Signal Film Company: Helen Holmes and Highland Park’s Very Own Movie Studio

As a genre, the action film has a long pedigree. The massive explosions, thrilling chases and courageous heroes who barely, but inevitably, defy death to win the day have been the backbone of Hollywood cinema since its inception. Today, we typically think of these films as largely created by, and for, men but this wasn’t always the case. Some of the earliest action heroes were actually heroines and one of the best was “railroad serial-queen,” Helen Holmes (figure 1).

Figure 1: Postcard of Helen Holmes as a railway telegrapher from the "Hazards of Helen" railroad serial

Figure 1: Postcard of Helen Holmes as a railway telegrapher from the “Hazards of Helen” railroad serial

In a career that spanned more than a quarter century, Holmes (1892 – 1950) was involved in an enormous number of films.[i] Principally she was an actress, but she also co-wrote, produced and directed many of the movies in which she starred. As a stunt woman, Holmes was absolutely fearless. She fought runaway trains, leapt from bridges (on horseback!), rescued male colleagues and wrestled would be thieves. Later in life she would become one of Hollywood’s leading animal trainers.

Actress Mabel Norman encouraged Holmes to try movies in California.[ii] Initially, Helen landed only small parts, but in 1914 she was cast as the lead in the Hazards of Helen, a smash 119-part serial for the Kalem Film Company. In the serial, Helen played a railroad telegrapher whose bravery and quick thinking repeatedly saved the company from potential ruin (a few episodes can be viewed on YouTube).

Figure 2: The Girl and the Game promised something “more spectacular, more romantic and more elaborate” than anything that had been seen before. The advertising for the film shows Helen, aboard a speeding locomotive, hurtling towards danger. In the ad below, which ran in national newspapers, the eye is drawn towards a horrible explosion with steam, wreckage and billowing fire. The heroine looks out from the engine’s window towards the crash. This is not a woman in need of rescuing; she leans forward, directly heading for the impending destruction.

Figure 2: The Girl and the Game promised something “more spectacular, more romantic and more elaborate” than anything that had been seen before. The advertising for the film shows Helen, aboard a speeding locomotive, hurtling towards danger. In the ad below, which ran in national newspapers, the eye is drawn towards a horrible explosion with steam, wreckage and billowing fire. The heroine looks out from the engine’s window towards the crash. This is not a woman in need of rescuing; she leans forward, directly heading for the impending destruction.

Holmes was quite literally born to be the “darling of the railroads”.[iii] As the daughter of a Midwest railway man, 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 director-husband J.P. McGowan were able to launch the Signal Film Company.[iv] In October 1915, Holmes and McGowan purchased land that had been used briefly by film pioneer, Siegmund Lubin at 4555 and 4560 Pasadena Avenue (now Figueroa).[v] The property had the added advantage of having a branch of the Los Angeles and Salt Lake railway running through it.

From their Highland Park studio, Holmes and McGowan embarked on a succession of railroad adventure serials. One of the most successful was, The Girl and the Game, which was distributed nationwide through the Mutual Film Corporation.[vi] Written by Frank H. Spearman, the story was published simultaneously in local newspapers (figure 2).[vii] The film was described as the “most costly production ever shown” and featured thrills, spills, run away trains and evil Wall Street financiers. Audiences loved it – especially the thousands of young working women who saw Helen as a powerful new model of self-sufficiency.[viii]

According to contemporary press accounts, the Signal Film studios were “equipped with every necessity for the production of big railroad novels.” The company bought “locomotives, freight trains and numerous Pullman coaches,” all of which were “completely demolished” in great collision scenes.[ix] In the summer of 1916, Girl and the Game was followed by Whispering Smith with McGowan and Holmes in the lead roles. The film featured a “sensational” train wreck shot in the yards of the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad in downtown LA (figure 3).[x] More serials followed, including Lass of the Lumberlands with exterior shots filmed in Yosemite Valley, the Railroad Raiders and the Lost Express.[xi] In just two short years, Holmes and McGowan produced 60 serial chapters and five feature films.[xii]

Figure 3: A photo of the Signal Film Company from March 24, 1917 at the Los Angeles and Salt Lake railway yards in downtown Los Angeles at 1st Street. Source: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection, number 00073773

Figure 3: A photo of the Signal Film Company from March 24, 1917 at the Los Angeles and Salt Lake railway yards in downtown Los Angeles at 1st Street. Source: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection, number 00073773

In February 1917, the Highland Park studios were substantially enlarged. Some of the old buildings were demolished and twenty new dressing rooms of a “spacious scale” were constructed. The dressing rooms were even luxuriously appointed with hot and cold running water.[xiii] Lubin’s original open-air stage was also removed to make room for a new one that could be used year-round (figure 4).

