Saturday, 10 February 2018

God's Country and the Cinema - James Oliver Curwood on Screen

It's that time of year, eh? Today's special feature is part of the O Canada! Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Click on the banner above to read more about the legacy of motion pictures in and about the True North Strong and Free! While you're at it, revisit last year's contribution, Rose Marie, Renfrew, and the Canadian Mountie on Film

James Oliver Curwood was one of the most prolific and well-paid authors of the early 20th century. Born in Michigan in 1878, his restless spirit dropped him out of high school before graduation, then out of university before obtaining a degree in journalism. The call of the wild beckoned him away from civilized society towards the mighty Northwoods of Canada... A vast, unpopulated hinterland of ice, snow, spruce forest, and craggy mountain passes. More or less. Canada's major metropolitan areas were well-established models of Edwardian urbanity at the height of the British Empire's power, but Curwood's 1909 journey was to the rough and tumble lumber camps. In those backwoods he dreamed up adventures to fill 33 novels and countless short stories in the tradition of Jack London, Robert Service, Ralph Connor, and Laurie York Erskine. Prior to his untimely passing in 1927 of a spider bite, his stories furnished plots for well over 100 silent films. Two of those films - Back to God's Country (1919) and Nomads of the North (1920) - were guided by his own hand as producer.

The turnaround time between Curwood's stories and their film adaptations was short. It was often so in early Hollywood: no sooner had Johnston McCulley's serial The Curse of Capistrano been published in 1919 than Douglas Fairbanks scooped up the rights, releasing The Mark of Zorro in 1920. When that film captured the imaginations of America's movie-going public, McCulley's story was collected and republished as a single tome, itself retitled The Mark of Zorro. Curwood's work went through a similar process. When his short story Wapi the Walrus was republished in an anthology in 1920, it was renamed Back to God's Country, to match the 1919 feature film. It was, and remains, the most profitable Canadian film of the silent era.

Wapi the Walrus' change in name was due to Nell Shipman, the other Canadian darling of Hollywood. Born in Victoria, British Columbia in 1892, her family moved to Seattle when she was 13. At the age of 18, she married 39 year old theatre impresario Ernest Shipman, with whom she settled in Hollywood. Not content to be another of Tinsel Town's pretty faces, Shipman took up writing and production as well as acting. Her first big breakout, in all three roles, was in a 1916 adaptation of James Oliver Curwood's 1915 novel God's Country and the Woman.

Shipman revisited Curwood's Northwoods in a 1917 adaptation of his story Baree, Son of Kazan. In it, Shipman plays the daughter of a trapper who is lusted after by the vile chief factor of a Hudson's Bay Company trading post. Systematically killing and destroying all that is close to her, she eventually finds a defender in Baree, the half-wolf dog. Both the experience on God's Country and the Woman and Baree, Son of Kazan shaped what Back to God's Country would become.

There was no connective tissue between the stories God's Country and the Woman and Wapi the Walrus. The alteration came about to capitalize on Shipman's fame from the 1915 film. Nor was she content to play second fiddle to a dog - Wapi - this time around. Shipman was renowned for her love of animals, being one of Hollywood's early animal welfare activists and eventually owning her own zoo of over 200 rescued animals. Later in life, when she could no longer care for the animals, she bequeathed them to the San Diego Zoo. Nevertheless, a passionately driven woman like herself was not going to be supporting actress to a dog.

While recovering from a bout of influenza, Shipman turned down a lucrative seven-year contract from Samuel Goldwyn to create her own production company. Under the aegis of the "Shipman-Curwood Producing Company," she rewrote Wapi the Walrus for screen, diminishing the eponymous canine's role while elevating her own. Funds came from a consortium of businessmen from the city of Calgary going by the name Canadian Photoplays Ltd., who Ernest convinced to pony up $250,000 for filming on location around Lesser Slave Lake, about 496 km (308 miles) north of the city. Location shooting was supplemented with studio work in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but still constituted a rarity for the time: a film about Canada actually shot in Canada. Back to God's Country, the only film for both the Shipman-Curwood Producing Company and Canadian Photoplays Ltd., was released on October 27, 1919, by First National Pictures.

