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Back to God's Country, directed by David M. Hartford

Ernest Shipman

Ernest Shipman (entrepreneur, film producer, promoter), nicknamed “Ten Percent Ernie” for his ten percent cut of any scheme he was involved in, was born 16 December 1877. His place of birth is not definite, having been reported to be Hull, Quebec, Ottawa, Ontario, or Shipman’s Mills, Ontario (later known as the town of Almonte, just outside of Ottawa). Following the success of his most well-known film, the silent Back to God’s Country (1919), Shipman became the most influential figure of Canada’s early independent cinema. Despite this, he died in obscurity on 7 August 1931 in New York City.

Shipman’s business model was to establish film studios in Canadian cities, produce a few films through each studio, and then move on, sometimes without paying investors. He always managed to obtain the trust of new investors, displaying an innate charm and cunning that made him ideal for entertainment promotion and production. Indeed, he was a man prone to exaggerated self-promotion, even with planted news stories. He often made grandiose, eccentric claims and predictions about the future of film that many saw as too good to be true. Whether he was an opportunist or someone who genuinely wished to pioneer a successful and flourishing independent film industry in Canada is debated among scholars. As Peter Morris puts it, “It is difficult in retrospect to decide whether Ernest Shipman was a rogue or a genius. Perhaps like all great entrepreneurs, he was a little bit of both” (Morris, Embattled Shadows 95).

 

Shipman attended school in Toronto, where he developed an interest in promotion and publicity. By age twenty-six, he was the director of the Canadian Entertainment Bureau in Toronto, and, soon after, he became the president and general manager of the Amalgamated Amusement Company of New York. In that role, he put on a wide variety of successful stage shows in Canada – his favorite being Shakespeare plays, for he did not have to pay royalties (Morris, Embattled Shadows 99). During his time as a stage show producer and promoter, Shipman met his fourth wife, Helen Barham, who would soon become known as actress, director, and writer Nell Shipman. They met in 1910 when she was eighteen (he was thirty-nine), and they were married a year later. Their marriage and ensuing business partnership lasted until 1920 (Embattled Shadows 100).

 

By 1912, theatre and vaudeville shows were in decline, resulting in Shipman’s bankruptcy. However, he realized he could use his promotional skills in the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Hollywood, where film was beginning to take off. He convinced a retired army officer to finance his first film, The Ball of Yarn (1912), written by and starring his wife Nell. The film was so bad that Shipman never showed it publicly. This setback, though, did not deter him, but speeded the formation of his company, the Five Continent Exchange, which sought the rights to well-known novels (Embattled Shadows 101).

 

For the next few years, Shipman built his reputation as a publicist, promoting the films of a number of studios, including Universal. He also developed some extravagant ideas for film production, one of which was to create a “floating studio,” a ship of actors and film crew that would travel the world, producing films based on local novels set in “the exact location with which they deal” (Hoffman 34). Even though he claimed to have significant financial backing to make the “floating studio” a reality, it never came to fruition (Embattled Shadows 104). Yet the idea of filming novels in the locations where they were set informed his Canadian productions, beginning with Back to God’s Country in 1919.

 

Between 1919 and 1923, Shipman returned to Canada to produce seven feature films. It was a period dubbed “The Shipman Era” of Canadian film history (Clandfield 4). Back to God’s Country was the first and most successful of these seven films. The film was adapted to screen by Nell Shipman, who also starred in the film. Made on a budget of nearly $70,000, it was released across North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia to critical acclaim, earning nearly half a million dollars (Pendakur 51).

 

Shipman aimed for this kind of success with his next six films Cameron of the Royal Mounted (1921), The Rapids (1922), The Man from Glengarry (1922), The Grub Stake (1923), The Critical Age (1923), and Blue Water (unreleased). Following the same model of production as Back to God’s Country, he established a film studio in a major Canadian city, generated support and excitement, securing funds from local businesses and investors, and then imported experienced Canadian-born actors and crews from Hollywood. Avoiding Montreal and Toronto, where investors were more sceptical, he founded studios in Winnipeg, Sault Ste. Marie, Ottawa, Saint John, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island, where investors were quick to fund productions based on local stories. In an address to the Canadian Club in London, Ontario in 1923, Shipman summarized his production strategy as a commitment to Canada:

