Nell Shipman: One Woman in Her Time Plays Many Parts

By Mackay, Robin | Queen's Quarterly, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Nell Shipman: One Woman in Her Time Plays Many Parts


Mackay, Robin, Queen's Quarterly


It is entirely coincidental that two remarkable Canadian film pioneers--Helen Foster Barham and Gladys Louise Smith--were both born in 1892. Ms Barham, later known as Nell Shipman, has largely, and unjustly, been forgotten, and this article is, in part, an attempt to redress that injustice. Ms Smith, later known as Mary Pickford, needs no one to promote her, as she became "America's Sweetheart," the biggest star of the silent movies. Not only was Mary Pickford a star in front of the camera, but she was also a shrewd businesswoman behind it, ensuring her influence at the heart of the movie industry in a way Nell Shipman never could. While their places in film history differ, these women combined two notable aspects of the early movie industry: the prominent place of women and of Canadians.

IT is not entirely coincidental that Nell Shipman and Mary Pickford can be said to have grown up alongside the new phenomenon called the movies. The Lumiere brothers first showed a connected series of moving pictures to a public audience in 1895. La Sortie des ouvriers de l'usine Lumiere (1895) is 46 seconds of exactly what the title promises--workers walking out of the Lumiere brothers' factory. Twenty-five years later, 46 seconds had stretched to hour-long features, and both Nell Shipman and Mary Pickford defined the whole new profession of movie star.

The early days of the medium we now call film or cinema were exciting for participants like Nell Shipman and audiences alike in that, as in any new medium, the rules had not yet been laid down. Almost every film was a "first" of some kind, introducing audiences to new actors, new directors, and new stories. Much of the wilds of Canada that Ms Shipman put on film would never otherwise have been seen by her audiences, especially in an age before mass travel. As the art form most dependent upon technology, film led to expansions in the way we could see the world, such as split screens to see simultaneous action from different places and special effects to see marvels like space travel, as depicted in the 1902 film Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) by the French illusionist and film director Georges Mefies (1861-1938).

AS a brand-new artistic field, film was open to people with talent and ideas, including many Canadians like Nell Shipman and Mary Pickford. The first permanent movie studio in Hollywood--Nestor Film Company, founded in 1911--was managed by Canadian-born Alfred Christie (1881-1951). Cobourg-born Marie Dressier (1868-1934) was a leading comedienne of the silent era, starring in the first feature-length comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance, in 1914. This film was directed by another Canadian, Michael "Mack" Sennett (1880-1960), who founded the Keystone Studio in 1912 and added "Keystone Kops" to the English language. Norma Shearer (1902-1983) from Montreal became the "First Lady of MGM" and successfully made the transition from silent to sound movies as a modern, free-thinking woman in pictures such as The Divorcee (1930). Her boss at MGM, Louis B. Mayer (1884-1957), grew up in poverty and abuse in Saint John, New Brunswick, but went on to run the grandest dream factory of them all, called the "Tiffany of studios," saying he wanted to make beautiful pictures about beautiful people. Fellow Canadian Jack L. Warner (1892-1978) co-founded the much grittier Warner Brothers in 1923 and helped end the silent film era with the release of the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized sound, The Jazz Singer, in 1927.

Early film-making was also open to female writers, directors, and producers in a way it never has been since. The first narrative film is often credited to a woman named Alice Guy-Blache (1873-1968) who wrote, directed, and starred in La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) in 1896. While historians argue about the actual date of the film and its relationship to other narrative films of the time, there can be no argument that Alice Guy-Blache was a force in the early movie industry, co-founding her own production firm--Solax Film Company--in 1910. …

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