Helen Gibson had a problem. She needed to leap from a standing position atop a pair of racing horses to a rope dangling from a bridge, which she would then use to swing onto a moving train engine. Once on board, she hoped to capture a gang of railroad bandits.
None of these daring stunts was the issue; in fact, the entire sequence—filmed for an episode of the silent serial “The Hazards of Helen”—was Gibson’s idea. The complications arose from an anxious insurance adjuster, who flatly refused the actress coverage by declaring her “an unsound risk.”
Few would have blamed him. It was 1916, and a significant segment of American society didn’t consider women capable of casting a vote, let alone driving a car. At the time, there were no Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations and few (if any) organizations prioritizing actors’ welfare. If Gibson broke enough bones to limit her continued participation in the shoot—and she’d already had her share of “scrapes,” as she called them—she’d simply be replaced.
She did the jump anyway, striking herself hard against the engine cab while falling. Despite a doctor’s suggestion that she spend a week in an infirmary, Gibson shrugged the injury off, much as she did throughout her career. “Life is just cluttered up with perils,” she observed. And she didn’t get to be the film industry’s first professional stuntwoman by avoiding them.
Gibson had been ignoring naysayers since she was a teenager. Born Rose Wenger in 1892, she was working in a Cleveland cigar factory when she became “enraptured” by a Wild West show that came through town in 1909. “My father,” she recalled in a 1968 Films in Review article, “… had wanted a son and encouraged me to be a tomboy.” The 16-year-old had no experience with horses but was entranced by the idea of rodeos, so she scoured want ads, hoping for an opportunity to join one.
In 1910, Gibson started traveling the country with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show. A quick learner, she thrilled audiences by grabbing a handkerchief off the ground while astride a galloping horse, dismissing all the rodeo veterans convinced this novice would get her head kicked in. “Such things might happen to others,” she later said, “but could never happen to me.”
The rodeo ended its 1911 season in Venice, California, where the performers found temporary employment with filmmaker Thomas Ince. For $8 a week, Gibson rode her horse five miles each way to movie sets that offered her work as an extra. After she landed a screen test, her salary went up to $15. Her first credited role was in 1912’s evocatively titled “Ranch Girls on a Rampage.”
Back on the rodeo scene in 1913, the future star met Edmund “Hoot” Gibson, another up-and-coming champion who was soon to be her partner in the ring. It was a tough life, but she saw it as a dream. The downsides were largely practical: In Pendleton, Oregon, for instance, she and Hoot encountered other entertainers sleeping on benches and in hallways, as the town’s limited lodgings were saved for married couples. Figuring they’d rather sleep in a bed than on a bench, the friends got married—a hasty decision that wound up shaping both their personal and professional lives.
Upon the couple’s return to Los Angeles after rodeo season, Hoot was hired as a stunt double for Western superstar Tom Mix, while Gibson was selected as a double for Helen Holmes, star of the popular series “The Hazards of Helen.” Holmes was, at the time, one of Hollywood’s silent film serial queens, a broad, beloved cadre that also included women like Pearl White, Ruth Roland and Grace Cunard. Moviegoers had regular dates with these shockingly daring “New Women,” whose adventures unfolded in short, weekly installments known as serials and whose exploits paved the way for the freedoms won by flappers in the 1920s.
“Serials offered viewers—young women in particular—a fantasy space to explore new modes of femininity,” says Shelley Stamp, a film scholar at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Office workers, retail clerks and factory laborers, the likely fan base for serials, might have looked to the serial queens … for fresh ideas about womanhood that they could emulate in small but meaningful ways in their own lives.”
Off screen, suffragists were still pushing to earn the right to vote. On screen, however, the serial queens were mistresses of their own fates. They succeeded personally and professionally, raced cars and rode motorcycles, saved themselves and rescued others. They casually dismissed doubters and left rapt audiences dangling each week, wondering how these brave heroines could possibly outdo their previous predicaments.
One answer, for Holmes, was that she could rely on a stunt double to perform some of her most perilous 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.”
“The Hazards of Helen” premiered in November 1914, with Holmes as the titular telegraph operator, who is underestimated by her male colleagues and constantly called upon to save passengers from robbers and runaway trains.
