H …is for
The Hazards of Helen
The Hazards of Helen (1914-1917) was not the first silent serial. Nor was it the best. But it was, without doubt, the longest. At 119 installments of twelve minutes each, it ran for more than two years and featured quick-thinking heroine Helen, an exceedingly capable and clever telegraph operator. No matter how dangerous or dramatic the situation in which she found herself—whether confronting bandits or stopping runaway trains—she resolved it by her own wits, rarely relying upon a man for assistance or protection.
There is continuing debate over whether Hazards was actually a serial or a series—or even, as some have dubbed it, a “quasi-serial.” While the episodes were unified by the continued appearance of the leading character and by the Western backdrop and railroad theme, the story line was not really sequential. Each episode was, for the most part, self-contained, so moviegoers could miss one or more of them and still be able to follow a later adventure. Moreover, since sequential unity was not a major concern, movie houses could—and often did—show the episodes out of order.
Although Holmes’ athletic ability made her a natural for the part of Helen, she did not play the role for the duration of the serial. After completing forty-eight episodes, she and her then-husband, producer and director J. P. McGowan (who directed her in the one-reel Hazards films) left Kalem for Universal. Soon afterward they moved to Mutual, whose Signal Film Corporation was formed to produce the kinds of chapter plays Holmes had so recently left behind. Her first few serials for Signal—The Girl and the Game, Lass of the Lumberlands, The Lost Express, and The Railroad Raiders—were all Western stories; and they seemed sure to enhance her reputation as a true serial star. But after financial problems at the Mutual studio forced Holmes into independent productions, the lack of regular screen exposure meant that her popularity started to wane, and, by the 1920s, she was reduced to playing supporting roles.
Helen Holmes was replaced in the role by another Helen: a young woman, Rose Helen Wegner, who bore a remarkable resemblance to her predecessor. Wegner had started her career with the Miller Brothers 101 Wild West Show, where she developed her impressive riding skills. At a young age she began performing in small roles in pictures, initially for director Thomas Ince. Along the way she met and married cowboy star “Hoot” Gibson. By the time she was offered the role in Hazards, she was acting under the name of Helen Gibson, at least in part to lend continuity to the heroine.
The transition from Holmes to Gibson as the fictional Helen was virtually seamless, and Gibson remained in the role for the remainder of production. Afterward, like Holmes, she embarked on other serial projects, including another epic railroad series, A Daughter of Daring (1917), and then appeared in a variety of other railroad-themed productions. At one point, she even started her own eponymous company before returning to Western pictures at other studios. A talented actress, she remained in the industry for fifty years before retiring. But the highpoint of her career came early, with Hazards, and she never really peaked again.
As many early serial actresses did, both Holmes and Gibson performed most of their own stunts, which included risky maneuvers such as leaping from trains or platforms, jumping from horseback or automobiles onto moving trains, negotiating drawbridges, and riding motorcycles. Their “hazards” were therefore actually as dangerous and as thrilling as they appeared on screen.
Survival Status: The entire serial is not extant, but a number of episodes are known to survive in various archives, including the George Eastman Museum, the Library of Congress, UCLA Film & Television Archive, and MoMA. Episodes can also be found in foreign archives, including the Netherlands Film Museum; and, according to Treasures from the Film Archives, the BFI has at least five episodes. A handful of episodes are also held in private collections. Portions of several episodes are accessible on YouTube. Episode 13, “Escape on the Fast Freight” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHJRTgkZXJM; Episode 26, “The Wild Engine” (1915) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7tRPevyuYQ; Episode 33, “In Danger’s Path” (1915) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxW_txQ-jQs; Episode 63, “The Open Track” (1916) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zaFIMEQ0RXE.
Directors: J. P. McGowan (for the Helen Holmes episodes); James Davis (for the Helen Gibson episodes)
Release Date: November 13, 1914
Release Company: Kalem Film Manufacturing Company, distributed by the General Film Company, Inc.
