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Meet Nell Shipman, 'Girl from God's Country' and Silent Film Pioneer Who Fled Hollywood for Idaho (VIDEO)

Photo of Ryan Lattanzio By Ryan Lattanzio | TOH! April 7, 2014 at 5:13PM

It was 1920 when Nell Shipman, a silent film starlet and screenwriter from Canada who broke into Hollywood as a teenager, packed up her 10 year-old son, director-lover and 70 abused animal actors and left Tinseltown for the Idaho wilds. Boise-based filmmaker Karen Day is now working a new documentary, "Nell Shipman: Girl from God's Country," about this intriguing tale of a woman, lost to history, who worked outside the studio system -- while making waves on the inside.
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Nell Shipman
Nell Shipman

It was 1920 when Nell Shipman, a silent film starlet and screenwriter from Canada who broke into Hollywood as a teenager, packed up her 10 year-old son, director-lover and 70 abused animal actors and left Tinseltown for the Idaho wilds. Boise-based filmmaker Karen Day is now working a new documentary, "Nell Shipman: Girl from God's Country," about this intriguing tale of a woman, lost to history, who worked outside the studio system -- while making waves on the inside.

Here's a bit of history about Shipman:

Nell Shipman
Nell Shipman

During Shipman’s time in the remotely beautiful but harsh wilderness of Priest Lake in northern Idaho, she wrote, directed and starred in 25 silent films, sharing billing with her bears, wolves and sled dogs.  She embodied the first action-adventure heroine performing her own death-defying stunts while shooting on-location films like "Back to God's Country," "The Girl from God's Country" and "The Grubstake." 

Financing for these independent films came from "angel backers" and Shipman was often traveling the 32 miles of frozen lake by sled-dog, and then, in a second-class  train seat, to Spokane, Seattle and beyond, ever-spinning gold from her prolific film dreams and empty pockets.

She was the first of her kind, a female independent filmmaker. Her storylines of self-reliant women overcoming physical challenges in the wilderness and often, rescuing the male lead, shattered the predictable cinematic formulas of large studio productions. 

Director Day has been hard at work on a Kickstarter campaign for the film, with a goal of $26,000 and 12 days to go. A ten-minute teaser reel of the film, with footage from the Shipman archive, screened in March at a lavish party at the Sun Valley Film Festival in Idaho.

Among backers for "Girl from God's Country" is Idaho First Lady Lori Otter, who noted "Nell's story is important for women in film and also for Idaho, which has always been home to those who value freedom and adventure." The Toronto Chapter of ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists) will hold a gala in May to honor a high-profile female producer and have decided to name the award after Shipman. Karen Day will present and speak about the film, which has been picking up news buzz in Idaho.

More about the doc here. Watch the nine-minute trailer below. Watch Shipman's 1919 "Back to God's Country" in full here.

This article is related to: News, Kickstarter , Silent film, Sun Valley, Sun Valley Film Festival


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.