Treasures Revealed Episode 13 - Nell Shipman Silent Film

Greenish stylized treasure chest with Library and Archives Canada maple leaves at the bottom and rays rising from the chest at the top. Numbered 13. 

In this episode we speak with Steve Moore about the most successful silent film in Canadian history, Back to God’s Country – a lusty tale of jealousy, murder and betrayal starring trailblazer Nell Shipman, Canada’s first female director. Tune in to discover why the restoration of this film received international accolades and how it projected a light on the action heroine who co-wrote and starred in this groundbreaking film.

Duration: 18:00

File size: 24.9 MB Download MP3

Publish Date: October 12, 2023

  • Transcript of Treasures Revealed episode 13

    Théo Martin (TM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Théo Martin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

    Welcome to Treasures Revealed!

    In this podcast series, we’ll be showcasing certain items in the Library and Archives Canada collection. Each episode, we’ll speak to a LAC employee and highlight an item that they consider a real “treasure” in our collection.

    They may be rare items, perhaps unusual or valuable, or items with historical significance. Perhaps they will have a compelling or interesting story to go along with them. More importantly, all of them will showcase our vast and rich collection that is the shared documentary heritage of all Canadians.

    Now, on to Episode 13, “Nell Shipman Silent Film.”

    Steve Moore (SM): My name is Steve Moore. I'm an Audiovisual Archivist working in Private Specialized Media. I've been working for Library and Archives Canada since 1985 on contracts, and then more full time a bit later on in the 90s, but yeah, I've been here a while.

    TM: The Library and Archives treasure we’ll be discussing on this episode is the 1919 Canadian film I. Directed by David Hartford, co-written and starring Canadian actress Nell Shipman, Back to God’s Country was the most successful silent film in Canadian history.

    Steve, tell us more!

    SM: Sure! Back to God's Country is Canada's oldest surviving feature film. It was produced in 1919. It's also the most successful silent film in Canadian history. It was produced in, as I say, in 1919 by the husband-and-wife team of producer Ernest and Nell Shipman. Nell Shipman wrote and starred in the film, and the couple were the driving force behind it.

    Back to God's Country, it's a story adapted from a short story called “Wapi the Walrus” by James Oliver Curwood, and Shipman had produced some of his short stories into other film works as well, this being the most successful. She changed the lead role in the film from what was a brave dog … to Shipman's character, who was Dolores LeBeau. She went on to direct nine other films, including many in the U.S., but this film is considered to be her greatest achievement. The film, basically, it's a classic melodrama of the time, so a lot of thrills in here. It features violence, voyeurism, there's nudity in the film. It's the first nude scene, Canadian nude scene, and it was promoted under that as well. It's got chase scenes, stunts, many of which they performed themselves, including Nell Shipman, live wild animals and a bona fide female action heroine. So it was quite a contrast to what many people certainly at the time would consider Canadian cinema to be!

    TM: Like Steve mentions, the short story by James Curwood was adapted to the screen by Nell Shipman herself. She transformed the brave and faithful dog of the film to a brave and faithful heroine, Delores LeBeau. LeBeau’s love affair with a government surveyor triggers a lusty tale of jealousy, murder and betrayal. Shipman also has her character save her husband, which reportedly infuriated the story’s author Curwood, but commercially the film was extremely successful, posting a 300 percent profit and grossing 1.5 million dollars! Today, that would be a profit of more than 26 million dollars! Touching on another difference, in watching this film through a modern lens, there are racial depictions that are problematic. As historical content is preserved as much as possible in an unaltered state, the film reflects the time in which it was created. Can you expand on that, Steve?

    SM: There’s some racist scenes, some offensive scenes in the film, which we certainly give a warning about when we do screen the film. It’s of it’s time. But the film, with those short comings as part of the time, holds up as a drama and something that gets your interest and gets you into the film which is cool this many years later.

    TM: Steve, what can you tell us about the film’s star and creator, Nell Shipman?