 

With me, the making of pictures in Canada first appealed as a business, then it became a hobby, now I might fairly say it is a religion. I welcome the opportunity of addressing myself to the Canadian Clubs, believing that I find here a perfect understanding from a movement founded for the purpose of quickening a Canadian national consciousness - the spirit which now finds expression not only in a new distinctive note in Canadian literature, but in a demand for Canadian-made motion pictures as real and free and wholesome as is Canadian life at its best. (qtd. in Moving Picture World 61, 274)

 

While most of the features made by Shipman after Back to God’s Country received mixed to warm reviews from critics, Blue Water, his one New Brunswick venture, was a total failure and was never released. Based on a novel of the same name by Nova Scotia author Frederick William Wallace, the film follows Bay of Fundy fisherman Jimmy Westhaver, a man who loves strong alcohol as much as he loves the sea. When his sweetheart leaves their home village forever, Jimmy is devastated. Yet a new woman, Norma Shearer, is “sent to him from the sea,” and with her Jimmy finds true love after almost wrecking his ship in a storm while drunk (Lewis, May 1923 468). New Brunswick Films, the studio created to produce the film, was incorporated on 23 August 1923 with $99,000 capital, heavy local support, and the province’s Lieutenant Governor and Premier as the company’s directors (Morris, Embattled Shadows 120). Production began in October 1923 in the village of Chance Harbour, Nova Scotia with promises of completion by mid November; however, production was still ongoing in December of that year (Lewis, Dec. 1923 11). Bay of Fundy weather stalled the production, and scenes on fishing boats and in the water were difficult because of the cold (Lewis 13). As a result, the production shifted to Florida, where the film was completed. Investors in Saint John lost everything they put into Blue Water and New Brunswick Films. The film was not distributed, but it was shown briefly in the Maritimes before being placed in a vault in New York for storage (Morris, Embattled Shadows 123). The failure of Blue Water marked the beginning of the end of Shipman’s film career. He attempted a number of other ventures in the United States, but none were successful. He died in 1931.

 

Even though his career was one marked by exaggerated claims, failed promises, and unreturned investments, he was an important pioneer in creating films based on Canadian stories, set within Canada, and staffed, when possible, by cast and crews made up of Canadians. With the passing of Shipman and the advent of American-based vertical integration of production and distribution in Hollywood, hopes for an independent Canadian film industry were diminished.

 

Justin T. LeClair, Fall 2015
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

 

Back to God's Country. Dir. David M. Hartford. Perf. Nell Shipman. Canadian Photoplays Ltd., Shipman-Curwood Company, 1919.

 

Blue Water. Dir. David Hartford. New Brunswick Films, Ltd., 1924.

 

Cameron of the Royal Mounted. Dir. Henry MacRae. Winnipeg Productions, 1921.

 

The Critical Age. Dir. Henry MacRae. Ottawa Film Productions, 1923.

 

The Grub Stake. Dir. Nell Shipman, Bert Van Tuyle. Perf. Nell Shipman. Nell Shipman Productions Inc., Sierra Pictures, 1923.

 

The Man from Glengarry. Dir. Henry MacRae. Ernest Shipman, 1922.

 

The Rapids. Dir. David Hartford. Perf. Mary Astor. Sault Ste. Marie Films, 1922.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

 

Clandfield, David. Canadian Film. Don Mills, ON: Oxford UP, 1987.


Hoffman, Hugh. “Ernest Shipman’s World Tour.” Moving Picture World 17 (July 1913): 34.

 

Lewis, Ray, comp. and ed. Canadian Moving Picture Digest 3 (May 1923): 468.

 

---. Canadian Moving Picture Digest 16 (Dec. 1923): 11-13.

 

Mitchell, M. “Ernest Shipman.” Motion (Nov. – Dec. 1972): 28-33.

 

Morris, Peter. “Canada’s First Movie Mogul.” Take One 1.1 (Sep. – Oct. 1966): 6-7.

 

---. Embattled Shadows: A History Of Canadian Cinema, 1895-1939. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1978.

 

Moving Picture World 61 (1923): 274.

 

Pendakur, Manjunath. Canadian Dreams and American Control: The Political Economy of the Canadian Film Industry. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990.