Hollywood’s First Professional Stuntwoman Jumped From Planes and Swung Onto Trains

Helen Gibson had a problem. She was required to jump from a sitting perched on a pair of racing horses to an untied rope suspended from a bridge. She could then leap onto a train engine. After she was aboard, she hoped to catch the railroad bandits.

The daring act was the problem, and in reality, the entire sequence filmed to be used in the episode of the silent series “The Hazards of Helen“–was Gibson’s creation. The problems stemmed from an agitated insurance adjuster who refused to grant the actress’s insurance coverage by declaring that she was “an unsound risk.”

Many would have blamed him. In 1916, most American society was not convinced that women could cast a ballot or even drive in a vehicle. There were no Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules and only a handful of (if there were any) organizations concerned with actors’ health and safety. If Gibson injured enough bones that she could not continue to participate in the shooting–and she’d been through her fair amount of “scrapes,” as she described them–she’d be substituted.

Gibson jumped regardless, slamming herself against the cab of her engine while falling. Despite a doctor’s suggestion she stays for a week in the hospital, Gibson ignored the accident as she has throughout her professional career. “Life is just cluttered up with perils,” she said. She didn’t even get to become a business’s premier professional stuntwoman by not avoiding the dangers.

Gibson had been ignoring naysayers since she was a teenager. Born Rose Wenger in 1892, she worked in a Cleveland cigar factory when she became “enraptured” by a Wild West show that came through town in 1909. “My father,” she recalled in a 1968 Films in Review article, “… had wanted a son and encouraged me to be a tomboy.” The 16-year-old had no experience with horses but was entranced by the idea of rodeos, so she scoured want ads, hoping for an opportunity to join one.

In 1910, Gibson was traveling around the United States in her show, the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show. Quick to learn, she delighted audiences by picking one of her handkerchiefs off the floor on a horse that was galloping, dissing the rodeo experts who believed that this novice would be to be smashed. “Such things might happen to others,” she later added, “but could never happen to me.”

The 1911 rodeo ended with its year in Venice, California, where the participants found work with film director Thomas Ince. For a weekly salary of $8, Gibson rode her horse for five miles to movie sets and provided her with work as an additional. When she got the screen test, and was paid a salary that grew to $15. Her first credit role was in 1912’s, powerfully titled “Ranch Girls on a Rampage.”

In the rodeo ring around 1913, the upcoming star was introduced to Edmund “Hoot” Gibson, another promising champion to become her ringmaster. It was a difficult life, but she considered it the fulfillment of her dreams. The drawbacks were primarily practical. In the town of Pendleton, Oregon, for instance, Hoot and she Hoot met other entertainers that slept on benches or in hallways as the town’s accommodations were reserved for married couples. Thinking they’d rather be in a bed than on the courts, the two friends were married in a hurry, a decision that influenced their professional and personal lives.

When the couple returned to Los Angeles after rodeo season, Hoot was hired as an extra stunt double for Western famous Tom Mix. At the same time, Gibson was chosen to play the role of Helen Holmes, the protagonist of the cult series “The Hazards of Helen.” Holmes was at the time one of Hollywood’s silent-film serial queens, a diverse popular group that included women such as Pearl White, Ruth Roland, and Grace Cunard. Filmgoers were regularly paired with these shockingly courageous “New Women,” their adventures unfolded in weekly, short installments referred to as serials and whose exploits helped pave the way to the freedoms that flappers gained throughout the 1920s.

“Serials offered viewers–young women in particular–a fantasy space to explore new modes of femininity,” says Shelley Stamp, filmmaker, and scholar from the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Office workers, retail clerks, and factory laborers, the likely fan base for serials, might have looked to the serial queens … for fresh ideas about womanhood that they could emulate in small but meaningful ways.”

Off-screen, suffragists were striving to gain their right to vote. On-screen, however, they were lovers from their destinies. They were successful professionally and personally in racing cars and riding motorcycles. They saved themselves as well as rescued others. They brashly dismissed doubters and left their fans in awe each week, pondering what these courageous heroines could do to overcome their previous challenges.

One option for Holmes one of the reasons was that she could count on a stunt performer to play some of her most dangerous scenes.