    SM: So Nell Shipman was recognized among some film buffs, but she has a pretty low profile considering her achievements. She was a Canadian film pioneer and the first Canadian female film director. She was a force in the industry as both an actor and an author. She was a screenwriter, producer, director, distributor and an animal trainer. She has a real affinity for animals, which is shown in the film. She was a devoted environmentalist, animal rights pioneer. She campaigned for the humane treatment of animals in the film industry even back then, and she surrounds herself with animals in the film, and you can really see the rapport she has with animals, including wild animals.

    TM : Shipman was one of the first to shoot films entirely on location, including outdoor scenes in Back to God’s Country shot at Great Slave Lake, Alberta, and other outdoor locations in Idaho and California.

    SM: She performs, as I mentioned, her own stunts. There's a scene of her character Dolores being swept downstream in the rapids at one point, and that was shot with Shipman and not a stunt double.

    As I mentioned, she contributed the first nude scene, so you know, also the savvy of using that to promote the film as well, and part of their campaign was called “The Nude Rude,” so these were ads that went in the papers. It's a sequence that, yeah, intentionally stoked controversy when, as I say, they made it the focus of the campaign for the film. The film really establishes her as a force to be reckoned with in the industry, until the major Hollywood studios, which were monopolization of the market in the early 1920s, which progressively squeezed out independents like Shipman, and in particular marginalizing women and effectively erasing the possibility for an alternate history of Canadian film.

    Yeah, she was quite an impressive force in film and really not perhaps as well known as she could be considering what she achieved.

    TM: Steve, tell us more about this nude scene!

    SM: Well, it wasn't, I mean it's not lascivious in the same way that ... It's nothing compared to what you would see today in a nude scene. It's from a distance. The guy is kind of, he comes across her bathing in a stream. You see her kind of from behind, and she's swimming for a bit. So, I mean they used it to promote the film. You know there was, in Hollywood, there was the Hays Code that was introduced later on, which really restricted the kind of things they could show in films. That was applying to Hollywood films. So the standard really wasn't the same early on, the same as it became in the later 20s and 30s, and when that code, I don't know, can’t remember exactly when that code was in force. The things that came out were a lot more tame, and they were very careful, and they had people watching scenes. But back then, you know, it was certainly new. And it caused a stir. It certainly may have contributed to the early interest in the film, but it was also, you know, it was a really well-made film as well.

    TM: First published in March 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, was the first attempt at introducing film censorship in the U.S. through laying down a series of guidelines to film producers.

    Shipman was one of the first to shoot films entirely on location, including outdoor scenes in Back to God’s Country shot at Great Slave Lake, Alberta, and other outdoor locations in Idaho and California.

    Steve, what sort of preservation work was done here at LAC to restore the physical film itself?

    SM: So it was preserved ... It was a restoration, a 35-mm print that was created at LAC, which came from two separate prints, one that was held by the American Film Institute and the other from a private collector, J.D. Cunningham of England. The restoration was supervised by the, what was at the time, the National Archives of Canada's Senior Archivist D.J. Turner, in collaboration with preservation staff.

    So they made new elements at the correct running speed, preserving the tinting and tones of the original rather than shooting in black and white. In early sound before colour, they would use tinting and tones in the production afterwards in the processing in order to create moods. So if it was a sombre scene it would be, you know, there would be a blue tint, so everything is, you know, has a blue haze on it. And then, if it was, you know, a scene that was dramatic, it maybe may shift to orange or red. So that was how they expressed drama and different moods in the film.

    And also filters were used to mask the original tints of the film in the processing. Some frames were enlarged because there's a lot of deterioration on the frames, the edge of the frame, so they would have been enlarged so to eliminate the distracting deterioration you see fluttering on the screen. And some of the inner titles, so you've got, you know, you'll have a shot of action, and then you'll have an inner title describing what's happening when the dialogue comes up. If those were quite damaged, they would pick, so “they” being the preservation people at LAC, would pick a frame that was less deteriorated, and they would freeze on that frame for the right number of frames, you know, to get the same time period.

