The Stuntwomen of the Silent Era

Gibson Stunt (The New Republic)
Stuntwoman Helen Gibson Credit: The New Republic

In its infancy, Hollywood employed roughly 50% women and 50% men. Everyone worked extremely hard and created 10,919 silent films between 1912 and 1929, of which approximately 14% still exist. Women acted, wrote, directed, produced and, in many cases, performed their own stunts. The work was dangerous and safety was not taken into consideration; it was a pioneering time and the risks had not yet occurred to people. Some of the stunts were performed over multiple takes and sometimes they resulted in death.

The first stuntwomen came from theatre, dance and vaudeville backgrounds. Some had to jump into freezing cold water, some hung from buildings and others crashed cars, repeatedly. It was reported that during 1918 and 1919, between 37 Hollywood companies, 1,052 women and men were hurt performing stunts on set, 18 were seriously injured and three had died. Stuntwomen used to joke that pants were a luxury when they typically had to work in dresses.

Helen Holmes (Silent Hall of Fame)
Holmes Publicity Photo Credit: Silent Hall of Fame

Helen Holmes dreamed of being a race car driver when she was young. And she also had a natural talent for it. The problem was racing was a male-only sport. She looked elsewhere and turned to Hollywood. She impressed a number of industry heads on one of her first films, The Railroad Raiders (1917). Holmes drove a car at full speed off a nine-meter-high (30 feet) bridge onto a moving barge. It took four tries but she succeeded in the end. Journalists were on set during the shoot and were blown away by her fearlessness.

Helen Holmes and Leo D. Maloney in A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916)
Holmes and Leo D. Maloney in A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916) Credit: iMDB

Holmes was also known at the time as the titular character in The Hazards of Helen (1914-1917) serial. She made nearly 50 episodes of it before moving onto other projects.

At age 18, Rose August Wenger was entranced by her first Wild West Show. With no prior experience, she set out and learnt to ride a horse. In a short period of time, she mastered picking a handkerchief up off the ground with one hand while riding a horse at a full galop, an achievement only a small number could do. She worked for a rodeo company for a period before setting her sights on Hollywood. Skilled female riders were utilised as extras in Westerns, sometimes doubling for men. She got a part in Ranch Girls on the Rampage (1912) making $15 a week (no figures in this article have been adjusted for inflation).

Her next break came playing Helen Holmes’s stunt double in The Hazards of Helen. After Holmes left, she became the new lead. The studio changed her screenname to Helen Gibson.

Helen Gibson - 1920
Gibson in 1920 Credit: Wikipedia

In one of her most daring stunts, she had to jump off a platform and onto a moving train. Gibson performed the stunt several times with a stationary train. The stunt was accurately measured by professionals but with a moving train the chances of failure increased and so did the danger. She jumped onto the moving train perfectly, but fell backwards and lost her balance. She landed on the carriage roof and nearly toppled off. She was okay and the footage was used in the short.

Gibson starred in 70 episodes of The Hazards of Helen before it ended in 1917. She is regarded as the first official Hollywood stuntwoman.

Gibson leaps onto a train in The Governor's Special (1916) (Silent Hall of Fame)
Gibson leaps onto a train in The Govenor’s Special (1916) Credit: Silent Hall of Fame

Holmes and Gibson retired from stunts and moved into producing and directing for the rest of their careers.

Stunt work didn’t always go according to plan.

In 1916, actress Mary MacLaren had to drive a car 40 kilometres per hour (25 miles per hour) in reverse down a hill and lost control. She sued the studio wanting to be released from her contract.

Ann Little (iMDB)
Ann Little in Nan of the North (1922) Credit: iMDB

Ann Little had to sneak out a house window and onto a horse to escape her character’s kidnappers in a scene in The Valley Feud (1915). Director Frank Cooley had real bullets fired at her and the horse. He wanted the effect of splitting wood to show up on camera. Little was unharmed but the horse was injured and had to be put down.

Gish in Way Down East (1920) (Pinterest)
Gish in Way Down East (1920) Credit: Pinterest

Way Down East (1920) is regarded as an early Hollywood masterpiece. The film’s climax takes place on a snow-covered river and filming required star Lillian Gish to dangle her limbs and hair in freezing cold water for hours. She was happy with the movie’s end result, though she lost partial feeling in her hand and would have health issues with it for the rest of her life.

Pearl White had performed all her own stunts but refused to for one in a scene in Plunder (1922). She felt the situation was too dangerous to perform. A stuntman, John Stevenson, volunteered to double for her but, while filming, fell at a crucial point and went under the wheels of a car. He was killed instantly.

By 1927, the film business was the fifth biggest industry in America. Talkies (films with sound) had been introduced that same year and it was the beginning of the end for silent movies. Women also had less opportunities open to them as men predominately ran production companies. Stuntwomen are still around today but it seems, for now, that their heyday was the Silent Era. It was reported that in the 1980s there were a total of five working stuntwomen in Los Angeles all up.

Gibson in The Wrong Train Order (1915) (Silent Hall of Fame)
Gibson in The Wrong Train Order (1915) Credit: Silent Hall of Fame

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on August 22nd, 2018. (http://thesydneyfeminists.blogspot.com.au)

References:

10 Great Stunt Women from the 1910s (http://imaginemdd.blogspot.com/2014/09/10-great-stunt-women-from-1910s.html)

Helen Gibson – iMDB (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0316993/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1)

Helen Gibson – Silent Hall of Fame (https://silent-hall-of-fame.org/index.php/our-stars/stars-f-k/helen-gibson)

Helen Holmes – Silent Hall of Fame (https://silent-hall-of-fame.org/index.php/our-stars/stars-f-k/helen-holmes)

Helen Holmes – iMDB (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0391847/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1)

Put The Girl in Danger! (https://newrepublic.com/article/124981/put-girl-danger)

Stuntwomen: Then and Now (http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/doubledare/stuntwomen.html)

What Women In Film Can Learn From The “Manless Eden” That Was Hollywood’s Silent Era (https://www.refinery29.com/2018/04/197006/women-silent-era-hollywood-prominent-directors-writers)

Why Stuntwomen Face Unequal Pay for Equal Stunts (Guest Column) (https://variety.com/2015/film/news/stuntwomen-unequal-pay-hiring-gap-1201605297/)