Chapter 10

Mary's desire to lead her own life may have been a reflection of the emphasis on women's rights as a new decade dawned. Years of agitation were about to be rewarded as the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution establishing woman suffrage, proposed in 1919, would become law in 1920. The nation breathlessly awaited the inauguration of a new era in which women would attain equality with men under the law, in business, the professions and at the ballot box. No actress more completely summed up this spirit of the times than Nell Shipman. One of the most versatile figures of her age and a renaissance woman of cinema, Nell Shipman was simultaneously star, writer, producer and director of her productions--and in her 1920 films, The Trail of the Arrow and Something New, an intrepid automobile driver as well. Throughout the teens, Nell had distinguished herself at different studios with her varied talents. The great success of her 1919 production, Back to God's Country, provided her with the foundation to continue her career in cinema as an independent filmmaker. The Trail of the Arrow and Something New, begun as "commercials" for car companies, grew under her inspired direction into works of far greater depth and artistry. They became celebrations of feminine strength in the wilderness, using automobiles to blend the miracles of the modern age with the wonders of timeless nature. Both films were shot on location in California deserts still largely untamed for the tourist. The primitive road conditions offered a challenge to Nell's driving skills even as the rugged beauty of the landscapes attracted her cinematic eye.

In her autobiography, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart, Nell wrote of The Trail of the Arrow:
  "We'd already gone out on the Mojave in the deep of a 120 degree summer and shot up an Essex called the "Grey Ghost" for its having made a sort of blind flying run East to West. The only highlight I recall on this one was driving through a brush fire and finding out later that the gas tank cap was missing."(79)  
Despite Nell's modesty, there was much more to her creation than her later description would indicate. Besides demonstrating the capabilities of the Essex automobile, The Trail of the Arrow directly commented on the aspirations of the suffragette era. Nell's story deals with a man by the name of Bob Battle who develops an aversion to women drivers when a female motorist damages his fender. He makes a bet with two women that he can defeat them in an auto race over a dangerous route in the Mojave Desert. But the two young women driving an Essex overcome all the hazards devised by Bob in his effort to cause them to lose the race. At the end, he concedes their victory and expresses his new conviction that women should have "the right to vote and drive automobiles and do anything else they desire!" (80)

A contemporary newspaper article described the filming of The Trail of the Arrow in August, 1919:

"The Essex Arrow was driven over rocks, through sage brush, up and down timbered slopes and over declivities until it seemed as though everything in the car would be smashed to atoms. The car was tilted at such angles that the daring girl drivers had to be lashed to the seats to prevent them being thrown from the car."

Nell Shipman said at the time:

"I have proven that woman is on a par with man in driving a motor car, as she is in every other walk of life. The ability is there. All she needs is the experience--the physical training--the freedom from restraint." (81)

Nell followed The Trail of the Arrow with an even more ambitious feature, Something New, filmed in 1920. The leading man and co-director of the new film was Bert Van Tuyle, a former race car driver and Nell's lover at the time. Nell wrote in her autobiography:
  "The Essex picture proving exciting--at least to the Essex manufacturers--we launched on a bigger commercial in six reels featuring the adventures of the Maxwell and the Mechanic. We lived at Warner's Hot Springs and enjoyed ourselves, especially in their swimming pool heated by nature."(82)  
Nell recalled that the Maxwell touring car used in the film belonged to the Maxwell company who kept a mechanic on the job for the
  "duration of the shooting and he put in three transmissions to replace the stuff we ripped out in the rough Anza-Borrego desert location. It was tremendous fun. The idea of the picture, titled Something New, was that the Maxwell automobile went places no horse, or even men on foot, could traverse! We drove it over rocks bigger than itself, up canyons hub-deep in sand. And we-- the 'Girl' and my partner who acted in the drama and directed--really drove!

