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

Helen Gibson was facing a dilemma. She had to jump off a pair of racing horses onto a rope hanging from a bridge. Then she could swing onto a moving locomotive. She hoped that once on board, she could capture a group of railroad bandits.

Gibson was not concerned about the daring stunts; the entire sequence, filmed for an episode in the silent serial “Helen’s Hazards,” was his idea. An insurance adjuster could not cover the actress because he deemed her an “unsound risk.”

Few could have blamed him. In 1916, a large segment of American society did not consider women capable of voting or driving—few organizations (if any) prioritized actors’ safety at the time. Gibson would be replaced if she broke enough bones that she could no longer participate in the shoot. She had already suffered several “scrapes” (as she called them).

She jumped anyway, striking herself on the engine cab as she fell. Gibson, who has been a professional gymnast for over 30 years, shrugged off the injury despite a doctor’s recommendation that she stay in an infirmary for a week. She remarked that “life is cluttered with perils.” She didn’t become the first professional stuntwoman in the film industry by avoiding dangers.

Gibson ignored naysayers from the time she was a teenager. She was born Rose Wenger in 1892. In 1909 she worked in a Cleveland Cigar Factory when she became “enraptured.” by a Wild West Show. In a 1968 Films In Review article, she recalled “… that her father had encouraged her to be a “tomboy.” At 16, she had no prior experience with horses but was fascinated by the idea of a Wild West show.

1910 Gibson began touring the country with the Miller Brothers 101 ranch Wild West Show. She was a quick learner and amazed audiences when she grabbed a handkerchief from the ground as she galloped on a horse. All the rodeo veterans were convinced this novice would be kicked in the head. She later said, “Such events might happen to other people but could never happen to me.”

The rodeo season she ended in Venice, California, where performers were hired as temporary employees by Thomas Ince. Gibson rode five miles to and from movie sets each week for $8. She was paid $15 after she passed a screen test. She had her first credit role in the 1912 film “The Ranch Girls on a Rampage.”

In 1913, she met Edmund ‘Hoot’ Gibson, a young champion who would soon be her partner. She saw it as her dream. She and Hoot, for example, slept on benches or in hallways when they were in Pendleton. The town had limited accommodations, and only married couples were allowed to stay. The friends decided to get married because they would rather sleep on a bed than a bench. This hasty decision shaped their professional and personal lives.

After the rodeo season ended, Hoot and Gibson returned to Los Angeles. Hoot became a stunt double of Tom Mix, while Gibson became a double of Helen Holmes. At the time, Holmes was one of Hollywood’s beloved serial Queens. This group included Pearl White, Ruth Roland, and Grace Cunard. These “new women” were a regular feature on the screens of moviegoers. Their adventures were told in weekly serials, and their exploits helped pave the way for flappers to gain freedom in the 1920s.

Shelley Stamp is a film professor at the University of California Santa Cruz. She says that serials gave viewers, particularly young women, a place to fantasize about new forms of femininity. Serials’ likely fans, office workers, retail clerks, and factory laborers might have looked up to serial queens for new ideas about womanhood they could emulate.

Off-screen, suffragists continued to push for the right to vote. Serial queens, on the other hand, were masters of their fate. They were successful both personally and professionally. They raced cars, rode motorcycles, and saved themselves and others. The women quickly dismissed their doubters and left the rapt audience wondering how to surpass previous challenges each week.

Holmes’ answer was to rely on an actor stunt double for some of the 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.”

“Helen’s Hazard” premiered in Nov 1914. Holmes plays the titular telegrapher, constantly undervalued by her male co-workers and called upon to rescue passengers from robbers or runaway trains.

Holmes was a regular contributor to the serial and put herself at risk. Gibson took the fall when stunts made insurance agents nervous. She created a new position. She jumped, for instance, from the roof of a train station to its top in “A Girls Grit.” She later remembered, “I landed straight, but the train’s movement made me roll towards the end of the car.” I grabbed an air vent and held on to it, allowing me to hang over the edge of the screen to enhance the effect.

In 1915, after Holmes and her husband left the series to start their own production company, her stuntwoman was the star.

The serial “The Hazards of Helen” was so popular that the studio demanded Gibson change her last name from Rose to Helen when she assumed the role. The management did not want to hide that the two women played the same position and looked very similar. Gibson was too talented, and Holmes too famous to pull off a bait-and-switch. There was only one more serial queen to be revered.

And so audiences did. Gibson and her husband became celebrities and stars together in fan magazines.

Gibson was dubbed the “most daring actor in movies” and lived up to that title with episodes such as “In Death’s Pathway,” (one of many “Hazards Of Helen” installments where she jumped off a bridge on a moving train), A Plunge From The Sky (jumping from a biplane flying into a river), and “Ablaze on the Rails,” (jumping from a speeding motorbike to a burning box

The Hazards of Helen ended in February 1917 after 119 episodes. It was the longest-running series in history. Whether it is technically a series or a more conventional film series is up for debate. She also founded a production company but ran out of money before she could release her first picture, the defiantly named a href= “https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0012504/”>em>No Man’s Woman/em>/a>. She founded a production firm but ran out of funds before releasing her first film–the defiantly titled No Man’s Woman. The film was later picked up by another company and released under the less-abusive title Nine Points of the Law.

Gibson began to feel the squeeze of an industry that was becoming increasingly competitive. Serial queens enjoyed creative freedom in the early years of Hollywood when anything went. They were often writers or producers for the films they starred. Gibson and her colleagues discovered, in the 1920s, that Hollywood studios, led by men, were eager to seize control and profits for themselves. Consequently, it started to restrict’s roles for women onscreen and behind-the-scenes.

Gibson was dumped in 1920 by her husband, whose success was exploding. She hated being called “Mrs. Hoot, she accepted the divorce with typical sanguineity. Hoot continued to list himself as married in a census shortly after their separation, but Gibson declared herself a divorcee.

Hoot continued to grow in popularity as Gibson’s fame waned. He was one of only a few silent actors who successfully transitioned from quiet to sound films. Studio’s increasingly relied upon employing men in wigs for stunts that women had proven they could do. Once actresses became reliable moneymakers, producers tended to discourage risk-taking. Men were hired to play women in dangerous situations. It’s important to note that stunt performers still called for an end even in 2020, a century after the invention of wigs. )

Gibson never sat back and enjoyed her success. She returned to her roots when leading roles dried up. In 1924 she worked as a stunt rider for the Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus, where she spent three happy and successful years. In 1927, she returned to Hollywood to rebuild her career. She became a reliable stunt double for celebrated actors like Marie Dressler and Marjorie Main. She drove a team on horses in John Ford’s 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance when she was almost 70. Gibson passed away at the age of 85.

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