they get those names from!!) is little more than a cliché of a silent film villain.  All he lacked was a villainous moustache to twirl!  And some of the inter-titles verge on the ludicrous.  Nevertheless, the film does have much to recommend it, particularly Nell herself, the fantastic location shooting and some seriously cute animals. Although David Hartford was credited as the film’s director, the driving force behind the film’s direction was Shipman herself. And as the star she is ideally suited to the part, charismatic, athletic, bristling with backwoods charm and perfectly at ease with the wildlife and the exacting locations.  And the locations certainly took their toll. The wilderness scenes were shot in Idaho and the arctic segments in Alberta.  Actor Ronald Byram was initially cast to play Peter Burke but he died two weeks in to shooting in Alberta.  It is likely that it is him visible in several of the dog-sled shots at the film’s climax.

Amongst the rest of the cast, Wheeler Oakman continued in largely supporting roles in minor pictures up until his death in 1949.  Wellington Playter appears to have made only one further film and died in 1937.  Director David Hartford made a few more silents as well as occasional acting appearances before his death in 1932.  Far more successful was cinematographer Joseph Walker who went on to become Frank Capra’s favourite cameraman, working on such films as It Happened One Night (1934), Lost Horizon (1937), His Girl Friday (1940), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Born Yesterday (1950), picking up four Academy Award nominations in the process.

So, although it may not be a classic, Back To God’s Country is definitely worth a view, largely for the presence and influence of Nell Shipman which highlighted the abilities of this ahead-of-her-time female independent producer, director and actress and makes her sidelining by the Hollywood majors and subsequent obscurity such a loss. This screening was accompanied on piano by the always superb John Sweeney.

(The film is available on DVD/Blu-Ray through Milestone Films and can be viewed online.)