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

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“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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Forgotten Her-stories: Pioneer Women Filmmakers

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(Pictured at top: Director, actress, screenwriter & comic genius Mabel Normand)

“Not only is a woman as well fitted to stage photo-drama as a man, but in many ways she has a distinct advantage over him because of her very nature.” – Alice Guy-Blaché

When you hear the words “movie director” what do you immediately picture? Someone in sunglasses and a flat-cap barking out orders into a megaphone? Whatever you envision, it’s probably a man and he’s probably white. Yet many of the pioneers of film-making – the very people who carved the way for the movies that we watch today – were women and people of color.  In fact the first narrative film, La Fée aux Choux (1896) – also known in English as The Cabbage Fairy – was directed by a French woman named Alice Guy-Blaché. Comb through film history books however, and you’ll find chapter upon chapter devoted to Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith but you’ll be lucky to find a sentence, let alone a paragraph, about Guy-Blaché or Mabel Normand, the woman who taught Chaplin how to direct film comedy, or Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, whose anti-lynching drama Within Our Gates (1920) remains as vital and important today as it was upon its release. It’s doubtful you’ll find a chapter in those history books devoted to Marion E. Wong, who established the Mandarin Film Company in 1916 in Oakland, California and who wrote and directed The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West (1916/1917), the first American feature length film with an all Asian-American cast.  Nell Shipman, the Canadian screenwriter/director and actress who performed all of her own stunts, is also MIA from the pages of most film history books.

Racism, misogyny, economics, the advent of sound and the domination of the big studio system all played a role in erasing the work of many of these pioneers, who may have lacked the finances needed to preserve their films and who – unlike Chaplin and Griffith – did not have access to, or the help of, the mainstream media to promote their legacies.

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