Badassery: The First Fearless Stuntwoman
Each week we highlight badasses throughout history doing the unthinkable in celebration of human potential. This Week: Helen Gibson, one of Hollywood’s first female stuntwomen.
Helen Gibson is arguably one of the most important women of all time for the American film industry. She started out as a trick rider and moved on to become the first daredevil stunt woman to perform in films. Later in her career, she was a lead actress in silent films and a film producer, taking immense leaps as a woman at the dawn of motion picture.
Born in 1892 in Ohio, Helen Gibson was a tomboy from a young age. At the age of 17, she saw an ad for the Millers Brothers 101 Ranch and began visiting the ranch to learn to ride horses and perform stunts. She appeared in a Wild West show in St. Louis in 1910, just a year after she started training, and then traveled with the Miller-Arlington show putting on shows all around the U.S.
When Miller-Arlington abruptly shut down, the entire cast was hired by The New York Motion Picture Company for $8 a week to serve as extras and stunt performers in silent Western movies. That led Gibson to her first billed role: as Ruth Roland's sister in the 1912 film Ranch Girls on a Rampage.
A few years later, Gibson was cast as the double for Helen Holmes in the Hazards of Helen silent film series, which ultimately catapulted her career. In one episode, she lept from a train station roof onto the top of a moving train. She rolled toward the end of the car and grabbed onto an air vent to stop from falling off, and then she dangled over the edge -- on purpose -- to increase the on-screen effect. She walked away with a few bruises, and later called it her most dangerous stunt.
Gibson eventually took over as the lead when Holmes fell ill. She performed her own stunts in 69 standalone episodes for the series until it ended in 1917. She even wrote a scene that had her catching a runaway train by riding a horse and clutching onto a rope dangling from a bridge to hoist herself up. In another episode, she rode a motorcycle straight off a bridge into water.
In 1920, she formed her own production studio, Helen Gibson Productions. And despite a brief break as she recovered from her appendix bursting, she continued to take character parts and extras work until 1954 (she was in her 50s). And lived to the ripe old age of 85.