Silent Film Concert featuring Back to God's Country (1919)
Where: Club SAW (67 Nicholas St.), Tuesday December 11, 2012, at 7:30pm, $10, 16FPS, 85mins
What: Live concert featuring score by Mike Dubue of the HILOTRONS with special musical guests.
Back to God's Country (1919) is Canada's oldest surviving feature film and it was Canada's biggest box-office hit of the silent film era. The film will play with a live musical accompaniment composed by HILOTRONS founder Mike Dubue. The evening will also feature a performance of Mike's new score for the silent short documentary Ice, which looks at the practice of ice harvesting from frozen lakes and rivers in the era before electric refrigeration. The film was produced by the Ontario Motion Picture Bureau (OMPB)and we are lucky it still survives. The vast majority of the OMPB's films were melted down to recover the silver nitrate contained in their film emulsion, an act ordered by the Ontario government, which was desperate for money during the Great Depression.
Our feature presentation, Back to God's Country, is based on a novel by American author James Oliver Curwood, one of the most popular authors of the early 20th Century. He specialized in wilderness adventure tales, somewhat in the mold of Jack London (his novel The Grizzly King was later adapted into The Bear in 1994 by Jean Jacques Annaud). Many of Curwood's novels were set in Canada and he was known for his sympathetic portrayals of both animals and women, so it's clear why its Canadian star Nell Shipman – writer/director/actress and animal trainer - would be attracted to the the story. The plot, concerning a young woman's race across the Canadian arctic to rescue her injured husband from a dastardly villain, gives her plenty of opportunity to showcase her skills. Shipman wrote the scenario for the adaptation and supervised the film's editing, smartly changing the focus of the plot from “loyal dog rescues man” to “loyal wife rescues husband, with the help of a loyal dog”.
Born Helen Foster-Barham in 1892 in Victoria, B.C., Nell Shipman moved to the United States when she was 13 and was writing and acting in Hollywood movies by the age of 20. She starred in twenty-six films in total. With a full complement of wild animals, rugged landscapes, rousing action and a pre-Hays Code nude scene (often credited as the first full-frontal nude scene by a leading actress in a feature-length film), Back to God's Country cemented Shipman's reputation as one of the most ambitious and daring entrepreneurs of the silent film age. Most of Nell Shipman's films were shot in the United States, but Back to God's Country was filmed both in the USA and in Canada in order to take advantage of the Canadian winter. The winter scenes were shot 160 miles north of Edmonton on Lesser Slave Lake, where the crew braved daytime temperatures of -40 degrees Fahrenheit (which, funnily enough, also happens to be -40 degrees Celsius!).
The film was produced by Nell Shipman's Ottawa-born husband Ernest Shipman, who partnered with James Oliver Curwood to form the company Canadian Photoplays Ltd. Ernest Shipman managed to drum up financing through some investors in Calgary and recruited American David Hartford to direct. Hartford capably showcased the natural charms of both his star and the wilderness, aided greatly by first-time feature cameraman Joseph Walker, who later went on to shoot 18 feature films for director Frank Capra, including the classics It's A Wonderful Life and Lost Horizon, becoming one of Hollywood's most famed cinematographers.
Back to God's Country ended up playing around the world to big audiences. In New York City, it opened at the Capitol Theatre on Broadway, then the world's newest and most luxurious movie palace, with 5300 seats. The film became the most financially successful Canadian-produced film of the silent era, grossing around a million-and-a-half dollars (which would be around 25 million dollars today), earning back roughly 300% of its production budget. This was a remarkable feat in a time when most movies only lasted one week in the theatre, and it's largely a testament to the skillful efforts of its savvy and pioneering Canadian star working with a top-notch production team.
The film is lots of fun, and even better with live music!
For more info on the restoration of the film read this PDF