Despite box office success, Mutual Films collapsed in late 1917. Without Mutual’s distribution network, Holmes and McGowan were not able to sustain Signal Films and the company disbanded shortly thereafter.[xiv] The grueling speed of production had also apparently taken a toll on their marriage. Holmes and McGowan announced their separation in the summer of 1918.[xv] The pair reunited in 1921 for another creative burst, but split again, this time for good, in 1926.[xvi]

The studio buildings were converted to housing after the company left (figure 5). Many of the structures appear to have survived through the early 1970s when they were finally demolished to make way for a large apartment complex located immediately south of Sycamore Grove Park (figure 6).

Figure 4: A Sanborn map from 1921 shows the location of the Signal Film Corporation next to the Pasadena branch of the LA and SL railway line which ran along the Arroyo Seco.  The studio included a large sound stage, scene doc, laboratory, offices and a number of dressing rooms.

Figure 4: A Sanborn map from 1921 shows the location of the Signal Film Corporation next to the Pasadena branch of the LA and SL railway line which ran along the Arroyo Seco. The studio included a large sound stage, scene doc, laboratory, offices and a number of dressing rooms.

Figure 5: As this Sanborn map shows, a number of the buildings built for the studio (highlighted in red) remained through the 1950s. The scene doc was converted to a garage. The laboratory, projector and dressing rooms became apartments. Today none of the studio buildings appear to have survived, but there are quite a few houses from that time period that still stand (in green).

Figure 5: As this Sanborn map shows, a number of the buildings built for the studio (highlighted in red) remained through the 1950s. The scene doc was converted to a garage. The laboratory, projector and dressing rooms became apartments. Today none of the studio buildings appear to have survived, but there are quite a few houses from that time period that still stand (in green).

Figure 6: The Signal Film Company site today. The studio buildings are gone, replaced in the early 1970s by a large, bland apartment complex.

Figure 6: The Signal Film Company site today. The studio buildings are gone, replaced in the early 1970s by a large, bland apartment complex.

[i] Helen Holmes, http://silent-hall-of-fame.org/our-stars/helen-holmes; Women of Film Pioneers Project, https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-helen-holmes/; For more on women and railroad serials see: http://thebioscope.net/2010/11/23/

[ii] Helen Holmes http://www.westernclippings.com/sr/serialreport_2012_45.shtml

[iii] “Helen Holmes’ Father Was A Railroad Man” The Sun (1837-1988); Feb 13, 1916; ProQuest Historical Newspapers (1837-1988), pg. SS10; Helen Holmes, http://silent-hall-of-fame.org/our-stars/helen-holmes;

[iv] For a look at J.P. McGowan’s contributions to early cinema, see John J. McGowan’s J.P McGowan: Biography of a Hollywood Pioneer, McFarland and Company, 2005

[v] Eckhardt, Joseph, “The King of the Movies: Film Pioneer Siegmund Lubin” Cranbury, NJ. Associated University Presses, 1997; Los Angeles City Directory, 1915 and 1917, available at the Los Angeles Public Library

[vi] “Smash Up of Cars in Big Serial Film: the Girl and the Game to Follow the Diamond From the Sky”, The Hartford Courant, December 9, 1915, pg, 6

[vii] Display Ad 21 – No Title, Indianapolis Star, December 29, 1915, pg. 5; Display Ad 20 – No Title, The Atlanta Constitution, Dec 31, 1915, pg. 8; “Photoplay Notes: News and Gossip about Players and Film Dramas for Movie Fans”, The Hartford Courant, December 2, 1915, pg 6; “Display Ad 9 – No Title” The Atlanta Constitution, December 27, 1915, pg. 5