Holmes was no stranger to taking risks herself. Indeed, Stamp, author of Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture After the Nickelodeon, says the serial queens were “cinema’s first action-adventure heroes.”

The Hazards of Helen” was first shown in November 1914. It starred Holmes as the leading Telegraph operator misunderstood by her male colleagues. She is frequently called upon to protect passengers from train runaway trains and robbers.

Holmes played a part in many of the serial’s scripts and frequently put herself in harm’s way. However, when it came time for incidents that made insurance agents anxious, Gibson stepped in to take the (literal) fall, establishing an entirely new position within the process. In the film “A Girl’s Grit,” for instance, she jumped off the roof of a station onto the upper reaches of a swiftly moving train. “I landed right,” she later said, “but the train’s movement caused me to slide towards the back of the car. I snatched the air vent and held on to let my body hang over the edge to enhance the impact of the image.” She minimized her damage by saying, “I suffered only a couple of bruises.”

Following the time that, Holmes and her partner resigned from the show in 1915 to start their own company for production 1915. Her stuntwoman was the main character of the show.

“The Hazards of Helen” was a cult show that the studio made Gibson change her character’s name instead of Rose to Helen after she was appointed to the surface. Although the two women played the same texture and were very similar, The management had no intention to conceal the name change. Holmes was famous enough, and Gibson was too skilled to pull a switch bait-and-switch. Then, there was one more serial queen to be admired.

And so audiences did. In the next few years, Gibson, her husband, and her partner were praised in fan magazines. Their combined wattage grew as they became celebrities independently and in a group.

The “most daring actress in pictures,” Gibson was able to live the hype by starring in episodes such as “In Death’s Pathway” (one of several “Hazards of Helen” installments where she leaped off the over a bridge onto a train), “A Plunge From the Sky” (a leap from a plane that’s flying into the water) as well as “Ablaze on the Rails” (a jump from a rumbling motorcycle into a burning box car).

“The Hazards of Helen” was canceled in February 1917 after 119 episodes. It was the longest-running television series in recorded history. (Whether it’s technically serial or a more conventional film is an open issue to debate.) For the next two years, Gibson was featured in various serials in addition to melodramas and Westerns. Gibson also started a production company. However, it ran short of cash before she could make her debut film, which was adamantly known as No Man’s WomanThe film was later taken over by a different organization and released with a less sexy name, Nine Points of the Law.

Gibson was beginning to feel the strain of a squeezing industry. In the early, all-you-can-eat time, serial queens were comfortable with their creative freedom and acting as authors or producers for the films they were featured in. In the early 1920s and beyond, however, when the industry was consolidated, Gibson and her peers discovered that the male executives of their Hollywood studios were eager to wrestle control of profits and power to themselves. In the process, women’s roles on screen and behind the scenes are a thing of the past. Were beginning to shrink.

In 1920, Gibson became unceremoniously divorced my husband, whose growth was exponentially increasing. Because she had grown tired of being referred to as “Mrs. Hoot Gibson,” she took their divorce in a typical cheerful fashion. Although Hoot claimed to be married on the census form after the split, Gibson declared herself widowed.

Hoot’s popularity continued to grow throughout the years that followed. He was among the only silent actors who effectively transitioned from quiet to sound films while Gibson’s popularity declined. Studios increasingly depended on hiring men with costumes for stunts that women could achieve. Stunt performers were already a regular scene on set; however, once they could earn money, the producers were less likely to promote the risk-taking of intrepid actors. This meant that men were frequently hired to compensate for women in potentially dangerous situations. (It’s important to note that in 2020, 100 years later–stunt artists were insisting on a stop to the habit of the act of wigging.)

However, Gibson did not sit back and take her time. When her leading roles ended, she returned to her origins. In 1924, she worked as a Barnum & Bailey Circus trick rooster. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, where she enjoyed three blissful years. Then she returned to Hollywood in 1927 to relaunch her reputation as a reliable but frequently uncredited stunt double for renowned actresses such as Marie Dressler, Marjorie Main, and Ethel Barrymore. She shot The final action at 70, driving a group of horses for John Ford’s 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Gibson passed away in 1977, aged 85.


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