Cast: Helen Holmes (episodes 1-48), Helen Gibson (remainder of the serial), J. P. McGowan, Robyn Adair, Ethel Clisbee, Tom Trent, George A. Williams, Pearl Hoxie, R. S. Anibus, P. S. Pembroke, Roy Watson, William Ehfe, Paul Hurst, Charles Wells, Leo D. Maloney, M. J. Muthison, George Routh, Anna Q. Nilsson.
Episodes: (one reel each) 1. Helen’s Sacrifice. 2. The Plot at the R.R. Cut. 3. The Girl at the Throttle. 4. The Stolen Engine. 5. The Flying Freight’s Captive. 6. The Black Diamond Express. 7. The Escape on the Limited. 8. The Girl Telegrapher’s Peril. 9. The Leap from the Water Tower. 10. The Broken Circuit. 11.The Fast Mail’s Danger. 12. The Little Engineer. 13. Escape on the Fast Freight. 14. The Red Signal. 15. The Engineer’s Peril. 16. The Open Drawbridge. 17. The Death Train. 18. Night Operator at Buxton. 19. Railroad Raiders of ’62. 20. The Girl at Lone Point. 21. A Life in the Balance. 22. The Girl on the Trestle. 23. The Girl Engineer. 24. A Race For A Crossing. 25. The Box Car Trap. 26. The Wild Engine. 27. A Fiend at the Throttle. 28. The Broken Train. 29. A Railroader’s Bravery. 30. The Human Chain. 31. The Pay Train. 32. Near Eternity. 33. In Danger’s Path. 34. The Midnight Limited. 35. A Wild Ride. 36. A Deed of Daring. 37. The Girl on the Engine. 38. The Fate of #1. 39. The Substitute Fireman. 40. The Limited’s Peril. 41. A Perilous Chance. 42. Train Order #45. 43. The Broken Rail. 44. Nerves of Steel. 45. A Girl’s Grit. 46. A Matter of Seconds. 47. The Runaway Boxcar. 48. The Water Tank Plot. 49. A Test of Courage. 50. A Mile A Minute. 51. Rescue of the Brakeman’s Children. 52. Danger Ahead. 52. The Girl and the Special. 54. The Girl on the Bridge. 55. The Dynamite Train. 56. The Tramp Telegrapher. 57. Crossed Wires. 58. The Wrong Train Order. 59. A Boy at the Throttle. 60. At the Risk of Her Life. 61. When Seconds Count. 62. The Haunted Station. 63. The Open Track. 64. Trapped Wires. 65. The Broken Wire. 66. Perils of the Rails. 67. A Perilous Swing. 68. The Switchman’s Story. 69. A Girl Telegrapher’s Nerve. 70. A Race for a Life. 71. The Girl Who Dared. 72. The Detective’s Peril. 73. The Trapping of “Peeler White.” 74. The Record Run. 75. The Race for a Siding. 76. The Governor’s Special. 77. The Trail of Danger. 78. The Human Telegram. 79.The Bridge of Danger. 80. One Chance in a Hundred. 81. The Capture of Red Stanley. 82. Spiked Switch. 83. Treasure Train. 84. A Race Through The Air. 85. The Mysterious Cypher. 86. The Engineer’s Honor. 87. To Save The Road. 88. The Broken Brake. 89. In Death’s Pathway. 90. A Plunge From The Sky. 91. A Mystery of the Rails. 92. Hurled Through the Drawbridge. 93. With the Aid of The Wrecker. 94. At Danger’s Call. 95. Secret of the Box Car. 96. Ablaze on The Rails. 97. The Hoodoo of Division B. 98. Defying Death. 99. The Death Swing. 100. The Blocked Track. 101. To Save The Special. 102. A Daring Chance. 103. The Last Messenger. 104. The Gate of Death. 105. The Lone Point Mystery. 106. The Runaway Sleeper. 107. The Forgotten Train Order. 108. The Trial Run. 109. The Lineman’s Peril. 110. The Midnight Express. 111. The Vanishing Box Car. 112. A Race With Death. 113. The Morgul Mountain Mystery. 114. The Fireman’s Nemesis. 115. The Wrecked Station. 116. Railroad Claim Intrigue. 117. The Death Siding. 118. The Prima Donna’s Special. 119. The Side Tracked Sleeper.