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.
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.
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.
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.