Ninety-nine years ago, on September 14, 1917, two heavy locomotives barreled toward each other, at 45 miles per hour—on purpose. Just seconds before the steel behemoths collided, fusing together into a smoking, twisted, 375,000 pound modernist sculpture evoking Armageddon, Helen Holmes leapt headlong from one of the speeding engines into an open-air automobile—on purpose. So many people crowded the California State Fair in Sacramento to watch this planned train-wreck that troops were deployed, “to prevent too eager spectators from exposing themselves to injury or possibly death from flying fragments of metal,” the Sacramento Union reported.
Intensifying the excitement was that all this was being recorded by a new invention revolutionizing America, the movie camera, the Great American validator and fame-maker. The 26-year-old (or so) woman executing such death-defying leaps so insanely, defied stuntmen by doing stunts herself. Hers was a new profession. She was a movie actress, and, according to the Sacramento Union, “a famous” one.
Amid this thick stew of modern symbols, the locomotive and the motor car, the camera and the film, the movie star and the stuntman, the scene deviates from what we assume was a given in that pre-1920s, pre-feminist world: the traditional, dainty woman. This was the era of “The Kodak Girl,” the high-cheeked elegant model peddling cameras with a fluffy, high collared dress covering her from her neck to her ankle socks. It was the time of the “Morton Salt Girl,” with her exquisite yellow umbrella, blithely spreading salt amid a storm, because “when it rains it pours.” It was the period of the domestic, caricatured, Old Dutch Cleansers and Aunt Jemima, emphasizing that “a woman’s place is in the home.” And it was the age of what some historians consider the first “sexy” advertisement, the Woodbury’s Facial Soap promise that its antidote to “colorless, sallow, coarse textured, or excessively oily” skin would produce “A Skin You love to Touch.” Illustrating that appeal was a broad-shouldered hunk in white tie and tails hovering protectively over a delicate, alluring lady, with her dress mischievously sneaking beneath her shoulders, and her lips seductively decorated in lipstick, ready to delight her man.
By contrast, there was Helen Holmes, the tough, courageous, energetic, sometimes gun-toting, often train-jumping, silent film star, executing daring feats, in the first 26 twelve-minute episodes of “The Hazards of Helen,” filmed from 1914 through 1917.
The character “Helen” was a nosy, adventurous telegraph operator at a railroad station, quick to notice criminals afoot, and confront them. One scholar catalogues the derring-do in the 1915 serial released by Signal Studies, The Girl and the Game, which Helen Holmes coproduced with her director and husband J. P. McGowan: “the intrepid ‘Helen’ saves her boyfriend and father from a train wreck, saves the former again, this time from a burning locomotive, saves the railroad from financial ruin, recovers the payroll from thieves, saves her boyfriend and another male friend from another train wreck, rescues a male character from a lynching, captures more thieves, saves two men from a mine cave-in, recovers more stolen money, and uncouples a freight train to prevent a ‘terrible wreck.’” And yes, her melodramas rivaled the more popular and iconic Perils of Pauline.
Born somewhere between 1891 and 1894, in Indiana, Helen Holmes moved to California’s searing Death Valley in 1910, with her family. There, this adventurer-in-training went gold prospecting and lived on Native American reservations. By 1912, she churned out twenty pictures in one year, thanks to having met the starlet Mabel Norman, then the silent film star slapstick “King of Comedy” Mack Sennett.
Helen’s father worked for the railroad. The father of her regular director, and eventual first husband, J P McGowan, worked in a locomotive factory. Holmes, aided by McGowan, became “The Railroad Girl,” injecting many authentic touches to their movies that in 1914 included: Playing for a Fortune, A Man’s Soul, A String of Pearls, The Rival Railroad’s Plot, The Car of Death, Into the Depths, From Peril to Peril and The Demon of the Rails.
Holmes would say in 1916 that since men hated endangering women, “if a photoplay actress wants to achieve real thrills, she must write them into the scenario herself.” With her warm smile, strong nose, and bright eyes, this intrepid spirit charmed her audiences. This longest-running series—ultimately reaching 112 episodes—granted Holmes her momentary stardom. Audiences and another modern phenomenon, gossip rags, delighted in this superwoman, galloping down rocky cliffs, dropping into cars, leaping from a burning building, jumping from train to train, catching bad guys, dancing on the border between being fabulous—and scandalous.
In reality, Helen’s job was hazardous. Once, flames almost engulfed her on a train. Another time, her truck speeding downhill lost its brakes, and stopped by crashing. Hitting headfirst into cactus thorns almost cost her an eye. Family legend would claim she lost a thumb jumping from a horse onto a speeding train.
Celebrities live by hype, die by gossip. When she and her husband separated, the Los Angeles Times sneered: “HELEN HOLMES PRINCIPAL IN A DOMESTIC SMASH-UP.” Her career derailed as her personal life did, as her home studio Signal smashed up too.
In the 1920s, the cultural vibe shifted. Flappers flapped—and vamped. “There are no more serial queens….,” one Los Angeles Times columnist wrote in 1936, “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.”
Holmes continued rattling around Hollywood—and Broadway. Her second husband worked in the profession she shunned: Lloyd Saunders was a stuntman. The two of them trained animals for movies and she also sold antique dolls out of her home. She died in 1950, only 58.
We often view history simplistically, mechanistically. We consider it one of those Russian Babushka dolls, assuming one well-defined era replaces another. But seeing the popular image of this tough, charming adventurer nestled amidst the usual image of women as delicate, sheltered china dolls reminds us that history is messy, multi-dimensional and multi-directional, not so neatly packaged. Those good ‘ole days weren’t always good or innocent. Hillary Clinton’s mother had her own railroad adventure, put on a train in 1927 when she was eight with her little sister, crossing the country from Chicago to California, caught between her irresponsible mother and cruel grandmother.
We also learn that cultural change facilitates political change. Women’s gains, including Hillary Clinton’s historic candidacy, did not just come from Abigail Adams and Shirley Chisholm, from Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. They also come from popular pioneers like Helen Holmes who helped American women imagine different roles for themselves—on screen and off.