In Honour of International Women’s Day: Remembering Film Pioneer Nell Shipman

just nell

“Surely not many a silver screen star can write, produce and slice her own nitrate. I take pride in my skills but without a distribution deal, these talents remain ‘in the can’, as we say – invisible, worthless. Tomorrow the studio heads will wave their magic wands of approval – or not. I believe we have good prospects if I can dodge the (creditors) by the fire escape one more day. (…) There are so many stories yet to be told and sold in our future. Tomorrow. Thank God, there is tomorrow.” – Nell Shipman

One hundred years ago, before Wall Street moved in and before the domination of the large studio system, women ruled Hollywood: in front of and behind the scenes, they wrote the stories, shot the scenes, managed production budgets and dreamed up the publicity scenarios that turned everyday shop girls into superstars. One of the most fearless of these early film pioneers was Nell Shipman, a Canadian born director, actress (who performed all of her own stunts!), producer, screenwriter, novelist and animal rights activist and trainer. I recently discovered Nell during a midnight screening of Back to God’s Country (1919), an action-adventure blockbuster that she both wrote and starred in. I was equal parts surprised, delighted and enchanted by Nell’s earthy sensuality (her infamous skinny-dipping scene is more joyful than salacious) and the feminist tone of the film (her character – a woman surviving in the harsh Canadian wilderness – is no damsel in distress but rather a defiant dame).  The thoughtful portrayal and gentle handling of the many animals in the film is also refreshing; at a time when most other nature filmmakers were as likely to shoot animals as they were to film them, Nell Shipman emphatically advocated for the humane treatment of animals in movies and spoke out against animal cruelty.

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Virginia Rappe: The Self-Made Woman behind the Man-Made Rumors

Dear Virginia

Written by Heather Babcock, 2019

“Be original – every girl can be that.” – Virginia Rappe

 It was Labor Day, 1921. The beloved on-screen comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was throwing a gin-soaked party in his San Francisco hotel room when one of his guests, the comely starlet Virginia Rappe, fell seriously ill. Four days later Virginia was dead, Arbuckle stood accused of her murder and the flourishing movie industry would never be the same.

Although we may never truly know what happened in room 1219 on that fateful Monday, it is now widely believed that is was peritonitis, and not Arbuckle, which led to Rappe’s death. In spite of this, many myths regarding the tragedy still exist today with the most egregious centered on Virginia. Over the decades, she has been painted by both the press and Arbuckle’s numerous biographers as either a spotless angel or a dirty harlot, depending on whether the writer wishes to vilify or exonerate Roscoe. Usually it’s the latter. One of the most persistent – and vicious – myths is that Virginia’s supposed promiscuity led to Mack Sennett having to fumigate Keystone Studios for crabs (not surprisingly this rumor originated from that tome of trash Hollywood Babylon). Never mind that Virginia never even worked for Keystone nor was she ever afflicted with louse, the rumor (and slut-shaming) endures.

Thankfully Virginia Rappe has finally found a friend in Greg Merritt, a biographer who doesn’t believe that the only way to prove Arbuckle’s innocence is to slander Rappe.  In his extremely well researched and thoughtful 2013 true crime biography Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood, Merritt debunks many of the myths surrounding the Arbuckle scandal (including the aforementioned Keystone crabs rumor). As he searches for the truth of what actually happened in that hotel room on September 5th, 1921, Merritt treats both Arbuckle and Rappe with empathy and compassion but it is his chapter on Virginia’s life which brings to light the human behind the headlines.

Here is some of what I learned about Virginia Rappe from reading Greg Merritt’s book:

Supermodel, You Better Work:

 Born out of wedlock to a teenage mother in 1891 and orphaned at the age of eleven, Virginia changed her last name from “Rapp” to the French sounding “Rappe” (pronounced “Rap-pay”) and began modelling when she was sixteen years old (this was during the high fashion industry’s infancy stage; Virginia’s modelling career started in 1907 and the first reported runway show was only in 1904). In 1913, Virginia toured the United States and Europe as a full-time model at a reported salary of $4000 (Over $100,000 in today’s currency).

Independent Woman:

 In 1911, Virginia and two of her close girlfriends made a pact never to marry. A proud feminist, Virginia wore a black tuxedo coat in a magazine photo: “Equal Clothes Rights with Men!” read the accompanying text. The model turned media maven gave career advice in press interviews, encouraging young women to become self-employed and financially independent.

Making Headlines – and Hemlines:

 Adept at self-promotion and publicity, Virginia Rappe knew how to make both headlines and hemlines: in 1914, she became a fashion designer, marketing her designs at the 1915 World’s Fair. Her creations included the “spider web hat”, an airplane shaped hat and even a “submarine hat”. An outspoken pacifist, a design which may have been especially close to Virginia’s heart was her “peace hat”, a cap which was molded in the shape of two dove wings.

In a newspaper article at the time, Virginia Rappe was praised as “a young woman who has lifted fashion designing to the plane of fine art.”

After her death, Virginia’s extraordinary accomplishments fell into the shadows. I guess “feminist fashion designer” just doesn’t have the same salacious pull as “fresh young starlet”.

“In most accounts of the case, she (Virginia) is diminished to a bit part, as if it was not her tragedy,” writes Greg Merritt in Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood.

 His book gives Virginia the respect she is long overdue.

Source: Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood by Greg Merritt, 2013, Chicago Review Press Incorporated.



Good Golly, Miss Mabel!


On Saturday April 6th, I attended “1000 Laffs: When Stan Met Ollie”at the Revue theater, as part of the Toronto Silent Film Festival. The event, with wonderful live accompaniment by Jordan Klapman, showcased five silent comedies featuring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in the years before they became the beloved duo “Laurel and Hardy”.

The theater was jam packed (so much so that my partner and I had to take the “rubberneck” seats at the front) and I was pleasantly surprised to see many children in attendance. Today’s filmmakers have such little faith in children that they bombard modern “family” flicks with adult music, crude humor and eyeball blasting CGI. The obvious delight that the kids in attendance on Saturday had for these classic silent comedies (one of which was over a hundred years old) speaks to the timeless appeal of a more simplistic and human approach to storytelling.

With all due respect to the great Laurel and Hardy, the real star of the afternoon was Mabel Normand who got the biggest laughs as a sassy con-artist in Should Men Walk Home? (1927). Her charming performance is made all the more impressive by the fact that she was suffering from tuberculosis at the time (sadly, this would be one of her last screen appearances as she would succumb to the disease in early 1930). It is a shame that today Normand is best remembered for her doomed relationships with Mack Sennett and William Desmond Taylor, for in addition to being a captivating comedian, Normand was also an accomplished screenwriter, producer and director.

In the excellent 1979 book Hollywood: The Pioneers, author Kevin Brownlow writes of an incident on the Keystone Studios lot which gives us a taste of the misogyny that Normand was up against:

While working at Keystone, Normand was assigned to direct Charlie Chaplin who, according to Brownlow, was physically attracted to Mabel but “refused to acknowledge her competence.” When Normand rejected one of Chaplin’s gag ideas due to time constraints, Chaplin, Brownlow writes “refused to play the scene, and sat on the curb in a sulk.” (Source: Hollywood: The Pioneers (1979) by Kevin Brownlow and John Kobal, p. 143, Chapter 14).

The 1992 biopic Chaplin recreates this event but further disrespects Mabel by portraying her as a humorless nag instead of the professional that she was.

One of the true pioneers of the film industry, Mabel Normand deserves to be remembered for much more than her romantic relationships. And that’s no laughing matter.

By Heather Babcock, 2019