Nell Shipman — silent film writer, director and star — came to Idaho’s Priest Lake from Hollywood in 1922 with her 10-year-old son, her ill-fated lover-producer, a future Academy Award-winning cinematographer (Joseph Walker) and a personal zoo of 70 animal actors that included bobcats, bears, elk, eagles, deer and sled dogs. She was the first of her kind: a female independent filmmaker who refuted Hollywood’s mistreatment of animals and refused the assured trappings of a studio contract to instead produce her own films on location in the Idaho wilderness.
Emblematic of an entire lost generation of female producers and directors in silent film, Nell Shipman’s legacy has remained a buried treasure in film history for nearly 100 years — until now. A documentary by filmmaker Karen Day and an all-female crew from Idaho, “Girl From God’s Country” (Friday, Nov. 3, at 8 p.m. on IdahoPTV) tells the story of this unrelenting, unrepentant artistic talent and self-reliant film pioneer.
“As female filmmakers in Idaho, Nell Shipman and my all-female crew are exceptions to the norm, even in Hollywood today,” says filmmaker Karen Day. “It’s wonderful that IdahoPTV supports our artistic efforts by sharing the amazing story of this Gem State pioneer of gender equality.”
On the group’s website, gcgproductions.com, Shipman is quoted as saying, “Applause and recognition are the handmaidens of creativity.”
The truth and irony of this pioneering filmmaker’s insight is ever more apparent as her legacy of writing, producing and starring in nearly 70 silent films remains a buried treasure in film history, notes the group on the website. Professor Tom Trusky at Boise State University stumbled upon Nell Shipman’s existence in 1984 and began a transatlantic search to restore her forgotten and brilliant body of work. His scholarship included a re-digitization of Nell’s “obtainable” films from 1912 forward and the publishing of her dusty auto-biography, “The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart”. Dr. Trusky, however, suffered a sudden heart-attack in 2009 and died before he could bring Nell her deserved accolades. Once again, “The Girl From God’s Country” fell into obscurity in the U.S.
Today, the website notes that Nell Shipman’s story is compelling because it’s an unadulterated, undiscovered adventure tale of a pioneering woman who rewrote the rules of filmmaking and in so doing, paved the way for independent voices, especially women’s voices, in film arts. In 1922, Nell personified the first action heroine long before Angelina Jolie topped the box office. Deep in the Idaho wilderness, she wrote and starred in her own films, tended her own zoo to insure humane treatment of her animal actors and nearly died performing her own stunts. An unfettered spirit, she also stepped into the first nude scene. This grainy 30-second clip in her re-mastered film, “The Grubstake”, was demure by today’s standards, but shocked in 1923. The audacity of this scene typifies Nell the writer, director and producer who chose to serve authenticity and artistic integrity at the cost of professional, financial and personal tragedy.
The documentary, the team notes on the website, focuses on the unorthodox genius and gutsy “sourdough” spirit that fueled Nell’s creativity and infused her work with unmistakable passion. Rare audio interviews with Priest Lake locals who knew Nell reveal the forgotten star’s struggles with sub-zero winters and murderous neighbors. Nell used the wilderness as a huge creative canvas and our film also explores how these same wide open spaces have served the artistic vision of residents like Hemingway, Clint Eastwood and Carole King.
Defining Nell’s contribution to the history of women in filmmaking, this documentary highlights an ignored chapter in our cultural history — how and why a generation women, once a powerful force in all aspects of the silent film industry, were silenced to this day by monopolistic major studios.
The role of independent filmmakers in Hollywood will undoubtedly continue to expand, the filmmakers note on the website, but few today realize the price Nell Shipman paid forging that path in the wilderness of Idaho. Finally, in our film, “Girl from God’s Country,” Nell Shipman will deservedly be seen as a star among great stars — a role she has played silently for too long.