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.

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