Nell Shipman
Shipman in 1918
Helen Foster-Barham

(1892-10-25)October 25, 1892
DiedJanuary 23, 1970(1970-01-23) (aged 77)
Occupation(s)Actress, screenwriter, director, producer, animal trainer
Years active1910–1947
Ernest Shipman
(m. 1910⁠–⁠1920)
Charles H. Austin Ayers
(m. 1925⁠–⁠1932)
PartnerBert Van Tuyle (c.1918 – 1924)

Nell Shipman (born Helen Foster-Barham; October 25, 1892 – January 23, 1970) was a Canadian actress, author, screenwriter, producer, director, animal rights activist and animal trainer. Her works often had autobiographical elements to them and reflected her passion for nature.[1] She is best known for making a series of melodramatic adventure films based on the novels by American writer James Oliver Curwood in which she played the robust heroine known as the ‘girl from God’s country.'[2]

Shipman started two independent producing companies in her career: Shipman-Curwood Producing Company and Nell Shipman Productions. In 1919, she and her husband, Ernest Shipman,[3] a film producer, made the most successful silent film in Canadian history, Back to God's Country.[4]

Personal life

She was born as Helen Foster-Barham in Victoria, British Columbia. Her parents were Arnold and Rose Barham. She grew up in a middle-class family.[5] During her teenage years in 1904, she was based near and in Seattle, Washington, where the Foster Barham family had moved around the turn of the century.[6]A year later, she left home and joined the Paul Gilmore traveling theatrical company.

From an early age, she developed a respect towards animals. She was passionate about animal rights and advocated them in Hollywood. She developed her private sanctuary, containing more than 200 animals.[7]

In 1904, her family moved to Seattle, Washington. A year later, she left home and joined the Paul Gilmore travelling theatrical company.[5]

When Helen was 18 years old, she met and married Ernest Shipman, a 39-year-old theatrical impresario.[5] Their son, Barry Shipman, was born a couple of years later in 1912.[8]

While married to Ernie Shipman, Nell engaged in a six year long affair with actor Bert Van Tuyle. They eventually split during the filming of The Grub Stake, because of Van Tuyle's deteriorating mental state.[5]

Two years later, in New York City, Shipman met and married a painter named Charles Ayers with whom she had two children named Charles and Daphne. They separated in 1934.[8]

At the end of her life, Shipman moved to Cabazon, California, where she continued writing.[8] She died there in 1970 at age 77.[citation needed]


From 1912 through 1917, she sold scripts to various companies, including Selig, Australasian Films, the American Film Company, the Palo Alto Film Corporation, and, most notably, Universal.[6] She was usually involved in the film's productions as well and started acting for Universal, Seig, and Vitagraph studios. Between 1915 and 1918, she played several leading roles, including her debut in God's Country and the Woman (1915), based on a short story by American writer James Oliver Curwood. Shipman directed, produced, and acted in this film. She was one of the first directors to shoot her films almost entirely on location.

Her role in God's Country and the Woman led to an acting contract offer from Samuel Goldwyn in 1917. However, she turned down the offer and started her own independent production company with her husband Ernest. This company was responsible for Shipman's most successful film, Back to God's Country (1919), which she co-wrote and co-produced. Back to God's Country was based on the story Wapi The Walrus by James Oliver Curwood. It was one of a number of Curwood stories about adventures in the North Country with some romance thrown in. The film grossed $1.5 million on an estimated budget of $67,000.[9] Neither she nor Ernest Shipman had been able to repeat their success with Back to God's Country. Other directors made new versions of the film, by the same title, in 1927 and 1953.

Shipman's preference for independent cinema led her to starting two producing companies, Shipman-Curwood Producing Company and Nell Shipman Productions.

Nell and Ernest Shipman eventually moved to Hollywood where the American film industry was developing. During this time, Nell Shipman sold the rights to her novel, Under the Crescent Moon to Universal Studios (they wanted to make a six-film serial of the book).

Throughout her life, Shipman wrote many scripts and short stories. One of her stories was adapted for the American film Wings in the Dark (1934), starring Myrna Loy and Cary Grant (1934).[5] In 1925, Shipman wrote three essays called "The Movie That Couldn't Be Screened." Additionally, she wrote a children's book titled "Kurly Kew and the Tree-Princess: A Story of the Forest People Told For Other-People" (1930). Most of Nell Shipman's work had autobiographical elements to them.[1]

Shipman's last major project was her autobiography, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart.[4] In the autobiography she describes her last two years at the Studio-Camp at Lion Lodge as a series of disasters.[10] It was published posthumously by Boise State University through their Hemingway Western Studies Series. The university also houses the Nell Shipman Collection at Albertsons Library. Many of her films were preserved and are available through the library.[11]

Shipman-Curwood Producing Company

In 1918 Shipman and her mother Rose Barahm both fell ill with influenza. Shipman managed to fully recover while her mother unfortunately passed away.[12] It was during this time that Shipman created her first of two production companies in partnership with James Oliver Curwood.

Her husband, Ernest Shipman, convinced a consortium of Calgary businessmen to invest in Alberta, Canada. They incorporated a company, Canadian Photoplays Ltd., on February 7, 1919, with a $250,000 investment.

