Spotlight: Helen Gibson, Hollywood’s First Professional Stunt Woman

By Bianca Garner

In the month of August, we at In Their Own League are focusing on Women in Action; female-led films in the action genre. For this piece I’ll be looking back at the work of Helen Gibson, a truly amazing woman from the silent film era who is dubbed “Hollywood’s First Professional Stunt Woman”.

One can only imagine Fred Wenger’s disappointment when on the 27th August 1891, his wife Annie had their fifth daughter. He’d been desperate for a boy for years. Perhaps, this was the reason why her encouraged the later addition to the Wenger family, Rose August, to become a tomboy and encouraged her intereste in Rodeo. Rose saw her first Wild West show in Cleveland in the summer of 1909 and was instantly was awestruck. She answered a Miller Brothers 101 Ranch advert for girl riders in Billboard magazine.

Rose quickly learned to to ride, and she performed in her first 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show in St. Louis in April 1910. Rose spoke of her fondly of her experience, “(I) was already practicing picking up a handkerchief from the ground at full gallop. When veteran riders told me I could get kicked in the head, I paid no heed. Such things might happen to others, but could never happen to me, I believed. We barnstormed all over the US and the season ended all too soon. I was sorry when I had to go home, and could hardly wait to open in Boston in the spring of 1911.”

The Miller-Arlington Show closed in 1911 in Venice, CA. Thomas H. Ince was producing for the New York Motion Picture Company and hired the entire cast for the winter at $2,500 a week. Each performer was paid $8 a week and boarded themselves and horses in Venice. They rode five miles each day to work in Topanaga Canyon, where the films were being shot. In 1912 Rose made $15 a week for her first billed role as Ruth Roland’s sister in “Ranch Girls on a Rampage”.

“She leapt without hesitation and landed correctly, but the because of the motion of the train, she ended up rolling towards the end of the car. Luckily, she caught hold of an air vent and hung on, dangling over the edge. She suffered only a few bruises.”

Rose continued to perform in rodeos between pictures. At the Second Los Angeles Rodeo in 1913 she was featured in the Standing Woman Race. Later that year, she met Edmund Richard (Hoot) Gibson. They began working together, and at a rodeo in Salt Lake City they were exteremly successfully, cleaning up and winning numerous of awards. They went on to perform in rodeos in Winnipeg, Canada and Boise, Idaho. However, because rooms were almost impossible to obtain, they had to get married as rodeo couples were given more work. They finally had enough money to return to Los Angeles, where Hoot worked as a cowboy extra at the Selig Polyscope Company. Rose also worked for Selig and for the Kalem Studios in Glendale.

It was at the Kalem Studios that “The Hazards of Helen” adventure film series was filmed. The highly successful series had begun with Helen Holmes in the lead role for the first 48 episodes. Helen performed what is thought to be her most dangerous stunt: a leap from the roof of a station onto the top of a moving train in the “A Girl’s Grit” episode.

The distance between station roof and train top was accurately measured, and she practiced the jump with the train standing still. The train had to be moving on camera for about a quarter mile and its accelerating velocity was timed to the second. She leapt without hesitation and landed correctly, but the because of the motion of the train, she ended up rolling towards the end of the car. Luckily, she caught hold of an air vent and hung on, dangling over the edge. She suffered only a few bruises.

Rose was given her chance to replace Helen Holmes for two episodes when she took ill. The Kalem New York office executives were so impressed by her work, they instructed Glendale to keep her on when Helen Holmes and her husband, director J. P. McGowan, left to form their own company.

Rose now became the new ‘Helen’ and she proved to be a more than capable and worthy replacement. She performed in “The Hazards of Helen” for 70 episodes until the series ended in February 1917. Kalem tried producing another serial starring role for her, “The Daughter of Daring”. But the studio was in some finanical trouble. By 1917 the studiohas ceased production and had been sold to Vitagraph. Universal offered Helen a three-year contract at $125 a week for 2-reel and 5-reel pictures. However, by 1919 her Universal contract had ended, so she signed with Capital Film Company for $300 a week, but Capital was already losing money and went out of business in May 1920.

Hoot returned from war in 1918 but was distressed to see that while he’d been away, his wife’s movie career had begun to take off. Unable to come to terms with her newly found freedom, they ended up divorcing in 1920. That same year Helen created Helen Gibson Productions to produce her own films. The first was to be “No Man’s Woman” (a great name for a film if there ever was one), which was a Western melodrama about a kind-hearted dance-hall hostess rescuing a rancher’s child. However, Gibson experienced financing problems and ended up bankrupt. A year later the film was released by another studio with a new title, “Nine Points of the Law”.

“Helen created Helen Gibson Productions to produce her own films. The first was to be “No Man’s Woman” (a great name for a film if there ever was one).”

In March 1921, the Spencer Production company hired Gibson to star in “The Wolverine” (nothing to do with The X-Men FYI). They were so pleased with her performance they put her on the payroll at $450 a week. However, before shooting began on her second picture, her appendix ruptured, putting her in the hospital battling peritonitis. The studio replaced her.

By the time she had recovered from surgery, Gibson the action hero was old news. In September 1921 an independent company hired her for a 5-reeler but folded without paying the cast or crew. A horseback ride led to Gibson going back in the hospital, forcing her to sell her furniture, jewelry and car. However, she kept busy by making personal appearances in connection with bookings of “No Man’s Woman” and “The Wolverine” in theaters and at rodeos.

She returned to Hollywood in 1927 and began doubling for stars such as Louise Fazenda, Irene Rich, Edna May Oliver, Marie Dressler, Marjorie Main, May Robson, Esther Dale and Ethel Barrymore. She worked constantly as a stunt double and in uncredited or bit parts. In 1935, Helen married Clifton Johnson. By 1940 Clifton had gone to fight in World War II, and Gibson carried on working as an extra and also became treasurer of the stunt girl’s fraternal organization.

“Her last role was in the autumn of 1961, in John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, for which she was paid $35; she was 69 years old.”

In Universal’s “Hollywood Story” (1951), she was cast as a retired silent film actress alongside Francis X. Bushman, William Farnum, and Betty Blythe, and earned $55 for one scene. Tony Curtis, then unknown, was assigned to escort Gibson and Blythe to the premiere at the Academy Award Theater, where The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce gave each silent star a plaque “for your outstanding contribution to the art and science of motion pictures, for the pleasure you have brought to millions over the world, and for your help in making Hollywood the film capital of the world.”

Gibson continued to take character parts and extra work up until 1954, when the couple moved to Lake Tahoe. After trying unsuccessfully to sell real estate they returned to the San Fernando Valley. In 1957 she suffered a slight stroke but it did not prevent her working as an extra in film and television. Her last role was in the autumn of 1961, in John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, for which she was paid $35; she was 69 years old.

She retired in January 1962 on a Motion Picture Industry Pension of $200 a month plus social security. The couple moved to Roseburg, Oregon where she spent her later years fishing and giving the occasional interview. Gibson died of heart failure following a stroke in 1977 at age 86.

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