Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Grub-Stake (1923)

There is something irresistably modern about her. Watching her lithe, tall body run, and climb, and even fight, we might forget for a moment that she did these things a very long time ago. It is the silent movie, the sepia tint, the title cards, and the accompanying music that underscores the moods that remind us Nell Shipman was strictly Back in the Day. She could fit comfortably in the world today, except perhaps that she was a maverick who did not seem to aspire to fitting in.

Today we have a look at “The Grub-Stake” (1923), a silent film written, produced, and starring Nell Shipman. My copy comes courtesy of your friend and mine, John Hayes from Robert Frost’s Banjo. John and his wife, Eberle Umbach, wrote and performed the score for this 2006 restored version of Miss Shipman’s little known masterpiece.

Nell Shipman, who cut her teeth in vaudeville and traveling acting troupes, was a woman of intelligence, extraordinary creativity, and astonishing grit, who shook off the trappings (and shackles) of Hollywood to form her own production company when indie films, let alone indie films with a woman at the helm, were unusual. And she did her own stunts.

“The Grub-Stake, A Tale of the Klondike”, a long eight-reeler, takes our Nell, a kind-hearted but na├»ve girl, from a waterfront slum in the Pacific Northwest where she cares for her invalid father, The Skipper, played by Walt Whitman (no relation) as a laundress and bumbling Jill-of-all-Trades.

A sauve entrepreneur from Gold Rush country, played by Alfred Allen, comes down for supplies, and bestows upon her a “grub stake”, that is financial backing, to start herself up a laundry in the Klondike to serve what she hopes will be a busy clientele of gold prospectors in dirty clothes.

But oh, the tangled web of fate! This sauve fellow is a Wicked Man, who compromises her, marries her (though he is already married), and hies her away to the Alaskan mining town where he runs a dance hall.

He immediately puts his “wife” to work dancing with wealthy men. Nell, who has shucked her simple sailor dress for fancy duds, is shocked to learn from the crude saloon madam with the heart of gold, played by Lillian Leighton, that she has been lured here for unsavory activities, which indeed may lead to a Fate Worse than Death.

So to speak.

“Dumb as an oyster” her husband notes when he decides she is the perfect pigeon for his chicanery.

It takes her a little while longer to discover that her husband is also just about to have her poor old father murdered by his stereotyped sinister Chinese toady.

But, Nell, full of righteous indignation and a bucketload of terror, packs up The Skipper, a new friend who is the adle-pated saloon lush dragging an imaginary dog on a piece of rope, and heads for the hills in a dogsled (pulled by real dogs, not imaginary ones). In a snowstorm. Filmed on location in Idaho, we have real snow and ice, and real frostbite, as the “making of” documentary on this DVD can attest.

We are treated to several more reels of winter, in which Nells gets separated and wanders blindly in foul weather until she takes refuge in a bear’s den. The bear takes kindly to her, in fact, kisses her full on the mouth. There will be a love story, but not yet. Not with the bear. They’re just good friends, apperances notwithstanding. Oh sure, they sleep together, but you really should get your mind out of the gutter. It’s not like that.

Several weeks pass as winter turns to spring and some beautiful nature photography guides the story. Nell finds comfort among the critters of the woods, a sense of affection and peace as she had never felt in civilization. Nell Shipman kept her own zoo of critters for these wildlife scenes, and it has also been noted by film historians that she was an early proponent of humane treatment for animal actors.

But, trouble returns in the form of her evil husband, a rowdy gang of claim jumpers, a relentless Mountie, and her sprained ankle that just does not seem to want to heal. Fortunately for Nell, the saloon madam has a handsome artist son, played by Hugh Thompson, who also lives in the woods. Eventually, true loves conquers all (this time with the artist, who is almost as affectionate as the bear), but not before we get a final cliffhanger with Nell actually hanging off a cliff. Did I mention she does her own stunts?

Watching Nell Shipman is a treat, mainly because of that unusual unaffected quality of hers that seems to reasonate beyond the decades since the time this film was made. Where other female stars of her era were waif-like, she is big and athletic. Perhaps because she made the film herself, there is no turning her into a comic buffoon, which could easily happen in the studio system back down in Hollywood where “types” were plugged into the machine.

Miss Shipman defied the types of the day. Her shaggy, unruly bobbed haircut, and her wry, subtle expressions of humor alternating with utter innocence are an intriguing contrast to the typical exaggerated pantomime of the day. She moves with natural, unselfconsicous energy, unlike some of the more tableau-stances typical of actresses in silent films of the time. I would not say she is a better actress than someone like Lillian Gish or Greta Garbo, who were more studied and trained. She was not a better actress, but her very ease and naturalness are refreshing.

The use of a natural setting itself seems like a bold example of Nell Shipman’s escape from the Hollywood studio.

I especially enjoyed John’s and Eberle’s score for this restored film, which follows the moods and conscience of the characters, and especially of the real woman at the helm. It must have been a fascinating process, interpreting not only the dramatic moods of the film as vingettes in music, but to try to relate the emotional and psychological regeneration of the Nell's character when she encounters nature.  In a sense, a musical score written for a silent film is rather like another script for the entire plot.

Can’t get enough plunking on a toy piano, for my money. For more on their participation in this, and in another of Nell Shipman’s films, have a look at John’s description here, and also here. John also gives a good bit of background on Miss Shipman’s career.

“The Grub-Stake” is third in a three-volume DVD series of Shipman’s films available at the Boise State University bookstore. Here’s a link to get your copy. Extras on this particular DVD include an interesting documentary on the making of “The Grub-Stake”, and another brief bio narrated by Nell Shipman’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter.

When “The Grub-Stake” was released, it received initial praise and brief success, until the distributing company suddenly failed and went out of business. This pulled the plug on Nell Shipman’s silent film career. It took many decades and the efforts of determined people like Tom Trusky of the Idaho Film Commission, research and restoration staff, including the likes of John and Eberle, to revive her masterpiece and share it with us.

My thanks to all of them for their efforts, and especially to John for sending me this very special DVD.


Unknown said...

Wow--many thanks for this great review. I wish Tom Trusky were still around to have seen it (he passed away last fall). You really get Nell, & Eberle & I so appreciate you spreading the word about her. Also very glad you liked the score. Funny--Tom Trusky loved the toy piano too! Thanks again!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

You're welcome, John. I really enjoyed it. As for the toy piano, I've always had a mad passion for Schroeder on "Peanuts". Why Gershwin didn't use a toy piano, I'll never know.

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