This company produced Back to God's Country which was based on the short story by Curwood, Wapi The Walrus. In the film a woman is blackmailed into marrying her unscrupulous suitor. Shipman adapted this for the screen herself. The 73-minute film (at 18 frames per second) was shot in Los Angeles, San Francisco and on location near Lesser Slave Lake, Alberta, Canada by director David M. Hartford.[13] The film was titled Back to God's Country to capitalize on the success of God's Country and the Woman. Shipman played the leading role as Dolores LeBeau which featured her one of the first full frontal nude scenes. The scene was brief but considered controversial during the time. A promotional advertisement for the film had a line drawing of a nude Nell, shown from the back and frolicking with several animals. Part of the caption read: "Don't book Back To God's Country unless you want to prove the Nude is NOT Rude."[14]

Back To God's Country was a major Canadian and international silent film hit. Despite the film's success, Curwood did not like the fact that Shipman changed the plot of his short story. She changed the protagonist of the film from Wapi the Great Dane, to Delores.[15]

Nell Shipman Productions

Nell Shipman Productions was created in partnership with actor Bert Van Tuyle in 1919. Shipman established herself as an independent producer during this time. She focused on the major themes she enjoyed: wild animals, nature, feminist heroes, and filming on location. She produced, wrote, co-directed and starred in The Girl From God’s Country (1921) and The Grub Stake (1923). Neither film is considered a success garnering nowhere near the amount of attention that God's Country and the Woman and Back to God's Country did.

She transported her zoo of animals on barges up to Priest Lake, Idaho, where she made several short films at Lion Head Lodge. One of the films made there was called The Grub Stake (1923). It cost around $180,000 to produce.[1] The film was never distributed, because the American distributor went bankrupt and during the subsequent litigation, the film became tied up in the legal proceedings.[5] Shipman and Van Tuyle edited The Grub Stake through late autumn 1922, while dodging unpaid actors and process servers, including one representing the zoo’s original owner, for missing payments. Family silver, furniture, a car, and bank accounts were taken or attached. However, Shipman and Van Tuyle managed to send a tinted and toned screening print to New York where they recut it.[10]

In an unfortunate series of events Van Tuyle became more and more unstable and locals started killing Shipman's animals. On top of that Shipman and Van Tuyle got lost in the wild for two days during a violent snow storm in January 1924. They encountered and were saved by two brothers, Joseph and Fred Gumaer.

In 1925, Shipman's company went bankrupt.[16] In total, they produced ten films.[5]

Cultural legacy


Year Title Role Ref.
1913 The Ball of Yarn Screenwriter, actress [8]
1913 One Hundred Years of Mormonism Screenwriter [8]
1914 Outwitted By Billy Screenwriter, director [8]
1915 Under the Crescent Screenwriter
1915 The Pine's Revenge Screenwriter
1915 God's Country and the Woman Lead actress [5]
1916 The Fires of Conscience Actress
1916 Through the Wall Actress
1917 Baree, Son of Kazan Actress [5]
1917 The Black Wolf Actress
1917 My Fighting Gentleman Actress [5]
1918 The Girl from Beyond Actress
1918 The Home Trail Actress
1918 Cavanaugh of the Horse Rangers Actress [5]
1918 The Wild Strain Actress
1919 Back to God's Country Screenwriter, lead actress
1920 Trail of the Arrow Writer, producer, actress, director [5][8]
1920 Something New Writer, producer, actress, director [5][8]
1920 Saturday Off (renamed A Bear, A Baby, and a Dog) Writer, and producer [5]
1921 The Girl from God's Country Writer, actress
1923 The Grub-Stake Director, screenwriter, producer [5]
1924 White Water Writer, director, producer, and actress [8]
1935 Wings in the Dark Screenwriter [5]
1946 The Clam-Digger's Daughter/The Story of Mr Hobbes Producer, writer, producer [5][8]


  1. ^ a b c Trusky, Tom. "Nell Shipman." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013.  doi:10.7916/d8-ymha-rg65
  2. ^ Armatage, Kay (January 2003). The Girl from God's Country : Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema. ISBN 9780802085429. Retrieved March 14, 2023.
  3. ^ "Ernest Shipman – Ten Percent Ernie"
  4. ^ a b Monroe, Dawn E. "On The Job: Canadian Women of Achievement". Famous Canadian Women. Archived from the original on August 31, 2018.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Trusky, Tom (1988). "Nell Shipman: A Brief Biography". Griffithiana: 252–258 – via ProQuest.
  6. ^ a b Foster, Annette (2017). Women in the Silent Cinema : Histories of Fame and Fate. Amsterdam University Press.
  7. ^ D.J. Turner, "Who was Nell Shipman and why is everyone talking about her?", The Archivist No. 110 (1995,) Magazine of the National Archives of Canada.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Armatage, Kay (2003). The girl from God's country: Nell Shipman and the silent cinema. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, University Of Toronto Press - M.U.A.
  9. ^ "Gale - Product Login". Retrieved March 14, 2023.
  10. ^ a b "Nell Shipman – Women Film Pioneers Project". Retrieved March 14, 2023.
  11. ^ The Silent Screen & My Talking Heart, by Nell Shipman and ed. by Tom Trusky, Hemingway Western Studies Series (1987)
  12. ^ Amirkhanian, Ani (April 7, 2008). "Exhibit details deadly 1918 flu pandemic". Glendale News-Press. Retrieved March 14, 2023.
  13. ^ The Light on Her Face, Joseph Walker, ASC and Juanita Walker, (The ASC Press, 1984), pp.88–107.
  14. ^ Moving Picture World, July 24, 1920
  15. ^ Smith, Judith. "Nell Shipman: Girl Wonder from God's Country". Cinema Canada: 35–38.
  16. ^ "Nell Shipman". Canadian Film Encyclopedia.
  17. ^ a b York, Lorraine; Lee, Katja (2016). Celebrity Cultures in Canada. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. pp. 19–35.
  18. ^ Grace, Sherill (Spring 2002). "Creating the Girl from God's Country: From Nell Shipman to Sharon Pollock". Canadian Literature: 92.
  19. ^ Proctor, David (October 6, 1995). "Atlakson's new film is all about listening". The Idaho Statesman. p. 37. Retrieved September 6, 2023 – via


Further reading