Lost to history, Saint John’s silent film is just a memory a century later

When Ernest Shipman arrived in Saint John in the late summer of 1922, he arrived with the reputation of being Canada’s most successful film producer.

The Toronto-born entrepreneur had worked in the entertainment and advertising industry since his early twenties.

During his 25 years in the business he had produced the most successful silent film in Canada, 1919 Return to the country of God.

Filmed in Calgary and starring his wife and screenwriter, Nell Shipman, it was made for $67,000 and grossed over $1.5 million.

A photo of Canadian producer and entrepreneur Ernest Shipman taken circa 1920. Shipman produced Canada’s greatest silent film, but his attempt to repeat the feat in Saint John ended in disaster. (Herald of Exhibitors)

Shipman’s local investors quadrupled their money, and he turned that success into projects across the country over the next few years.

Mark Blagrave, writer and retired university professor, based his novel, Silver salts, on that first effort to make a film in Saint John.

« Shipman, after his success with Back to the land of Godwhich still appears, I think, on Turner Classic Movies from time to time… has kind of made its way across Canada passing through cities and betting on people’s loyalty to local writers,” Blagrave said in an interview from his home in St. Andrews, N.B.

But there was another side to « Ten Percent Ernie », who earned the nickname for his insistence on receiving 10% of everything his employees earned.

Heavy drinkers and smooth talkers, Shipman’s investors didn’t always see the money owed to them.

The title card for Back To God’s Country. Starring his wife Nell Shipman, it grossed $1.5 million in 1919 and made Ernest Shipman a wealthy man. (Youtube)

« And so he showed up in Ottawa and started an Ottawa film company to do a Ralph Connor novel and, you know, took a bunch of actors to town and made a movie called Cameron with the royal mount then continued to move east, probably past its creditors. »

In Saint John, his local investors in a company called New Brunswick Films Ltd. included New Brunswick Premier and MLA for Saint John, Walter Edward Foster.

But blue water, the story of a Bay of Fundy fisherman who battles alcoholism and storms at sea to find true love, would be Shipman’s undoing.

Cast and crew

It didn’t start like that.

First, Shipman knew he had a good story.

Journalist and writer FW Wallace’s novel was a popular book in its own right.

Norma Shearer in an early commercial still after joining MGM Studios. While she had appeared in several films before Blue Water, the Saint John film was her first starring role. (Credit: Percy Hilburn/MGM Pictures)

Brook Taylor, professor of history at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax and author of the book A Camera on the Shore: Frederick William Wallace and the Fishermen of Nova Scotiasaid Wallace from his personal experience aboard the Bay of Fundy sailboats.

« After being at sea in the schooners, he was able to start writing novels like blue water which are based on his first-hand experience. He had been there, he had done those things. »

Shipman also had a good cast and crew, including Montreal-born actress Norma Shearer, who was cast as the love interest.

Shearer already had a number of movies on his resume and was about a year away from signing with MGM.

She joins American actors Pierre Gendron and Jane Thomas, as well as director David Hartford, who have helmed many of Shipman’s films, including the one that made his reputation.

Many Saint John residents flocked to the Dufferin Hotel for the chance to audition as an extra on Blue Water. (New Brunswick Museum Collection X13414)

Blagrave said there was a lot of excitement in the province about the filming.

« I think when the auditions for the extra roles – because the stars were all imported but the extra roles were local – there must have been a huge excitement to go to the Dufferin Hotel, which was where it is now. Admiral Beatty, and auditioning as an extra in a movie with American names, » he said.

« Norma Shearer wasn’t well known, but some of the other people, you know, had been in movies and potentially people had already seen them on the Imperial Theater screen. »

« So yeah, that must have been pretty damn exciting. »

New Brunswick Films also sold 990 shares to investors at $100 apiece, selling out within a month.

Filming began in October, using Saint John for the city scenes and Chance Harbor for the maritime scenes. Interior shots were taken in a makeshift studio at the city’s St. Andrews Ice Rink, located at 219 Charlotte Street.

