Action Heroines of the Silent Era

220px-Perilsofpauline

Pearl White, Helen Holmes and Helen Gibson became world-renowned action stars despite living and working in an age when they couldn’t vote and were expected to wear long skirts and heels while doing tough movie stunts.

Then they were mostly forgotten, and the nitrate stock their work was stored on slowly decayed, though the names of the serials these women starred in still live on.

The Perils of Pauline is best remembered today, perhaps because it was remade during the “talkies” era and also because they did a fictionalized biopic of Pearl White, who played Pauline. However, only nine shortened chapters have survived out of the original 20-episode run (Pauline was never tied to the tracks, by the way).

elaine

The Exploits of Elaine gave us the Clutching Hand – the first mystery villain to ever appear in a film serial (Elaine was never tied to the tracks, either).

Reportedly all 14 episodes of Elaine still exist but don’t seem to be readily available to the public.

Both Pauline and Elaine were independent women with minds of their own, but they were wealthy and existed in a world that, for the most part, took care of them.

The Hazards of Helen took a different approach, starring a very feisty, working class heroine, and I think it would still draw mainstream audiences today.

Helen was extremely popular, with 119 reels made, but according to SilentEra.com:

Survival status: The film is presumed lost : Fragmentary prints exist in the Library of Congress film archive [35mm positives (episodes 1, 3, 39, 63, 69, 76 and 96; episodes 13, 26 and 106)]; in the National Film and Television Archive of the British Film Institute film archive [episodes 20-21]; in the International Museum of Photography and Film at George Eastman House film archive [episode 108]; in the film holdings of Film Preservation Associates (Blackhawk Films collection) [16mm reduction positives, 8mm reduction positives (episodes 9, 26 and 33)]; in the EYE Film Instituut Nederland film archive [unidentified episode]; and in private film collections [16mm reduction positives (episodes 9, 31 and 33)].

I wanted to include their full quote because it shows the sorry state of silent films today. It’s a lot better than in the first half of the 20th century, of course, but you still almost have to be a forensics expert to find some of these movies today.

Oh – Helen was tied to the tracks, but it didn’t faze her:
 


 
Yes she did do that!

Realistically, I suppose, the train should have been switched over to another set of tracks, but this is kind of like that scene in the last Avengers where Bruce Banner intentionally turns into the Hulk as the metal monster approaches – it’s not logical, but the end result is soooo satisfying.

Pearl, “Pauline” and “Elaine”

Born in 1889 to a Missouri farmer, Pearl Fay White first appeared onstage at the age of six as Little Eva in a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She became a circus rider in her teens and then joined traveling acting companies. Her voice began to fail from the nightly performances, and in 1910 she began working in a series of one-reelers with the Powers Film Company in New York, as well as with Pathé and independent film companies.

Pearl White and Creighton Hale in "The Exploits of Elaine."  (Image: Wikipedia)

Pearl in “The Exploits of Elaine.” (Wikipedia)

Yes, in those days films could be a handy Plan B for actors with voice problems!

It’s a little unclear to me just how Pearl ended up in The Perils of Pauline, early in 1914, but certainly her connection with Pathé helped, as did her athleticism and ability to do her own stunts.

In any event, Pauline made Pearl a star. It was so well received that Pearl went on to also do the title role in The Exploits of Elaine, which debuted three days after Christmas in 1914.

As mentioned, it’s difficult to find footage of Elaine online, though there is a bit of it here that you can watch without having to buy anything.

The following complete chapter gives the basic premise of Perils of Pauline, as well as a good idea of what the entire series must have been like.

It’s an inadvertent anti-smoking commercial, too.
 


 
While a good businesswoman and a successful actress, Pearl’s personal life was difficult, and her later, more serious films in America weren’t as well received as Pauline and Elaine had been.

Her friends in Pathé eventually got her to move to France. She acted in a few films and on stage in Paris and London. She traveled the world, too, thanks to her wealth, but alcohol and pills finally claimed her at age 49.
 

Wikipedia.

Wikipedia.


 
It might seem a little confusing that Pearl was responsible for two of the serials we’re watching today. What about the other two women?

Here’s a hint – both their names are “Helen.”

The Hazards of the Helens

I’ve saved the best for last, but perhaps that just bias. Decide for yourselves – here is Helen Holmes in The Escape on the Fast Freight (1915):
 


 
Is that awesome or what? I am most definitely going to track down whatever other complete or fragmentary episodes still remain.

HazardsofHelen-Nerves

Helen Holmes was the first “Helen.” Born in Illinois in 1892 to a clerk on the Illinois Central Railroad (trains feature prominently in Hazards), she went into modeling and then acting. She made her Broadway debut in 1909 and also became friends with Mabel Normand around that time.

It was Normand who eventually got Holmes out to the West Coast, where she began working in Keystone (as in “Cops”) Studios in 1912. Her only roles were small ones, so in 1913 she signed with the Kalem Company.

After Perils of Pauline became became a big hit, the Kalem Company decided to get in on it with their own action heroine. They had Helen Holmes who, like Pearl White, was athletic and did her own stunts, and thus The Hazards of Helen was born. It debuted in November 1914 and was also a huge success.

During the 119-episode run of The Hazards of Helen, there were actually four “Helen’s,” but only two of them became stars. Anna Nilsson replaced Helen Holmes for one episode when Helen got sick, and Elsie MacLeod filled in for episodes 27-49, after Helen and Hazards director J. P. McGowan left Kalem to start their own company.

Kalem needed a permanent “Helen,” though. Rodeo rider Rose Wenger, who was married to Hoot Gibson at the time, had doubled for Helen Holmes once before, as well as filling in a couple times when Holmes was sick. The studio now changed her first name and made her the new “Helen.” She became just as a big a star as Helen Holmes had been.

Here is Helen Gibson, saving the day when a wrong order puts two trains on a collision course:
 


 
The new Helen was with Kalem for 69 episodes, until the series ended in 1917.

Pearl White started the ball rolling, and Helen Holmes then showed that a resourceful middle-class woman could be an action heroine, too. Helen Gibson literally saved the day for Kalem Company and is also credited as being the first professional stuntwoman.

First!

It’s a claim they all can make. We’re lucky that enough of their work survives for us to get at least a glimpse into a very exciting era in American film making.



Categories: Saturday Silents

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1 reply

  1. Hi, I’m Helen Holmes’s great-granddaughter, I love this tribute to her. She was an awesome woman who performed many of her own stunts and suffered a lot of injuries as a result. There’s one fact you have wrong, she actually starred in all but 2 of the first 48 episodes of Hazards. (I can show you the evidence for this if you’re interested.)
    She went on to make a number of movies and series centered around railroads. She was honored at the California State Fair in Sept 1917, when, for “Helen Holmes Day,” thousands of spectators watched as two locomotives crashed head on and Helen leaped from one of them at the last possible moment. This spectacular crash was filmed and then used in “The Railroad Raiders.” (You can see some posters depicting the crash for sale on the internet.)

    Shirley

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