Forever associated with "iron horse operas," energetic, durable Helen Holmes starred in the first 48 or so installments of the Kalem Company's seemingly endless The Hazards of Helen (1914-1917). Contrary to popular belief, the total of 119 episodes constituted a series rather than a serial in that each was a self-contained story with no continuing characters as such. The series was successful enough for Holmes to be considered a serious threat to Pearl White, the star of The Perils of Pauline and other true action serials. It also served to introduce Holmes to her future husband, J.P. McGowan, who both directed and co-starred.
A former photographer's model, Helen Holmes had made her Broadway debut in The City at the Lyric Theatre in 1910. A good friend, comedienne Mabel Normand, persuaded Holmes to try the movies instead, however, and off she went to Southern California, where she joined the vivacious Normand at Mack Sennett's Keystone laugh factory. The stay proved short-lived and Holmes bolted in favor of pioneer company Kalem. Hazards made her an international star and surviving episodes such as "Leap From the Water Tower" and "The Pay Train" (both 1915) easily explain why. Although not beautiful in a conventional way, Holmes was plucky, fearless, and a typical example of the "modern woman" at an age where the suffragette movement was much in the news. Although on occasion allowing herself to be rescued by the likes of McGowan or Leo Maloney, more often than not it was Helen who single-handedly caught the villains and brought them to justice. So successful were the two-reelers that Holmes and McGowan were easily persuaded to go out on their own and form Signal Films, an independent company releasing on the Mutual program. She was replaced in Hazards by Elsie Mcleod, Anna Q. Nilsson, and, finally, Helen Gibson, the latter becoming almost as popular in the role as Helen herself. Unlike Kalem, Signal Films produced true action serials complete with cliffhanger endings and with titles such as The Railroad Raiders (1917) and The Lost Express (1917). The company also produced such melodramas as Judith of the Cumberlands (1916) and The Diamond Runners (1916) but the collapse of Mutual in 1918 also brought down Signal. Holmes and McGowan went on to produce serials for SLK Serial Corp. and Warner Bros. and turned increasingly from railroad to straight Western melodramas. They continued to collaborate on B-movies past their divorce in 1925 but Holmes' screen career came to a close in 1926, when she took her second husband, stunt man Lloyd Saunders. Several of her later efforts, including the 1926 railroad melodrama Crossed Signals, have survived to reveal a visibly aged but still athletic and seemingly indomitable risk-taker.
Helen Holmes attempted a comeback in the 1930s but there were few takers and she concentrated instead on the training of animals for screen work and operating an antique store. She was all but forgotten by the industry she had helped create when succumbing to a heart attack in July of 1950, her old friend and Hazard replacement Helen Gibson at her bedside. The Helen Holmes of serial fame should not be confused with a Broadway comedienne of the same name who appeared in the 1942 Tim Holt Western Dude Ranch.