Ernest Shipman
"Ten Percent Ernie"
by Joel H. Zemel 1997-2009

In an agreement signed and dated November 1, 1918, Ernest made his best deal to date. James Oliver Curwood agreed to give exclusive film rights to his stories to Nell Shipman for two years while she agreed to star in films based exclusively on his stories. Ernest was co-signatory. The first film was based on Wapi the Walrus, an outdoors melodrama set in the Canadian north with Nell as the lead protagonist. Ernest went to Calgary, Alberta to raise the money. Canadian Photoplays Ltd. was incorporated on February 7, 1919 and filming began later that year. Nell wrote the screenplay which was retitled Back To God's Country.

Despite enormous hardships such as the frigid temperatures, the loss of the Australian lead actor, Ronald William Byram, to pneumonia and grueling living conditions, the film finished production in May after having moved from Lesser Slave Lake in Alberta to southern California. In September 1919, Associated First National released the picture to rave reviews. Ernest's promotional campaign was extensive. It relied heavily on Nell's very brief nude scene which was evident in the advertised drawings and slogans. The film made a 300% profit on its initial investment of $67,000 and was shown all over the world.

For the next four years, Ernest travelled across Canada attempting to repeat the success of Back To God's Country. Nell and Ernest were separated and subsequently divorced in 1920. Curwood broke his contract possibly because of Nell's changing to his original story to accommodate her screenplay. The next two films by Curwood's company, Nomads of the North (1920) and The Golden Snare (1921) were sold and publicized by Ernest, but the financially successful Canadian Photoplays went into voluntary liquidation.


Poster for "Glengarry School Days"

Ernest moved his operation to New York and then began filming the novels of Ralph Connor (a.k.a. Charles W. Gordon). The first was The Foreigner later retitled God's Crucible (1921) and Cameron of the Royal Mounted (1922). Both were supposed to be released by First National which according to Ernest had committed to the deal but this was not so.

The production company, Winnipeg Productions, also lost out because of false claims by Ernest there would be advance distribution rental payments. However, the films were released and accepted fairly well by critics and moviegoers alike. The next three films were The Rapids, shot in Ontario and New York. The Man From Glengarry and Glengarry School Days, later retitled The Critical Age, were received with mixed reviews.

Blue Water, from a story by Halifax writer, Frederick William Wallace, was to be shot in St. John, New Brunswick in October, 1922 for $99,000. Norma Shearer, in her first film, was to play the lead. the production was besieged by problems, mostly weather, causing delays and ultimately, defections. David Hartford, the director, completed the film in Florida in 1923 but it never had a theatrical release. The St. John investors lost all their cash. Although the film was shown in the Maritimes a year later to good reviews, it was put into a vault in New York and there it stayed.

Finally, with independent producers being squeezed out on both sides of the border by giant American interests that gained control of film distribution markets, Ernest Shipman's Canadian adventure was over. He travelled the world from Morocco to Long Island and then to Florida, hoping to repeat his earlier success but it was not to be. He promoted a prizefighter, an aspiring young actress in England and became a journalist for the Exhibitor's Trade Review. Two years later, he became very ill from cirrhosis of the liver and died on August 7, 1931 at the age of fifty-nine.

With the passing of Ernest Shipman, the age of Canadian independent filmmaking was truly over.


Ernest Shipman: "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."

- March 1923 - Address to the Canadian Club in London, Ontario.


Embattled Shadows - A History of Canadian Cinema 1895 - 1939 by Peter Morris - McGill-Queen's University Press.

Canadian Film by David Clandsfield - Oxford Press.


1997-2009 Joel H. Zemel. All rights reserved.

Nell Shipman

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