Saint John in the 1920s from the foot of King Street. (Louis Merritt Harrison/New Brunswick Museum – Louis Merritt Harrison Collection 1989.83.1129)

Blagrave said the company spent about $60,000 on production in Saint John, but soon ran into unexpected problems.

It seems no one on the production team thought that immersing the cast in the waters of the Bay of Fundy in October wasn’t the best idea.

It proved impossible to shoot the sequences properly at sea, especially as colder weather set in and production stalled.

Running late and with a good chunk of the money spent, the crew quietly packed their bags and headed to Florida in early November to wrap up filming in the Tampa area, which must have created a continuity nightmare. for mounting.

It would be nearly 18 months before the film would finally make its appearance in completed form.

Excerpt from an advertisement in the Saint John Globe of April 16, 1924 announcing the premiere of Blue Water. Although the advertisement suggested that the film had already been released in larger markets, there was no evidence that this claim was true. (Saint John Globe)

On April 16, 1924, blue water premiered at the Imperial Theater in Saint John.

There were four screenings over two days, and newspaper reports of the day said it was very crowded.

The brief review in the Saint John Globe was more kind than complimentary.

« Luck [Harbour] the visuals are soft and warm, the stormy scenes heart-pounding, and the great company acting entirely acceptable, » he said.

« For a first attempt at betting on a [Saint] photo of John, blue water is in no way unsatisfactory. »

Blagrave said it was no surprise the newspaper was soft in its assessment.

« I suspect that some of the people working at the newspaper had some money in NB Films and were still hoping two years later to get even some of it back. »

Bad reception

A review in an American publication was far more damning.

Appearing in Screen Noticea publication for movie theater owners, blue water received a mark of 25%.

« Poor enough to drive customers out of your theater, » he said. “An attempt to make a picture with morals ruined by incompetent adaptation and direction. true entertainment. »

It appears that some theaters in the United States screened the film in New Jersey and New York.

A five-reel copy of the film, which was probably about 55 minutes long, was placed in a safe at the Stone Film Library in New York, and some references suggest it was played in a New York department store. in 1936 as a novelty to attract crowds.

But that’s probably the last time he saw the light of day.

The following

Clearly, no one who bought shares in the company ever made any money out of it, and Blagrave said they no doubt harbored resentment toward Shipman.

« I think there would have been a lot of people in Saint John who would have liked to at least burn him in effigy, if they couldn’t get their hands on the real thing. »

This likely included New Brunswick Premier Walter Edward Foster, who resigned from office in February 1923 to focus on improving his personal finances.

Shipman backed out of plans to travel to Halifax to film another FW Wallace novel.

He never made another film and died in obscurity in New York in 1931 of cirrhosis.

FW Wallace continued to write, and another of his novels was made into a film in 1927. His non-fiction book, Wooden Ships and Iron Men, written in 1924, is considered an excellent documentation of seafaring life in the Sailing age. (Who’s who in Canada)

Brook Taylor said Wallace was apparently « pretty thrilled » with the film and happy that he was following his novel closely.

Another of his novels was adapted to the cinema in 1927.

Wallace continued to write and his 1924 book Wooden boats and iron men is considered one of the great stories of the age of sail.

Shearer was signed as a contract player by Louis B. Mayer in 1923 and would become a major star.

She made the transition from silent films to talkies with MGM, won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1930, and became one half of a Hollywood power couple when she married MGM production chief, Irving Thalberg.

Shearer retired from acting in 1942.

blue water is now considered a lost film, and the only reason it’s garnering interest these days is because it’s one of the first films to feature Shearer.

But Blagrave, who spent time looking for a copy of the film, said if a copy ever surfaces it would be wonderful to see how Saint John is portrayed in the film.

“That would have been absolutely amazing… as far as I know, they did a lot of filming downtown, which makes it a substitute for Boston.”

But Blagrave said that with so few impressions made, and given the volatility of old nitrate film stock, it’s unlikely anyone will even see a snippet of the lost film.


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