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.
By the time the Roaring Twenties dawned, D.W. Griffith was well-established as a Filmmaker of Renown. Rising to acclaim with his Biograph shorts and becoming an industry giant with his epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), he reached new heights of artistry with Broken Blossoms (1919) and even managed to transform an old-fashioned stage melodrama into the mega-hit Way Down East (1920). With a new decade before him and the ever-changing film industry gaining new directors and stars every day, he must’ve wondered how to keep up the pace. What should his next big project be? Could he keep that level of acclaim high?
Reportedly at Lillian Gish’s suggestion, Griffith decided to adapt another old-fashioned stage melodrama to the big screen: The Two Orphans, about the plight of two sisters who are separated in 18th century Paris. In keeping with his love for the Epic and Emotional, he shifted the setting to the violent heart of the French Revolution.
Was it a success? It was respectably well-recieved at the time, but doesn’t seem to have made much of a splash. Watching it today with Griffith’s other Epic Emotional films in mind, I think I can see why. And yet…I find myself popping it into my Blu-ray player at least once a year.