Frostbite And Ice: Nell Shipman’s Hair-Raising Adventures In The Great White North

There are many legendary behind-the-scenes tales from early cinema, an era of dangerous stunts performed with the faintest shrugs at safety measures, and of stubborn trekking to remote location shoots where risk of frostbite–or heatstroke–or severe storms–was de rigueur. Authenticity was king, to the point of mania. Von Stroheim famously insisted on filming a pivotal scene from Greed (1924) in Death Valley, when temps soared to 120. Buster Keaton nearly drowned in a swift-moving river while shooting a sequence for Our Hospitality (1923). And the stories behind the difficult shoot of Ben-Hur (1925) could fill a whole article by themselves.

Nell Shipman’s adventures filming in the Canadian wilderness are a lesser-known but equally fascinating saga from early film history. A native of British Columbia, Shipman was a theater actress who was also passionate about animal welfare. She married Ernest Shipman when she was 18 (they would have a son named Barry), and they would move to Hollywood where Nell would write scripts and act for companies like Selig and Vitagraph. Having an adventurous spirit, Nell wanted to star in wintery adventure-themed films set in the “great white North” of the Canadian wilderness. Accordingly, Ernest set up the Canadian Photoplays Ltd. company in 1919 and they would trek to remote areas of Alberta to work on Nell’s film Back to God’s Country (1919)–notable today for being Canada’s biggest silent box office hit.

The shoot for Back to God’s Country was fairly brief–about two weeks–but it was a grueling experience. The location was a tiny settlement by the ice-covered Lesser Slave Lake (a great candidate for “Most Depressing Lake Name”), 150 miles north of Edmonton, composed mainly of a few fishermen’s cabins with dirt floors and a dining hall. Nell recalled temps would drop to a bone-chilling 50 below zero, making it necessary to keep the cameras outdoors so temperature changes wouldn’t cause static.

Nell and crew, including her son Barry.

The cold affected far more than the cameras. The leading man, Ronald Byram, developed pneumonia and was soon too ill to continue. Director Bert Van Tuyle (nicknamed “Dirk”), got a severe case of frostbite on his right foot while working outside one night. The scene in question was a getaway involving a dogsled team, with the lighting provided by flares. Nell recalled:

Dirk felt his foot growing numb and wondered but, keen to get the scene at any cost, he did not complain. Hours after, taking off his boots in the warm bunkhouse, he saw the puffy, white-fleshed toes and almost yelled with pain when he touched them…The pain, Dirk admitted, was excruciating but his thoughts–all their thoughts, in fact–were on [Ronald Byram], tossing in his bunk and feverishly asking to be taken home.

The night shoot conditions.

Van Tuyle would head south to the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco to let his frostbite heal, and cinematographer Joseph Walker remembered him asking the bellhops to bring a washtub, kerosene, liquor, and cigarettes and proceeding “to soak, smoke and get soaked.” This “cure” only did so much, however, and he eventually had to have three toes amputated. The unfortunate Byram fared even worse, passing away from his pneumonia on April 17, 1919. He had only appeared in a handful of films.

At the very least, Back to God’s Country) earned back its costs several times over, enabling Nell to continue making films. But this work would be done sans Ernest, their marriage ending in divorce thanks to Nell having an affair with Van Tuyle. In 1922 she decided to move her company to the northern Idaho wilderness by Priest Lake, remote enough for an effective rustic atmosphere while still being decently close to Spokane. By this time she also had an impressive menagerie of animals, including dogs, raccoons, wolves, eagles bears, cougars, and horses, which she often used in her films–they were also carted up to Priest Lake, much to the locals’ amusement.

Nell and one of her bears.

Their stay was fairly idyllic at first, but by winter there came a frightening event that seemed to come straight from one of Nell’s own movies. Van Tuyle’s foot–still bothering him all that time later–developed gangrene, and the pain and fever finally brought on insanity. One day Nell found him outside in the snow, harnessing their dog team to go nowhere in particular. She recalled, “It was then that I saw his eyes and realized that the worst had happened. He seemed to hate me. I was some terrible creature who had kept him suffering and was even now executing a fiendish dance of glee over his condition.”

A portion of wintery Priest Lake as it looks today (it’s about 19 miles long).

The delirious Van Tuyle started driving across the frozen Priest Lake, with Nell pursuing him on snowshoes on the two-foot layer of snow. Eventually the sled got stuck in heavy slush. Van Tuyle abandoned it and kept going, feverishly dragging along his infected foot as Nell freed the sled and kept after him. The surreal chase on the vast white expanse of the lake ended up lasting for hours, Van Tuyle refusing to stop until, exhausted at last, he collapsed into the snow.

Fortunately a member of Nell’s crew had sent out word that help was needed, and they were found by the logger Joe Gumaer. He and Nell got Van Tuyle onto the sled and over to a nearby cabin, where they spent the night. The next day they were faced with another harrowing journey across the lake, with Van Tuyle clearly needing hospitalization as soon as possible. Gumaer’s brother Fred came along to assist them, and fortunately so. The three of them managed to find an area of the lake with open water and were able to commandeer a boat, but as Nell later wrote:

Since my up-lake trip such a short time before, the bay ice had extended a good two miles and we were up against it. At first it was just a thin, crackly sheet, which we ploughed through and ignored. Then it grew more solidly and we turned frantically–a half-mile to the left–a mile to the right–hoping for a channel. But there was none.

Another icy view of the lake.

