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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.
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