The complete Back to God's Country (1919).

In the film, Shipman plays the daughter of a French-Canadian or Métis trapper who falls in love with Peter, an itinerant nature writer played by Wheeler Oakman. Sadly it is not only love that turns her world upside down, but also a wanted fugitive named Rydal (Wellington Playter). Dressed up in the uniform of the Mountie he killed, he tries to assault Shipman's character and kills her father before disappearing. Left with nothing but tragedy, she returns to civilization with Peter. However, as a child of nature and haunted by her father's violent demise, she cannot settle in. After one final job for the government, Peter promises that they will go back to God's Country. Aboard a whaling vessel heading to the Arctic, she makes a terrifying discovery... The ship's captain is none other than Rydal himself! With Rydal, the ship's crew, a corrupt Hudson's Bay Company trader, and nature against her, she makes a desperate bid to traverse the Arctic wastes by dogsled to save the life of her injured and dying husband. Her only ally is a huge, vicious black dog named Wapi.

The combination of adventure and intrigue captivated audiences to make Back to God's Country the most profitable Canadian film of the silent era. No doubt helping those figures along was Shipman's own figure. This film was the first to feature a nude scene by a major actress. A nude drawing of Shipman played prominently in advertising and theatres were cajoled into showing it by the statement "nude is NOT rude." Back to God's Country may have profited from Shipman's naked body, but an emphasis on threats to women and a woman overcoming them gives Back to God's Country the reputation of an early feminist film. Of course, as Curwood had written it, the dog was the hero, not the helpless woman. He was reportedly furious at Shipman for the changes she had made. 

Three ads for Back to God's Country, the last of which
attempts to use reverse psychology on theatre owners.

Shipman's gambit worked and Back to God's Country was a success, yet further investments were not forthcoming and Shipman moved back to Hollywood with Bert Van Tuyle. Van Tuyle had been assistant director on Back to God's Country, and in Canada's snowy wastes initiated a relationship with Shipman. She eventually divorced Ernest and formed Nell Shipman Productions. The two collaborated on a number of releases for the new company, including The Girl From God's Country (1921).

Working with the Shipmans was a thorn in Curwood's side. Not only was he upset at the changes Nell had made to the story, but Ernest was a particular annoyance as well. After the formation of the Shipman-Curwood Producing Company, Ernest had been going around saying that Curwood's works were now their exclusive domain. Curwood objected, writing studio heads directly to inform them otherwise. 

In 1920, Curwood had enough and created his own production company under his name. It was through James Oliver Curwood Productions Inc. and First National Pictures that Nomads of the North was developed. That proved to be its own set of headaches though... Quite literally, in fact. Production of the film, dealing with the financial thrift of First National, writing commitments, the drama with the Shipmans, his own bouts of influenza, and the illness of his mother left him with incapacitating headaches. He couldn't wait to cut down his schedule and get back to what he loved, which was writing simple adventure stories of the Canadian north. Or more accurately, dictating them to his staff of three secretary-researchers. 

Nomads of the North underwent its own changes in the translation from book to screen. The emphasis of Nomads of the North: A Story of Romance and Adventure under the Open Stars, written in 1919, is on Miki the puppy and Neewa the black bear cub who find each other and go on misadventures until civilization separates them. In the 1920 film, the emphasis shifts towards a human love quadrangle. Betty Blythe plays Nanette, the love interest of Lon Chaney as a happy-go-lucky French Canadian fur trapper Raoul, Lewis Stone as the taciturn Corporal O'Connor of the Mounted Police, and Francis McDonald as Buck, the vile son of a cold-hearted Hudson's Bay Company post chief (himself played by Melbourne MacDowell). Living on the grace of the HBC chief, Nanette is pressured to marry Buck but refuses until she knows for sure whether her beau Raoul, absent for over a year, is dead. Buck fabricates information to that effect, but Raoul miraculously appears on the day of the wedding, leading to a confrontation that has Raoul accidentally kill a man. Raoul and Nanette flee to the northwoods, with Buck and Corporal O'Connor in hot pursuit. 

