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Helen Holmes: The world’s first female action hero

Marija Georgievska

Helen Holmes was an American silent film actress who became a star playing the part of the fearless railroad telegrapher “Helen” in the Kalem Company’s serial The Hazards of Helen.

Helen Holmes.

Helen Holmes.

Holmes began her film career in 1912 with Keystone in a bit part arranged by Mabel Normand.

Holmes began her film career in 1912 with Keystone in a bit part arranged by Mabel Normand.

Holmes was quite literally born to be the “darling of the railroads.” She was the daughter of Louis A. Holmes, a Midwest railway man and she knew a great deal about the business. The realism she brought to the part apparently paid off and The Hazards of Helen did so well that she and her husband J. P. McGowan were able to launch the Signal Film Company.

Holmes began working as a photographer's model but turned to acting, performing in live theatre and making her Broadway debut in 1909.

Holmes began working as a photographer’s model but turned to acting, performing in live theater and making her Broadway debut in 1909.

In her first two years with Kalem Studios, Holmes appeared in more than thirty film shorts, during which time her athletic ability to do physically demanding stunts led to her big break. However, she wasn’t the most famous or the most glamorous. But with the women’s suffrage movement reaching a fever pitch, her no-nonsense handling of everyday affairs in a man’s world turned her into a fan favorite.

Lobby card for the American serial film A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916).

Lobby card for the American serial film A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916).

The Signal Film Company made a dozen films between late 1915 and early 1917 with reasonable success but financial and distribution problems ended the production and Holmes did not appear in another film until 1919. In 1919 and 1920 she made only one film each year and only two in each of the next three years.

Holmes made several Westerns opposite actor and rodeo performer Jack Hoxie in the mid-1920s.

Holmes made several Westerns opposite actor and rodeo performer Jack Hoxie in the mid-1920s.

In 1926, her popularity began to wane in a market over-saturated with female cliffhanger films. She kept her hand in the business by becoming a trainer for animals used in the movies, but that lasted until her husband died in 1946.

Helen did such things as leap onto runaway trains or treacherously chase after bad guy train robbers.

Helen did such things as leap onto runaway trains or treacherously chase after bad guy train robbers.

Helen Holmes was absolutely fearless; she fought runaway trains, leaped from bridges, rescued male colleagues and wrestled would-be thieves. Her last appearance was on Broadway in 1935.

Ad for the American film serial The Fatal Fortune (1919).

Ad for the American film serial The Fatal Fortune (1919).

Helen died at her home in Burbank, California in 1950 as a result of heart failure. She was interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.