Helen Holmes in "The Girl and the Game"
Helen Holmes (June 19, 1892? – July 8, 1950) was an American silent film actress, most notable for starring in the serial The Hazards of Helen.
This original article was created by Shirley Freitas, a direct descendant of Helen Holmes, and is the exclusive property of Silent Hall of Fame.
We are excited to post on our site a biographical sketch of Helen Holmes, written by her great-granddaughter Shirley Freitas. Please join me in giving a heartfelt "Thank you!" to Ms. Freitas for her contribution to Silent Hall of Fame.
Helen Holmes was a fearless, competent, and independent woman at a time when the women’s suffrage movement was on the verge of finally gaining the vote for women. Her life and career reflected the situation of the feminist movement: she was admired and extolled for breaking new ground for women, but suffered the backlash against those values ten years later. By the 1920s women had the vote and the role model was no longer the spirited daredevil, but the vamp. As a Los Angeles Times columnist wrote in 1936, “There are no more serial queens…Helen Holmes, Pearl White and the others have long since retired, and the ladies of the serials now prefer to let their menfolk wear the pants.”
According to an Illinois birth certificate issued in 1942 at the request of Helen’s uncle, she was born on June 19, 1891 in Chicago. But neither year nor place is certain. Her birth year is often said to be 1894. In the 1930 census, Helen reported her birthplace as South Bend, IN.
She was the third child to Louis R. Holmes and Sophie Barnes, both from Indiana. Louis worked for the Illinois Central Railroad, later for the Chicago & Eastern Illinois. Helen attended a convent school in Chicago and modeled for Santa Fe Railroad posters. Her brother’s illness necessitated a move in 1910 to Death Valley, where Helen learned to pan for gold and reportedly lived with Indians for a time. When her brother died she went to Los Angeles. (Some biographies put her in New York acting for the theater, but are probably mistaking her for a Broadway actress of the same name.)
1912 was an eventful year for Helen. She met Mabel Normand and, through her, was “discovered” by Mack Sennett, signed by Keystone, and appeared in over 20 pictures over the next year or so. She also met the man who would become her creative and life partner, J.P. (Jack) McGowan. The date of her marriage is a matter of some mystery; magazine articles have said 1912, 1914, and 1915, and no marriage certificate has been found.
Helen signed with Kalem Studios, where Jack had worked since 1908. The pace of movie making in those days was astonishing; for the next 18 months, Helen and Jack worked on at least 20 movies. Most were railroad dramas; Helen was known as the Railroad Girl even before the release of the first episode of The Hazards of Helen on November 14, 1914.
Their personal connections to railroads enabled Helen and Jack to give realism and accuracy to their films. Helen had learned as a girl how to drive an engine. Jack was born in the railroad junction town of Terowie, South Australia, and his father worked at a locomotive factory in Sydney.
Unlike other serials, Hazards episodes did not have cliffhanger endings; each episode told a complete story. But what set Hazards apart the most was Helen’s character. She rescued others more often than being rescued herself. “Helen” was quick-thinking, risk-taking, and had a deep sense of justice.
As described by writer Shelley Singer:
“Hazards of Helen stresses the heroine’s acts of daring and physical prowess. The heroine is a humble telegrapher compelled to perform feats of extraordinary courage when she pursues runaway trains and fleeing bandits in situations that showcase her extraordinary athleticism…matched by a keen intelligence. She is unusually observant about the goings-on in her station, meaning that she is often the only character cognizant of danger and the only one capable of staging a rescue…Helen is a woman of true strength and independence rare among serial heroines.”
Hazards was the longest-running of all the serials. Helen acted in all but two of the first 48 episodes, wrote at least one, and directed several when Jack was in the hospital. She was extremely popular, appearing in almost every issue of the movie magazines, sometimes on the cover. She performed many (though not all) of her own stunts. Some of the most breathtaking were: riding a balky horse down a steep cliff and plunging into the river; dropping from an aerial steel cable onto the roof of a boxcar going 20 mph; leaping from a burning building; jumping from the roof of one moving train to another; and dropping from a trestle into an automobile.
The dangers she faced were real. Filming an episode of The Lost Express, she barely escaped a burning train. In another, she was in a truck when the brakes gave out on a steep grade and crashed. She nearly lost an eye that was punctured by cactus thorns. According to family lore, so far unsubstantiated, she lost a thumb while leaping from a galloping horse to a moving locomotive.
In her off time she liked to race cars, sometimes entering using only an initial to bypass rules forbidding women competitors. She drove in her films, too. One author describes an episode of The Girl and The Game in which “Helen controls the wheel, while her three brawny male buddies are relegated to mere passengers.” Most spectacularly, in August 1917 for The Railroad Raiders, she drove a car from the San Pedro pier onto a barge 30 feet away. The fourth attempt succeeded.
Helen and Jack left Kalem in 1915 for unknown reasons. Both spent a few months working for Universal Pictures, which inexplicably assigned Helen to scenario writing and never did begin the serial they had promised her, and had Jack directing short one-reel non-serials. A few months later Helen and Jack left Universal and formed Signal Film Corporation, specializing in railroad pictures. They immediately set to work filming The Girl and The Game; its first episode was released on December 13, 1915. Released in 1916 were Judith of the Cumberlands, The Diamond Runners (written and filmed during a Hawaiian vacation), and the 15-episode Lass of the Lumberlands, filmed in various California locations including Mendocino, Arcata, Yosemite, and the gold rush town of Sonora.
That year, newspapers reported that Helen had adopted a baby. She told movie magazines that, for a scene in Lass of the Lumberlands, she’d borrowed a baby from an orphanage and fell in love with it. Helen’s granddaughters, however, were told that the baby was the daughter of J.P. McGowan and his housekeeper, and that Helen agreed to raise the child as her own. The truth may never be known, since adoption records are sealed in California. In any event, Dorothy Holmes McGowan was born on December 17, 1915 and Helen raised her.