Holmes worked on many of the serial’s scripts and regularly put herself in harm’s way. But when it came to stunts that made insurance agents nervous, Gibson stepped in to take the (literal) fall, creating a brand-new position in the process. In “A Girl’s Grit,” for example, she jumped from a station roof to the top of a fast-moving train. “I landed right,” she later recalled, “but the train’s motion made me roll toward the end of the car. I caught hold of an air vent and hung on, allowing my body to dangle over the edge to increase the effect on the screen.” True to form, she downplayed the injuries she’d sustained, adding, “I suffered only a few bruises.”
After Holmes and her husband left the series to form their own production company in 1915, her stuntwoman became the star of the show.
“The Hazards of Helen” was such a popular serial that the studio insisted Gibson change her name from Rose to Helen when she took over the role. Though the women played the same character and closely resembled each other, management had no intention of hiding the change. Holmes was too famous, and Gibson too talented, to pull a bait-and-switch. Now, there was just one more serial queen to revere.
And so audiences did. Soon, both Gibson and her husband were celebrated in fan magazines, their joint wattage doubled as they became stars in their own right and celebrities together.
Proclaimed the “most daring actress in pictures,” Gibson lived up to her billing with episodes like “In Death’s Pathway” (one of several “Hazards of Helen” installments in which she jumped from a bridge onto a moving train), “A Plunge From the Sky” (a jump from a flying biplane into a river) and “Ablaze on the Rails” (a jump from a speeding motorcycle to a burning box car).
“The Hazards of Helen” ended in February 1917 after 119 episodes, becoming the longest-running serial in history. (Whether it’s technically a serial or a more traditional film series is a matter of debate.) Over the next two years, Gibson appeared in several other serials, as well as melodramas and Westerns. She also founded a production company, though she ran out of money before she was able to release her first picture—the defiantly named No Man’s Woman. The film was eventually picked up by a different company and released with the less-caustic title Nine Points of the Law.
Gibson was starting to feel the pinch of a tightening industry. In the early, anything-goes years, serial queens were used to having creative freedom, serving as writers or producers of the works they starred in. From the early 1920s onward, however, as the industry solidified, Gibson and her peers discovered that the men running the Hollywood studios were ready to wrest control, profits and power for themselves. As a result, roles for women—both on screen and behind the scenes—began to constrict.
In 1920, Gibson was also unceremoniously dumped by her husband, whose own success was growing exponentially. Since she’d come to hate being identified as “Mrs. Hoot Gibson,” she accepted their divorce in typically sanguine fashion. While Hoot still listed himself as married on a census form soon after they separated, Gibson went ahead and declared herself a widow.
Hoot’s star continued to rise in the following years—he was one of the relatively few silent actors to make a successful transition to sound films—as Gibson’s waned. Studios increasingly relied on the soon-entrenched practice of hiring men in wigs to perform stunts women had proved they could accomplish. Stuntmen were already a common sight on sets; once actresses were reliable moneymakers, producers were less likely to encourage intrepid risk-taking. As a result, men were often hired to double for women in dangerous scenarios. (It’s worth noting that as recently as 2020—a full century later—stunt performers were still calling for an end to the practice of wigging.)
Yet Gibson was never one to rest on her laurels. When leading roles dried up, she turned back to her roots. By 1924, she was working as a trick rider with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, where she spent three happy years. She returned to Hollywood in 1927 to rebuild her career as a reliable—though often uncredited—stunt double for celebrated actresses like Marie Dressler, Marjorie Main and Ethel Barrymore. She shot her final stunt when she was nearly 70, driving a team of horses in John Ford’s 1962 classic, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Gibson died in 1977 at age 85.
There is still a push for representation, and sometimes the wigs are still going on men. But when the ability of female stunt performers is questioned, and some stunts are deemed “too dangerous” for women to perform, we have to look back at a trailblazer like Helen Gibson and ask ourselves, “If she was doing amazing stunts over a hundred years ago, why would we ever wonder if women are capable of doing them today?”
Gibson said as much a century ago, concluding, “I certainly do get angry when I hear someone say, ‘I bet she didn’t do that herself.’”