Laddie, the collie who bear-sat for Brownie (83), always went along on the Maxwell's wild rides and only once showed Scottish caution. Of a sudden, he disappeared under the dashboard and braced himself for a spill. The Maxwell turned over three times--Man and Girl hunched, Laddie hidden, Joe Walker cranking even though the footage might not be used. The noble Maxwell must not be demolished entirely. The company's mechanic repaired the damage. By a miracle which seemingly insured Girl and Man from destruction we survived. And Laddie hopped out, waving his plumed tail and grinning his ham-actor grin."(84)
The film opens with a prologue showing Nell as a scenarist seated at a typewriter. She is frustrated at not having new ideas until she thinks of the dramatic possibilities stemming from a Maxwell touring car. In the story itself, Nell, a writer seeking to find inspiration in atmosphere and local color, journeys across the border to Baja California, Mexico, to stay with an old miner, a friend of her father's. She meets one of the miner's acquaintances, a handsome engineer played by Bert Van Tuyle, who has come across the border in his Maxwell car. Then on horseback she rides with the older man into the interior to the mine where he works. The mine is raided by bandits but Nell manages to place a message under Laddie's collar in the hope it will reach the hero. The dog rushes through the desert until he locates Van Tuyle. Meanwhile, Nell is taken by the bandits far into the wilderness while her friend, the miner, is left behind. Van Tuyle, receiving Nell's message via the faithful collie, starts off in his car in hot pursuit. Shipman intercuts shots of the heroine and the Mexican bandits with scenes of Van Tuyle pushing his Maxwell through an endurance test in a desert country with primitive trails instead of roads. (Southern California's Anza-Borrego Desert doubled for Northern Mexico over a decade before it became a state park.)

Eventually, the hero finds Nell and the two manage to flee the bandits in the Maxwell. Van Tuyle has been wounded, however, so Nell takes over the driving. A title reads: "SPEED the only salvation," and what follows is a remarkable climax uniting Nell's skill as a driver with her cinematic genius. Pursued by the bandits on horseback, Nell outraces them, driving her car over rocks and through canyons, continually maneuvering the Maxwell over the difficult desert terrain with as much ability and daring as any professional driver. When they reach the end of the trail, they are again confronted by the bandits. But they escape a dire fate when Nell backs the Maxwell into a boulder which then falls on their pursuers. She described this sequence in her autobiography:
  "The thrice-mended Maxwell ended up with a bashed-in rear-end, even if I did not. But this casualty was not fixed. At all the subsequent showings . . . that self-same Maxwell stood fenderless, paintless, battered, in the theatre lobby. An immodestly lettered sign claimed she'd come through the Hell of the Desert and a Thousand Gun Shots exactly as she came spanking-new from the Factory! It was almost true. The caved-in rear-end, where the back seat folded to meet the front . . . was her purple heart. She won it by backing into a huge, balancing boulder on a cliff's edge and whacking the thing until it finally toppled and crushed the liver and lights out of the Bad Hats who, having taken to a precipitous canyon trail the horses might not climb, were busily scrambling upwards in time to receive the down-crashing boulder--with easily figured results. Smashed, like bugs! End of the Bad Hats. But not of 'Girl.'"(85)  
Nell's comic epic narrative in Something New combines a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek approach to melodramatic situations with breathtaking action scenes of genuine heroism. But underscoring this blend of humor and excitement are deeper, harmonizing motifs that unite the masculine and the feminine, industrialism and environmentalism. The relationship that develops between Bert Van Tuyle and Nell in the film is one of true comradeship between a man and a woman facing and overcoming perils together in the wilderness. And the Maxwell car racing through the desert manages to adapt to the rugged landscape without the existence of highways disrupting the natural order.

Employing her talents for acting, writing, directing and stunt driving, the comely Nell Shipman mastered the action-adventure genre to an extent unmatched in cinema history by any other woman director. And her expertise behind the wheel in scenes of thrill-packed action that continue to amaze the viewer gave women a heroic vision of femininity capable of measuring up to any situation. Appearing at a time when the enactment of woman suffrage seemed to foretell a miraculous transformation of gender roles by opening up opportunities for women, Something New is suffused with the optimism of the new era, eloquently expressed in the final title: "Be it motor or maid--there is always something new!"

Copyright 1997 William M. Drew

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 |
Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11

[Home] [News & Notes] [The Features Page] [The Store] [At the Movies]
[The Calendar] [Silent Era Facts] [Silent Star of the Month]