In 1917 Helen and Jack made the serials The Railroad Raiders and The Lost Express. In September, the California State Fair held a Helen Holmes Day, staging a train wreck in her honor. Before a crowd of thousands, Helen jumped from one of the trains into an automobile; “a few seconds later, the two trains were a mass of twisted steel and iron.”
Also in 1917 Helen somehow found the time to buy a ranch in Utah, attend stock auctions, and register a brand. The stock included chickens, horses, cows, pigs and goats. She told Photoplay she hoped to be a cattle queen someday. It’s not known whatever became of this ranch.
The break-up of Helen and Jack was reported in the June 2, 1918 L.A. Times with the memorable headline “Helen Holmes principal in a domestic smash-up.” At about the same time Mutual Film Corporation, which had financially backed Signal and distributed its films, collapsed. Signal went with it.
These two events greatly impacted Helen’s career. She made no films in 1918 and only one in 1919. She formed Helen Holmes Productions in 1920 but released only two movies. Finally, in 1921, she began making movies again, appearing in films with William Desmond, Hoot Gibson, and Jack Hoxie as well as reuniting with Jack McGowan. They made several pictures beginning in 1921, including the 1923 shipwreck drama, Stormy Seas. Meanwhile, continuing her lifelong affection for dogs, she raised Irish terriers and trained them for the movies. She and one of her terriers appeared in the Hoot Gibson movie Forty Horse Hawkins.
At some point Helen and Jack briefly reunited as a couple, but by 1925 they had separated for good. In March 1925 Helen married stuntman Lloyd Saunders in Fort Worth, Texas, two weeks after meeting him.
But Helen and Jack’s professional alliance endured. They made five features that year, including Webs of Steel.
Author Lynne Kirby, writing of the different roles for women in movies in the 1920s, cited the “Helen” character as the most vivid example of the transformation from independence and athleticism to daintiness, dependence on men, and the subsidiary role of inactive daughter or pining sweetheart. And in fact many of Helen’s movies from the 20s are startling when compared with Hazards. However, Webs of Steel is one of the more unusual films of the era - the Helen in this movie is the Helen of old: strong, intelligent, courageous and far from passive.
In 1926, Helen, Lloyd Saunders, and Dorothy moved to Sonora, California. The 1930 census finds them in a ranch west of town, and in May Lloyd appeared as a roper in the local rodeo. But their ranch failed during the Depression and in about 1932 Helen and Lloyd returned to Hollywood. Doro stayed in Sonora to finish high school and “boarded out” with a local family.
The newspapers of the late 1930s talked of Helen’s attempted comeback after a ten-year retirement. She had a part in Poppy with W.C. Fields and bit parts, many uncredited, in other movies. She made occasional public appearances to promote the movie industry and was elected president of the Riding and Stunt Girls of the Screen in August 1938. Helen Gibson was the treasurer.
Helen never made a fortune in the movies. In the late 1940s she operated a small antique business from her home, which she was only able to keep by signing it over to the Motion Picture Relief Fund in a life estate. Lloyd Saunders died in 1946. A few years later it was reported that Helen was very ill. She had suffered lung problems all her life and had had pneumonia at least four times between 1914 and 1924.
Helen died on July 8, 1950. The newspapers announced the death as due to heart attack, but the death certificate listed the cause as pulmonary tuberculosis.
J.P. McGowan had gone on to direct and act in hundreds of films, mostly B westerns, and served as Executive Director of the Screen Director’s Guild from 1938 to 1950. He died in March 1952 and was survived by his second wife, Kaye, and his daughter Doro.
Doro had graduated from Sonora Union High School in June 1933 and a few months later married Leland “Scotty” Burns, whose family had been in the area since the gold rush. They had two daughters. In the late 1930s Doro moved to Los Angeles, hoping to break into movies, and did get some uncredited parts as an extra. She married twice more, the third time for love, and died in 1966 at the age of 50.
- (29) A Railroader's Bravery
- (30) The Human Chain
- (31) The Pay Train - Hidden Gem
- (32) Near Eternity
- (33) In Danger's Path - Hidden Gem
- (34) The Midnight Limited
- (35) A Wild Ride
- (36) A Deed of Daring
- (37) The Girl on the Engine
- (38) The Fate of #1
- (39) The Substitute Fireman
- (40) The Limited's Peril
- (41) A Perilous Chance
- (42) Train Order #45
- (43) The Broken Rail
- (44) Nerves of Steel
- (45) A Girl's Grit
- (46) A Matter of Seconds
- (47) The Runaway Boxcar
- (48) The Water Tank Plot
- When Rogues Fall Out (1915) - Free Movie
- The Girl and the Game (1915) - 15 Episodes
- Whispering Smith (1916)
- Judith of the Cumberlands (1916)
- The Diamond Runners (1916)
- The Manager of the B & A (1916)
- Lass of the Lumberlands (1916) - 15 Episodes
- The Railroad Raiders (1917) - 15 Chapters
- The Lost Express (1917) - 15 Chapters
- The Fatal Fortune (1919) - 15 Episodes
- Stormy Seas (1923)
- Fighting Fury (1924)
- Outwitted (1925)
- Barriers of the Law (1925)
- Duped (1925)
- Blood and Steel (1925)
- Mistaken Orders (1926)
- Webs of Steel (1925)
- The Open Switch (1926) - Hidden Gem
- The Lost Express (1926) - Free Movie
- Perils of the Rail (1926)
- Crossed Signals (1926) - Free Movie
Helen Holmes in "The Escape on the Fast Freight" (1915)