Nell Shipman was a true pioneer, and not just in screen nudity.
A movie star who started writing her own scenarios, she wound up starring, writing, directing, producing and training the animals for her wilderness epics, climaxing with Alaskan Gold Rush adventure The Grub-Stake in 1923. Genuinely suspenseful and exciting, this northern western is also by turns silly, romantic, spectacular and moving: the total entertainment package.
Unfortunately, Shipman and her co-director fell afoul of the industry when she denounced distributors who recut one of her previous films, and they found themselves frozen out of the business. Their little Spokane-based studio, with its own private zoo, moved to Idaho but ceased production in 1926.
But for a while there they were really trailblazing. Shipman begins The Grub-Stake as a laundress / artist's model, appearing swathed in gauze as she poses for eager sketchers. This seems like a cheeky reference to one of her previous claims to fame, appearing nude in Back to God's Country, an industry first in 1919. The impoverished character then proceeds to sell her voluminous hair to a wigmaker, enabling Shipman to ditch the huge wig she's been acting from under, revealing shorter tresses still growing back after a bout of Spanish influenza in 1918.
A perfidious man then promises to pay Nell's way to Alaska and marry her, but he's really intending to make her a prostitute, a fact she recognizes when the populace of the Klondyke saloon break into a racy tango (missing from some prints). Nobody's fool, Nell steals the dog team she'd been promised and takes off into the wilderness with her invalid father and Malamute Mike, a deranged old prospector who trails an empty dog leash which he believes still attaches to his faithful hound, long deceased. Perhaps not the hardiest team.
Nell gets lost but discovers a hidden valley, bursting with gold and full of friendly animals, drawn from Shipman's private menagerie. The bear, porcupines, cougar and skunks reappear in several Shipman wilderness adventures, and the plucky star shares screen time with all.
Shipman's aim, she recalled, had been to focus on character and emotion more in this film, but plot has a way of infecting everything, and the last act of the drama is a breathless rush of chases, fights, shoot-outs, escapes and a literal cliff-hanger, along with miraculous resurrections (even the long-lost dog is alive, after all) and stern western justice for the bad guys. Not quite the psychological study Shipman had been planning, perhaps, but a more benign version of the Griffith-style suspense drama, with strong female characters (Dawson Kate, "hard-boiled he-woman," may not be described in terms we'd approve today, but she's an appealing old broad) and a genuine, if romanticized love of the great outdoors.
Thanks to Pamela Hutchinson, Jane Gardner and Hippodrome Silent Film Festival.