Using the boat’s oars to hack at the ice, they slowly broke their way through bit by bit until they were a few hundred yards from a shoreline. Near exhaustion, Nell got out of the boat and managed to fight her way through the slush until she reached the town of Coolin on the shore, asking the locals for help before collapsing. Although a thick fog had descended on the lake, the Gumaer brothers and Van Tuyle were soon found and Van Tuyle was taken to a hospital, where the long-overdue toe amputations took place.

Amazingly–but rather typically for the “well, we aren’t dead yet” era of silent filmmaking–Van Tuyle would return to Priest Lake to continue making films. But the drama of filming in the great white North didn’t end there, this time for personal rather than frost-related reasons. At a party at a lodge in 1925, Nell was dancing with a man who had travelled to Priest Lake in hopes of joining her crew. As she recalled, Van Tuyle became very jealous and burst into the room with a rifle. Nell, clad in an evening gown, promptly walked out of the lodge into the night and to the icy lake, heading for a stretch of open water. Her son Barry–just a kid at the time–ran after her and managed to stop her from drowning himself.

This ended Nell and Van Tuyle’s relationship, of course, and Nell remained at Priest Lake to try and continue making films. But this, too, would end when word got out in the newspapers that her animals were beginning to starve. Whether this was truly from neglect (or low funds) or the effects of the harsh winter is hard to say. She denied the charges, but her funding disappeared, her animals were taken away and distributed among locals and the San Diego zoo, and she would never quite regain her former status. It was a rather quiet coda to a singular career, from an era when “filmmaking” and “adventure” often went hand in hand–in spite of the weather.


Armatage, Kay. The Girl From God’s Country: Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema. University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Oakley, Glenn. “Silver Girl.” FOCUS, Boise State University Office of New Services, Vol. XII, no. 2 (1987).

Trusky, Tom. “Nell Shipman.”

11 thoughts on “Frostbite And Ice: Nell Shipman’s Hair-Raising Adventures In The Great White North

  1. I had no idea how tragic Nell Shipman’s career was in the end! I’ve only seen two of her films: Back to God’s Country and the weirdness that is Something New. I admire her work but dang– I wouldn’t want to have any of those experiences making the films!!

    People really don’t get how hardcore silent era filmmaking could be!

    • Minnesota winters get some below zero days, the coldest temp I remember in my area was 28 below zero a few years ago. The idea of working in 60 below conditions is staggering to me, I’m surprised more crewmembers didn’t end up with frostbite!

  2. Tragic? How so? Hollywood careers for actors and film makers are brief for all but a lucky few. Shipman was lucky in that she lived the life she wanted. She made a blockbuster film. She’s renowned by Canadians. She had her own production companies. She was a published writer all of her life. Her son became a successful screenwriter. All of the films she made have been preserved and are available on dvd. And because her films starring herself exist, she too exists long after her death, giving her the gift of cinema immortality.

    Another Shipman film, ‘Something New,’ has a long and hilarious scene of a roadster whizzing 90 mph over and around boulders and arroyos in the Mexico desert that outdoes Sennett’s to-the-rescue comedies. No frostbite, amputated toes or insanity in this giddy film.

      • Yes, it was SAD.

        I’ll read Shipman’s autobiography and find out the reasons her career as a film maker ended. But then, most silent film actors and directors in the free-wheeling silent era were unsuccessful transitioning to talkies. Most likely, she was unable to adjust to the iron grip of the studio system, which included being supervised by a producer who had the power to make artistic decisions.

        One of the few producer-directors to make the transition and thrive in the studio system was C.B. DeMille. He had left Paramount to become an independent producer, but the problems were such that he threw in the towel. United Artists was an option, but he chose to return to Paramount. Due to the enormous success of his high-budget films, he obtained independence within the studio system. His film career, which began in 1913 (about the same time as Shipman’s), ended in 1958, an amazing 45 years!

  3. Didn’t notice that you wrote ‘tragic’ but did notice a commenter used this much overused and abused word and felt obliged to respond. Some say John Gilbert had a tragic end, or Jack Pickford, or von Stroheim and Griffith having their directing careers cut short by penny-pinching studios, or Keaton being mishandled by MGM, or that 90% of silent films are lost forever, and so on.

    I’m uncertain exactly what situations ‘tragic’ can be applied to. That subject would make an interesting future article. You’re an outstanding researcher and writer and because of this article of yours I searched through Wid’s Film Daily on the archive and found reviews of her films ‘The Grubstake’ ‘Back to God’s Country’ and ‘The Girl From God’s Country,’ all 3 highly praised. And they’re not tragically lost. They’re on youtube, as is ‘Something New.’

    • I’m going to see if I can review Back to God’s Country soon, perhaps before Christmas if I play my cards right but we will see…!

      IMO, there’s something a bit tragic about losing not just all your funding but also your entire personal zoo of animals. Shipman apparently had around 200! In retrospect trekking them all up to northern Idaho probably wasn’t a great idea, of course.

  4. Meriam Webster defines TRAGIC as unfortunate; of a kind to cause great distress. IMO none of MWs synonyms mean TRAGIC. Surprised that TOO BAD didn’t make it onto the following list: SAD…heartbreaking…regrettable…disturbing…disastrous…lamentable…
    UNLUCKY…heartrending …distressful…dreadful…poignant…traumatic

    I suspect TRAGIC has to do with someone’s actions resulting in destructive consequences to not only oneself but to others as well. For this reason, the story of King Lear is considered to be a TRAGEDY and King Lear a TRAGIC character.

    Thanks for getting me to think about this, even though it is ‘off topic.’

  5. Pingback: It’s Silent-ology’s 9th Anniversary! | Silent-ology

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