[viii] Enstad, Nan “Dressed for Adventure: Working Women and Silent Movie Serials in the 1910s” Feminist Studies, 21, 1, Spring 1995, pp. 67 – 90

[ix] “Smash Up of Cars in Big Serial Film: the Girl and the Game to Follow the Diamond From the Sky”, The Hartford Courant, December 9, 1915, pg, 6

[x] “Films Reviewed: Whispering Smith”. The Billboard (Archive: 1894-1960)28.24 (Jun 10, 1916): 60; “Pictures: New Signal Subject” The Billboard (Archive: 1894-1960)28.16 (Apr 15, 1916): 52.

[xi] “Back from Yosemite: Signal Players have Exciting Mishap” Los Angeles Times, December 3, 1916, pg, III18; McGowan, John J., J.P McGowan: Biography of a Hollywood Pioneer, McFarland and Company, 2005

[xii] McGowan, John J., J.P McGowan: Biography of a Hollywood Pioneer, McFarland and Company, 2005

[xiii] “Signal Must Enlarge” The Billboard (Archive: 1894-1960)29.5 (Feb 3, 1917): 54.

[xiv] Slide, Anthony, The New Historical Dictionary of the American Film Industry, Routledge, 2013, p. 187

[xv] “Helen Holmes Principal In A Domestic Smash-Up” Los Angeles Times (1886-1922); Jun 2, 1918; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990), pg. II1

[xvi] McGowan, John J., J.P McGowan: Biography of a Hollywood Pioneer, McFarland and Company, 2005

8 comments

  1. Thanks for this article. I’ve heard rumors about early film history connected with Highland Park but hadn’t read any historical research till now. We would like to use your research in an upcoming Museums of the Arroyo (MOTA Day) event sponsored by the Highland Park Heritage Trust. How can I reach you for permission?

    1. Thanks so much for the message. HPHT does great work and I would be delighted to be involved. Email is drake.reitan@gmail.com

  2. Shirley Freitas · · Reply

    Hello, I am a great-granddaughter of Helen Holmes and J. P. McGowan. Thanks for the information on Signal and the great research. One small correction, Helen never appeared on Broadway. There was a well-known Broadway actress by that name. I’ve seen photographs of that Helen Holmes and it’s clearly not “our” Helen. The Broadway actress was much older, too. You can find references to her in the NY Times and other periodicals of that time; I also did research at the Billy Rose Theater Div of the New York Public Library and confirmed that Broadway HH and movie-HH are two different people.
    If you are interested, I wrote a brief biography of Helen for a silent film festival in Niles, CA in 2011. It has been reprinted on the website Silent Hall of Fame. Also, there are wonderful articles about Helen and Jack at these two sites:
    http://www.neatorama.com/2015/01/02/Helen-Holmes-The-Girl-at-the-Switch/
    http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/the-terowie-tearaway/story-e6frea83-1226012495037

    Also, a short film was made circa 2010 called “Stunt Love” about Helen and Jack. It was made for Australian TV and is difficult to obtain, but worth the effort.
    Shirley Freitas

    1. Wow, how wonderful to hear your story! I’ll definitely make the correction and will look out for the Australian show. She seemed like an incredible woman – a true pioneer.

  3. […] live by hype, die by gossip. When she and her husband separated, the Los Angeles Times sneered: “HELEN HOLMES PRINCIPAL IN A DOMESTIC SMASH-UP.” Her career derailed as her personal life did, […]

  4. […] live by hype, die by gossip. When she and her husband separated, the Los Angeles Times sneered: HELEN HOLMES PRINCIPAL IN A DOMESTIC SMASH-UP. Her career derailed as her personal life did, as […]

  5. […] live by hype, die by gossip. When she and her husband separated, the Los Angeles Times sneered: HELEN HOLMES PRINCIPAL IN A DOMESTIC SMASH-UP. Her career derailed as her personal life did, as […]

  6. […] live by hype, die by gossip. When she and her husband separated, the Los Angeles Times sneered: HELEN HOLMES PRINCIPAL IN A DOMESTIC SMASH-UP. Her career derailed as her personal life did, as […]

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