Helen Holmes: The Girl at the Switch

A century before Jennifer Lawrence was slinging arrows as Katniss Everdeen, Helen Holmes invented the female action hero. So why have you never heard of her?

On the roof of a speeding freight train, a slender woman in a white feather cap and a long narrow skirt sits crumpled, cradling her head. Her day’s work is done. A minute ago, she leaped onto this train from a towering overpass, pointing out two stowaway thieves to the engineers on duty. As they race to nab the bandits, she doubles over to catch her breath. The men, she knows, can take it from here.

Suddenly, one of the thieves appears on the roof. Fresh from a fistfight with the conductors, the thug tries to rush past her. She scrambles to her feet and lunges at his waist. They wrestle. He tries to shake her. She tackles him, and in an instant the two are pitched over the side into the river below. As they wade from the water, the wet hat still clinging to her head, she sacks him again, delivering a taste of justice.

It’s a quintessential climax to an episode of the wildly popular 1915 silent film series The Hazards of Helen. In a few year’s time, short action flicks like this had become standard weekend diversions for moviegoing Americans, giving rise to the first generation of screen stars: Mary Fuller in What Happened to Mary, Kathlyn Williams in The Adventures of Kathlyn, and Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline. These weren’t coy coquettes or damsels in distress; they were action stars racing cars, riding horses, and jumping trains.

Helen Holmes, the scrappy 20-year-old featured in The Hazards of Helen, wasn’t the most famous or the most glamorous. But with the women’s suffrage movement reaching a fever pitch, her no-nonsense handling of everyday affairs in a man’s world turned her into a fan favorite. What made her truly revolutionary -even as she faded into obscurity with the rest of the silent film stars- was what she did behind the scenes.

A Chicago-raised tomboy-turned-model, Holmes was more than just the star of The Hazards of Helen- she was, in large part, its creator. Holmes landed her first film roles in silent comedies in 1912. Shortly after, she joined forces, personally and professionally, with J.P. “Jack” McGowan, an Australian director who specialized in short action flicks, most of them one- or two-reel railroad dramas.

From the start, McGowan and Holmes wanted to do something different. They envisioned a rough-hewn adventure series centered on Helen, a railroad operator, who threw herself into peril in every episode. Production for Hazards began in Glendale, California, in 1914, but by early 1915, McGowan had fallen from a telegraph pole performing a stunt. For six weeks he was in a plaster cast at the Sisters’ Hospital in Hollywood. That’s when Holmes took over the production, and she fully embraced the task.

“If a photoplay actress wants to achieve real thrills, she must write them into the scenario herself,” she once said. “[N]early all scenario writers and authors for the films are men, and men usually won’t provide for a girl things they wouldn’t do themselves. So if I want really thrilly action, I ask permission to write it for myself.”

Each weekly installment found Helen facing fresh danger, from thieves to runaway trains. In The Wild Engine (1915), Helen got a job at a railroad, only to have the superintendent of the company berate the underling who hired her. “Women cannot use their heads in case of emergency, and if you employ her, I shall hold you entirely responsible!” Suffice to say, an emergency soon tests the theory. When an engine goes haywire and sets on a collision course with a passenger train, Helen jumps on a motorcycle and zooms off to stop it. She keeps the trains from colliding, of course, but she also rides the motorcycle off a bridge and into the river to enhance the action. The film ends with the superintendent changing his stance on Helen’s hiring -a simplistic story, simplistically told, but one that presents a radical message by 1915 standards.

In the pre-Hollywood days of early cinema, moviemaking was defined by a rough-and-tumble DIY aesthetic. Unlike many of her colleagues, Holmes performed many death-defying stunts herself, from swinging onto moving locomotives to crawling across the hoods of speeding cars. She moved with the grace of an athlete. Asked about her stunt work, she remarked that she sought to performs stunts without losing “that air of femininity of which we are all so proud. But by that I do not mean the frail side of a woman. I mean the heroic side.”

The pace of producing a weekly was grueling, and it took a toll. “I have a pair of educated knees,” she said. “I have learned to drop like a kitten. My body is all bruised and bumped and scarred from the falls I have had.” Reputedly, she nearly suffered a career-ending injury when she fell off a train face first into a cactus thicket, puncturing her eye. (After a poisonous thorn was removed, she fully recovered.)

Holmes took risks with her body, but she was equally bold with her writing. Whereas her contemporaries often saw their characters thrust into jeopardy by chance, Helen’s character plunged into danger intentionally- after all, it was her job. And while the plots of other series revolved around romance, the through line of the Hazards was always Helen’s career and her attempts to prove herself in a treacherous workplace inhabited exclusively by men.

The themes played nicely to the audience.At the time, moviegoers were mostly working-class women who went to see serial pictures; they were the ones Helen was speaking to. There was a growing appetite for depictions of strong women, and on screen, no female better exemplified the New Woman ideal than one who could jump trains without breaking the ostrich brim on her hat.

Before long, Holmes had starred in 46 episodes of Hazards, directing at least two. Sadly, her writing and producing credits are incomplete. For a woman who made her name proving that women could contribute in the workplace, she never received credit for all the work she did.

In 1915, Holmes and McGowan left Hazards to capitalize on Holmes’ tremendous box-office pull. The series had rocketed her to national celebrity, and the pair continued to make adventure films together, and then, after they split in 1918, apart. Holmes went on to start her own production company, but in a market now flooded with female action stars, her draw slipped. A payment disagreement with her distributor added to her woes, contributing to her first box-office bomb, and she soon gave up screen acting. By the 1920s, a backlash against motion pictures had begun to form. As filmmakers tested the boundaries of on-screen romance and action, religious groups began to protest the societal impact. Reformers singled out weekly serials for corrupting youth and glorifying crime. Some censorship boards refused to allow films that showed women scrapping with men and holding their own.

Action films soon became the exclusive domain of male protagonists, and over the years, “women’s pictures” came to mean melodramas. And while American cinema had its share of strong women like Bette Davis and Ida Lupino, by the ’30s the female action star had essentially ceased to exist.

Holmes married a stuntman and moved to a cattle ranch in Sonora, where she began training animals for film. She continued to take the occasional bit part, and for a time, she served as president of Riding and Stunt Girls of the Screen, the first  organization established to bargain collectively for stuntwomen. Holmes died in 1950 of pulmonary tuberculosis.

Like the majority of silent cinema, much of Holmes work is lost, but a handful of the Hazards remain, saved by organizations such as the National Film Preservation Foundation.

Rewatching the films today, Helen Holmes still feels revolutionary. The most daring aspect of Hazards wasn’t that her character could tackle a man or leap onto a moving freight train. It was that Holmes’ heroism came from her being good at her job. The series dramatized a world where a brave and quick-thinking woman could prove herself in ways conventionally reserved for men. “Helen didn’t win an inheritance or a promotion. Her labor and adventures simply won her respect, camaraderie, and admiration,” feminist scholar Nan Estad has noted. By embodying Helen with such poised nonchalance, Holmes helped pave the way for a new kind of character: the female professional. And while the impact didn’t last long on screen, it was etched into the minds of those cheering from the seats.

(YouTube link)


The above article was written by Jake Hinkson. It is reprinted with permission from the Winter 2013 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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