The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
Our silent heroes and heroines are often shrouded in myth, partially because so much information about the early era of filmmaking is lost to history, but also because the studios loved the idea of keeping the image of their leading men and ladies a bit of a mystery. So it’s no surprise that some dates and other issues surrounding the origins of these legends is a bit hazy, and this is as much true for Helen Holmes, adventure series queen, as it is for some of her more famous, and infamous, contemporaries.
The exact birth date for Helen is not certain. Some sources have her born on June 19, 1893 in Chicago, Illinois, while others name South Bend, Indiana as the place of her birth. Still others have cited Louisville, Kentucky, in either mid-June or July, though 1893 is a good guesstimate of the year she was born, making her slightly older than some of her golden era peers. It’s also clear that she moved to Chicago at an early age, a city that is known for its rain and gales of wind. Because of this, her family eventually moved to California so a sickly brother could have a friendlier environment for his needs. The family settled in California’s gruelingly hot Death Valley.
Already, the imminent trajectory of Helen’s career begins to make sense. Anyone who has been to Death Valley, especially coming from a smaller town or a clustered city, is aware of what an impact that great expanse of desert-like space can have; the feeling of being on a frontier, and of great adventure, is palpable. As a little girl, Helen helped her family prospect for gold and for a little while even lived with a local Indian tribe. Her childhood was certainly not ordinary. Tragically, it was around this time that her ill brother passed away, and in the wake of his death, the family uprooted once again, landing in New York. The year was 1910.
It’s unclear how Helen came to become a budding performer, but soon upon arriving in New York, she started acting in small theatrical productions (eventually hitting Broadway in 1909), and had, by virtue of living in California, become friends with soon-to-be starlets like
Mabel Normand. Mabel had moved to Hollywood, the then-new birthplace of the early twentieth century movie industry, to work for maverick director (and Canadian) Mack Sennett at his Keystone Studios; she invited Helen to join her, telling her that opportunities would be plenty. When Helen arrived, Mabel helped her out by helping set up some modeling gigs and some bit work in films; her first movie role was 1912’s King’s Court, and she made no less than 23 films in 1913, some of which featured her as the star, including: Hide and Seek, A Fight to a Finish, The Hermit’s Ruse, The Silent Warning, In Peril of His Life and Gilt Edge Stocks.
Many of these films were made under the Keystone banner, but, even by the end of 1913, it was clear to her that her career wouldn’t reach the heights she longed for by staying with Sennett's company. As the photos can attest, she was a beautiful woman, but she wasn’t deemed to be as glamorous-looking as some of her peers, and her roles had diminished in stature. So, when she was offered a contract with the Kalem Company near the end of 1913, she leapt on the opportunity.
Kalem treated Helen very well, and she developed a good relationship early on with film director
J.P. McGowan, which, incidentally, led to marriage. J.P. directed her in many films starting in 1913, many of which featured her as a gal in love with adventure; this is the image of Helen that really stuck, and brought her to her big break as a big star. Some of these films from 1914 include: 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. Not only did Helen look the part as the adventure heroine, but she was also made of steel, often performing her own stunts and proving to the powers that be that women, too, could become reigning action heroes.
It is interesting that it was also around that time that the suffrage movement in the United States was in full swing, so Helen’s popularity base was bound to be stronger than ever. The film studios, as astute then as now, realized there could be a boon in women-films, and in 1914 Kalem’s big competitor, Pathé Frčres studios, released a series of films called The Perils of Pauline, featuring starlet
Pearl White. This series proved to be box office gold, so naturally, Kalem needed to react. The result was an adventure series of their own called The Hazards of Helen, starring … our very own Helen Holmes, and directed by a number of directors, including J.P. McGowan and even Helen herself, though she remains uncredited.
Helen starred in all 26 Hazards films, and in nearly all of them she not only starred, but performed all of her own stunts. Her character was enormously appealing to audiences: she was feisty, witty, clever and above all, fiercely independent – she would do things from chasing bad guys to jumping onto running trains, all with dignity, grace and a sense of fun. Which isn’t to say that at times she wouldn't fall for men or be rescued by men, but for the most part she was the master of her own game, putting many of the males around her to shame and restoring justice to all – all in the name of great fun, of course!
These were the glory years. Helen became an enormous star, leading her and her husband J.P. to leave Kalem to try their luck for two other companies: Thomas H. Ince Productions and Universal Pictures. Soon, however, along the lines of some of their peers – most famously,
Douglas Fairbanks and
Mary Pickford with United Artists – decided to form their own company, Signal Film Productions. For obvious reasons their genre of choice was the adventure film, but as with many small companies, stiff competition and the lack of a major hit proved to be their downfall. Because of this, Helen made very few films in 1916 (among these films were Judith of the Cumberlands, The Diamond Runner and A Lass of the Lumberlands), and after only making two films in 1917 (The Railroad Raiders and The Lost Express) she didn’t make a single film until 1919, and only made one film that year: The Fatal Fortune, for another company. These films did well enough, but not enough to keep a fledgling company afloat.
Helen’s career began to unwind around this time. She continued to make a few films per year, and between 1924 and 1926 she made several adventure films, but the time of huge demand for these films had passed, and by then, the market was virtually flooded with films – and new starlets – of this kind. Helen also made a few Westerns – an interesting variation of the adventure film – with Jack Hoxie during this period. Some highlights are: The Train Wreckers (1925) and Whispering Smith, Mistaken Orders, The Lost Express, and her last film of the silent era, The Open Switch (all 1926).
Helen had never fully given up working in the theatre, and when her marriage to J.P. ended in 1925, she renewed her passion for the stage in full force. She acted on Broadway for a full decade, ending this phase of her career in 1935. She also married Lloyd A. Saunders, a stuntman, and, capitalizing on the enormous success of the Rin Tin Tin movies, they began a new career of sorts training animals for films. Seemingly running on a reserve of energy, Helen also took to running an antique store out of her San Fernando Valley home, specializing in vintage dolls.
Helen was retired by this point – she made a few films here and there between 1937 and 1943, but the roles were tiny and this could in no way qualify as a return to the vocation that made her a star. Her last role was in 1943’s The More the Merrier. She developed a heart condition and died on July 8, 1950 in Burbank, because of heart failure. She outlived Lloyd by four years, and was only 58 at the time of her death. She will always be remembered as one of the first ladies of the adventure drama, and as living proof that the American myth was built not only by men, but by intelligent, strong and daring women.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her
regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in
The Movie Profiles &
Tammy invites you to write her at
firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments on her column.