Nomads of the North (1920)

Switching the protagonists from Raoul's pet bear and dog to Raoul and Nanette was no doubt a cinematic necessity. The fine art of filming entire movies about animals would not develop until the Sixties, when Walt Disney produced another adaptation of Nomads of the North titled Nikki, Wild Dog of the North (1961). To his credit, Disney did film Nikki in Canada, in the environs of Banff National Park in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. 1920's Nomads of the North was not. Instead, large parts were filmed in an artificial forest erected on the Universal Studios lot and burned down in the thrilling climax. Unfortunately for the actors, they almost burned down along with it. Filming was halted for 10 days while Chaney and Blythe recovered from injuries sustained when the fire blocked their escape.

Nomads of the North lacked the advantage of authentic location shooting, but Curwood's own relationship with accuracy was itself a point of controversy. The Canadian government loved his brisk adventure stories of villainy, torture, rape, gunplay, and the fur trade as The Heart of Darkness. So greatly did they appreciate his work that they supplied the author with a stipend to travel to Canada each year from his home in the United States to get material. Any press was good press, so far as they were concerned. The colonial departments of Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railways, not to mention the Hudson's Bay Company, had different opinions on the subject. Curwood's image of the wild, violent, untamed frontier could not have been further from the truth and further from the image that the railway companies wanted to present. In Canada, being part of the British Empire, the Mounted Police and treaties with Indigenous people preceded European settlement. And that itself was preceded by the careful relationship built up between the HBC and Indigenous peoples for centuries. The HBC was fed up with being stock villains in Hollywood movies and sued Famous Players-Lasky in 1921 for its portrayal in Call of the North.

The CPR and CNR's pastoral images of Canada.
Despite these shortcomings, Nomads of the North is the more polished, consummate Hollywood movie of the two that Curwood had an ostensible hand in creating. The close supervision of Hollywood filmmakers and the talents of come of Hollywood's great stars of the era no doubt helped. Yet Back to God's Country has an intriguing rawness to it - its authentic location shooting, its pushing of censor's boundaries, how a maverick woman filmmaker dealt with the subject of violence against women - to capture attention.

Two years later, Curwood had  accumulated enough wealth from his stories to literally build himself a castle. Curwood Castle was erected on the shores of the Shiawassee River in his hometown of Owosso, Michigan, near his actual home. The castle, built in the French chateau style popular in Canada, was mainly for entertaining literary and cinematic moguls, with one of the turret rooms reserved for his writing studio. His wealth also translated into sympathy for the creatures of nature his stories were mostly based on. He became an avid conservationist and appointed to the Michigan Conservation Commission in 1926. Sadly, his tenure was cut short on a trip to Florida when he was bitten by a spider. He had an immediate allergic reaction that only deteriorated in the months following. He passed away on August 13, 1927 at the age of 49, leaving behind a legacy of romance and adventure stories in Canada's farflung regions.    


Caftan Woman said...

I was fascinated by this article, the creative personalities and their films.

I wondered if the HBC would notice and object to always being the bad guy. Rather like the Mormoms were for Zane Grey.

Silver Screenings said...

Thank you for sharing this research and pointing out some of the historical inaccuracies of these films. James Oliver Curwood was certainly influential in his era, but historians have taken issue with some of his material – as you mentioned.

Thanks for the info on Nell Shipman. I know embarrassingly little about her career, and you've prompted me to learn more. I'm glad you embedded the films in your post, and I'll be back to view later.

And thanks for joining the O Canada blogathon! I'm thrilled when folks write about the very early days, so your essay was a real treat.

Anonymous said...

Neat article, Cory...lots of fun history and information about the olden days of filmmaking (and Canada!). And I love the look of your site...very cool!

Cory Gross said...

Caftan Woman...

Oh yes, the HBC did notice. For next year's blogathon, I'm thinking of doing a piece on the HBC's trials with Hollywood!


Silver Screenings...

Thank you for hosting it and letting me be a part! I'd love to see the fruits of your research as an article some day... Maybe next year's blogathon? ;)



Thank you very much! I'm a visual-spatial oriented person, so I wanted to make my blog as beautifully Victorian as the subject matter it's about :)