Inspired by Michelle Muldoon’s interview about her western Last Stand to Nowhere, I decided to dig deeper into early female role models I’d like to identify with in cinema. I came across the names Pearl White, Helen Holmes, and Helen Gibson. There are others, but let’s focus on these three as a start, to highlight that there were daredevil action queens in the first days of film!
In the 1910s serials were very popular for a Saturday evening, ending with a cliffhanger, to be continued the following week. A few women rose to some fame with stories about dangerous adventures, where the actresses performed their own crazy stunts. Let’s have a look at some of them:
Pearl White (1889 – 1938)
Pearl White is also known as “The Queen of Serials”, who was most famous for ‘The Perils of Pauline’ (1914) and ‘The Exploits of Elaine’ (1914-1915).
White was born to farmers in Missouri, but by the age of at the age of six she had already starred in a stage play. When she was 13, she worked as bareback rider for the circus. She continued to work evening shows while supporting her family during the day, until she was able to push her career as performer full time. Her travels as singer took her to South America, where she performed in casinos and dance halls. In 1910 however, she had trouble with her throat, and couldn’t continue her nightly theatrical performances.
That’s when she made her debut in film. Her skills made her a perfect fit for physical comedy and stunt work and soon after she was offered the lead role in ‘The Perils of Pauline’, based on a story by playwright Charles W. Goddard.
In her serials, White flew airplanes, raced cars, and swam across rivers, amongst other stunts. She did most of her own stunts until in 1920 Pathé, the company she was working for, decided to replace their popular stars with stuntmen, to not wanting to risk losing the lead actress.
White quit filmmaking in 1924. She had injured her spine during one of her stunts, causing her pain throughout her life. She died in 1938 at the age of 48 from liver failure, possibly due to drugs and alcohol she used to numb the pain in her spine.
Helen Holmes (1892 – 1950)
Helen Homes starred mostly in secondary roles due to her lack of glamorous beauty. Then, in 1913, she signed with the Kalem Company. When in 1914 Kalem’s competitor Pathé released ‘The Perils of Pauline’ Kalem jumped on the bandwagon and in released their own adventure series called ‘The Hazards of Helen’ in 1914.
Holmes played an independent, quick-thinking and inventive heroine. Her specialty was railroading, and she did daredevil stunts, like leaping onto a runaway train.
Helen Gibson (1892 – 1977)
Gibson is considered to be the first American professional stunt woman. Born as one of five girls to Swiss-German parents, her father, always wanting a son, encouraged her to be a tomboy. She was taught to ride and performed in her first Wild West Show as trick rider in 1910. She went on to work as cowboy extra, and began in 1915 to double for Helen Holmes in ‘The Hazards of Helen’ serial at Kalem Studios. When Holmes, the star of the series, took ill, Gibson got a chance to replace her for two pictures. When Helen Holmes left the studio, Gibson replaced Helen Holmes in the serial for good. Here’s a stunt she did, to give you an idea about their work: To catch a runaway train, she would detach a team of horses, ride them “standing woman”, and then catch a rope dangling from a bridge and use it to swing from the horses and onto the train as it came under the bridge.
The Disappearance of Female Action Stars
Alicia Malone writes in her book Backwards in Heels: “As the 1920s wore on, the image of women changed. The modern flapper girl and the goth-like vamp were in, while the adventurous serial star was out – well, for women anyway, there were still serials starring male actors throughout the 1920s and 1930s (And these characters inspired another decades later, in the form of Indiana Jones.) In 1936, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times noted the change for women, writing, “There are no more serial queens… the serials now prefer to let their menfolk wear the pants.”
Anyway, the last few decades have seen a return of female action stars. Let’s hope there’ll be much more of that coming in the future!
Backwards in Heels, Alicia Malone
Juliane is an award winning film director and producer, with more than a dozen short films and several features under her belt. She has given guest lectures on various filmmaking subjects in universities around the world. She founded this blog in order to connect with her ‘dream audience’, which is, if you read this far, you!
You can support her by signing up to her newsletter here, and watching her last films, the psychological thriller 3 Lives and 8 Remains, and the mockumentary Kinks.