    So it gives, it's a little of an unusual look because you don't see the flutter of the film turning, it kind of freezes. But it allows you to clearly read … because what’s very distracting is sometimes that deterioration would cut into the words, and it makes it hard to read, so that was another effect they used. All the cleaning, preparation of the prints, transfers and the optical printing was done at LAC, with the correcting done of the colours at a lab in Toronto.

    TM: The restoration, done at LAC in the mid 1980s, received international attention and praise.

    Steve tells us more about the restoration.

    SM: When they found the other print, they also found out that the film was shot with two camera crews, so they're standing side by side. I'm not sure what the reason was for that. So you had slightly different angles, that could be very subtle, but slightly different angles for each film. So what they did is, they went back and forth and said, “Okay, what's the best shot they have here, and what's the best quality?” So it was a lot of, there's a lot of decision-making in that kind of a restoration back and forth without having the benefit of the original creators of the film there to let them know, “Well, here’s what we're doing here, and here's why we went this shot here.” So there really was, it's, you know, it's a separate creation that LAC put together from the available elements that they had.

    And this is a time too when there was not film distribution in the same way that you would be distributed, you would be seeing it in theatres, and that would be it. I mean, even in the 1980s, you had a second life with VHS videotape for rentals. Here, you had one shot, and that was it. There wasn't second runs or, you know, we’re going to watch it online. So there wasn't the same archival interest in preserving this work, even from the perspective of the studios, which would be here to reissue it later and still have these films as a source of revenue. So a lot of the times, when the prints were at the end of their run, they were just tossed, so you know, having served its purpose. So finding the prints, collectors would have these prints in their collection who were interested in the work, and that's how a lot of this work got saved and restored.

    TM: Steve, in your opinion, why is this a treasure?

    SM: Well, really, there's a number of reason. It's the oldest surviving Canadian feature film. There was another film, Evangeline, which was made in 1915, which is a lost film. This is the oldest surviving film, most successful film, and also because it's such a showcase for Nell Shipman. She was, as I mentioned, she was an incredible talent and force in the industry. She was offered, I think Metro-Goldwyn offered her, or Samuel Goldwyn offered her, a contract for the Hollywood studios, which she turned down and formed her own studios.

    TM: Nell Shipman turned down a contract with Samuel Goldwyn in favour of independent productions. Her preference for independent cinema led her to start two producing companies, Shipman-Curwood Producing Company and Nell Shipman Productions.

    SM: It's also its prominence just as something that LAC has restored and brought back to notoriety. Whereas you had these two prints, they were sort of in obscurity, they were available, but now once it got restored, it was in a really good print, and it could be seen again. It was shown at the Toronto Film Festival after the restoration. I know it got interest from the United States, so it did become sort of a film that was re-established thanks to this work, and particularly the work of LAC, which was something at the time that they were able to do.

    TM: Nell Shipman is considered by some to be the "first lady” of Canadian cinema. Throughout her life, Shipman wrote many scripts and short stories. One of her stories was adapted for the American film Wings in the Dark (1935), starring Myrna Loy and Cary Grant.

    If you’re interested in viewing some stills and even advertisements from the film, you can go to LAC’s Flickr page. There, you will find an album of images called Treasures Revealed. We will update that album with each episode, giving you a chance to view the treasures that we will be highlighting. You can also view Back to God’s Country in its entirety over at LAC’s YouTube page.

    Thank you for being with us. I’m Théo Martin, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guest today, Steve Moore. Special thanks also to Isabel Larocque for her contributions to this episode.

    The music in this episode was provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

    This episode was produced, engineered and edited by David Knox, with additional editing and sound design by Tom Thompson.

    If you liked this episode, you’re invited to subscribe to the podcast. You can do it through the RSS feed located on our website, Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you get your podcasts.

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    For more information on our podcasts, go to LAC’s homepage and type “podcast” in the search bar in the top right corner and click on the first link. If you have questions, comments or suggestions, you can find the email address for the podcast team located at the bottom of the episode page.

Host: Théo Martin, Archivist, Performing Arts Archives

Guest: Steve Moore, Senior Archivist, Audiovisual, Visual and Sound Archives


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