The Hazards of Helen, episode 13 (1915)
Alternate (episode) Title: Escape on the Fast Freight
This episode of what the long-running movie serial displays Helen Holmes at the height of her powers as “Helen,” a plucky telegrapher who winds up saving the day – again. If reports are accurate, she was also an uncredited director, making this an even more important piece of the history of women in film.
This movie begins with Helen at work. She receives and decodes a message, then gets up and pulls a switch that brings a locomotive to a halt in the station outside. As she accepts a large strongbox of money from the conductor, two shifty-looking tramps look on. They are thrown off the train by a man with a badge, who then comes over and assists Helen with the cart carrying the money box. They get it into her office, but neglect to bring the receipt, which the tramps find, learning that there’s $1500 in the office. Helen and the sheriff are unable to get the large box into her safe, so they leave it on the floor. As soon as the sheriff leaves, the tramps rush in with a gun. A rather complex cross-cut sequence begins with the sheriff outside, the tramps in the office, and Helen inside of a closet, where the tramps have shoved her after securing the room. They find the key and open the box, but Helen starts shouting for help. The sheriff doesn’t hear, but he does hear the gunshot that the tramps respond with. Helen, we see, has ducked just in time. Whew!
The sheriff gets back to the office a little too late to catch the thieves, and Helen frees herself from the closet. An unclear amount of time passes, and Helen is informed that she is discharged due to the robbery. Disconsolate, she walks the rails outside, pausing to smell some flowers. As she is crossing a bridge, she spots the sheriff chasing the thieves, but they have outfoxed him again and jump onto a moving train. The train passes under the bridge Helen is walking on, and she forms a “hits on a desperate expedient” to catch them. First, she crosses to the far side by walking on a beam, then she drops a rope from the bridge and climbs to the top of the moving train! Two railroad workers see her fall and come to her aid. She tells them about the thieves and they rush off to attack them. There’s a fight in the back of an empty gondola, but one of the thieves dispatches his opponent and runs along the top of the train to where Helen has been sitting, trying to keep her skirt from flying up. She rises and tackles him and they fight on the top of the boxcar. Of course, they fall off as the train passes over a river, but they’re both fine. Now the tramp once again attempts to escape, but Helen is undaunted and tackles him again in the water. Some men come over to help her, but she doesn’t let him go until she’s sure they’ve got him.
The story ends with the tramps “rounded up” by railroad men and handed over to the sheriff and Helen reinstated at her job. She is rewarded with ten days vacation, and the final shot shows her riding a train, a happy look on her face as she goes off on a more tame adventure.
The commentary on the “Treasures III” disc makes much of the fact that Holmes is not credited as director, in spite of giving an interview during production that indicates that she took over when the series’ usual director, Leo Maloney, was injured. I’m willing to believe that story, but it’s important to note that, at least on the print they offer, there is no title credit for “director,” only “author” (screenplay) and “producer.” Maloney didn’t take credit for her work, Kalem simply left it blank. For all I know that was their standard practice, since credits were still pretty new in 1915. Whatever the off-screen circumstances, on screen this is a pretty strong feminist storyline. I was already surprised when Helen pulled the railroad switch, a job which appears distinctly masculine, but much more so when she was walking beams, jumping onto trains and tackling bandits! Her wardrobe isn’t especially suited to these activities, and I noticed that she had some trouble with her skirt on the train top (I was reminded of the scene in the recent “Wonder Woman” in which a woman in the same period tries to find decent fighting clothes in a department store) and I also paid close attention to her shoes when she walked the beam. I think she may have gone barefoot for that stunt, because in general her shoes are not exactly practical. It’s little wonder that people were injured in the production of these movies, all of which centered around the railroad, because trains are notoriously hard to stop when a shot or a stunt goes wrong.
Seen as a single episode, this is a pretty action-packed short. The “Hazards of Helen” serial ran from late 1914 until February, 1917, so unlike other serials I’ve handled, it’s unlikely I’ll ever manage to review the whole thing, even assuming all 119 episodes are found. Regular movie-goers at the time probably didn’t worry too much about missing an episode, since they were shot as complete stories, like this one, not as cliff-hangers. Each one apparently has a similar trajectory, with Helen put into peril, having her job threatened or taken away, but redeeming herself through daring action at the end. Whereas “The Perils of Pauline” was about a rich dilettante who seeks “adventure” for thrills and often has to be bailed out by her boyfriend, “The Hazards of Helen” is about a working girl who makes good on her own merits. I do expect I’ll return to it in the future, and I hope to enjoy other episodes as much as this one.
Director: Probably Helen Holmes and Leo Maloney
Starring: Helen Holmes, Leo Maloney, James Davis, G.A. Williams, Paul C. Hurst, Ben Jones
Run Time: 13 Min
You can watch it for free: here.