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).
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).
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]
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).
[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/
[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