Helen Gibson

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Helen Gibson
Helen Gibson by Witzel.jpg
Gibson c. 1916
Rose August Wenger

(1892-08-27)August 27, 1892
DiedOctober 10, 1977(1977-10-10) (aged 85)
Occupation(s)Actress, stuntwoman, trick rider, film producer
(m. 1913; div. 1920)

Clifton Johnson
(m. 1935)

Helen Gibson (born Rose August Wenger; August 27, 1892 – October 10, 1977) was an American film actress, vaudeville performer, radio performer, film producer, trick rider, and rodeo performer; and is considered to be the first American professional stunt woman.[1]

Rodeo riding[edit]

She was born Rose August Wenger in Cleveland, Ohio, one of five girls to Swiss-German parents, Fred and Annie Wenger.[2] Her father had wanted a son, and encouraged her to be a tomboy. Helen saw her first Wild West show in Cleveland in the summer of 1909 and answered a Miller Brothers 101 Ranch ad for girl riders in Billboard magazine. They taught her to ride, and she performed in her first 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show in St. Louis in April 1910.

She was quoted as saying: "(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."[3]


Cowboy extra[edit]

When the Miller-Arlington Show suddenly closed in 1911, it left many performers stranded in Venice, California.[4] Thomas H. Ince, who was producing for the New York Motion Picture Company, hired the entire cast for the winter at $2,500 a week. The performers were paid $8 a week and boarded in Venice, where the horses were stabled. They rode five miles each day to work in Topanga Canyon, where the films were being shot. In 1912, she made $15 a week for her first billed role as Ruth Roland's sister in Ranch Girls on a Rampage.[5]

Like many of the cowboy extras, Helen continued to perform in rodeos between pictures. At the Second Los Angeles Rodeo in 1913, she was featured in the Standing Woman Race, and so impressed one of the investors that he offered to finance a tour of rodeos for her, paying all expenses and splitting the winnings. At the investor's ranch outside of Pendleton, Oregon, Helen worked his horses every day, and learned new forms of trick riding. In Pendleton in June 1913, she met Edmund Richard "Hoot" Gibson (1892-1962). They began working together, and at a rodeo in Salt Lake City, they won everything – the relay race, the standing woman race, trick riding, and Hoot won the pony express race, but the promoter of the rodeo skipped town and they did not get a cent of the prize money.[3]

Hoot Gibson[edit]

That summer, the couple performed in rodeos in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and Boise, Idaho, and arrived back in Pendleton a few days before the Pendleton Round-Up was due to begin. However, because rooms were almost impossible to obtain, they decided to "tie the knot" as married couples were given preference, and as a result the landlady gave them her own room. They won enough money to return to Los Angeles, where Hoot worked as a cowboy extra and double for Tom Mix, at the Selig Polyscope Company in the Edendale district of Los Angeles (now known as Echo Park). Helen also worked for Selig and for the Kalem Studios in Glendale.[3]

Stunt doubling[edit]

The Capture of Red Stanley (1916)
Helen Gibson c. 1920

In April 1915 while on the Kalem payroll doubling for Helen Holmes in The Hazards of Helen adventure film series, 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 train's motion made her roll toward the end of the car. She caught hold of an air vent and hung on, dangling over the edge to increase the effect on the screen. She suffered only a few bruises.

"The real difficulty of the stunt lay not in the leap itself, since she had practiced this with the train stationary and it clearly presented no difficulties, but in the timing. What such stunts require is an inbuilt awareness of the speed of the moving object. During the course of a leap where a moving object is concerned, the spatial relationship between take-off point and landing point changes. It is quite possible to imagine a leap from a static take-off point on to the roof of a moving train in which the stuntman aims to land halfway along a carriage roof yet in fact-because of the speed of the train-lands in the gap between two carriages. It seems that in such a leap the safest place to aim at is the gap itself At least in that way one can guarantee to miss it. Helen Gibson had this sensitivity to spatial relationships between objects in motion, but it is certainly not a gift shared by all stuntmen." Arthur Wise from Stunting In the Cinema, 1973.[6]

Hazards of Helen[edit]

The Hazards of Helen (1916)
To Save the Road (1916)[7]

Considered the longest serial in history, the 119 episodes of The Hazards of Helen are stand-alone stories, instead of chapters. The highly successful series had begun with Helen Holmes in the lead role for the first 49 episodes, but Helen Gibson was given her chance to replace Holmes for two pictures when she took ill, and starred in A Test of Courage and A Mile a Minute, for $35 a week. The Kalem New York office personnel were so impressed by her work, they instructed Glendale to keep her on when Helen Holmes and her husband, Hazards of Helen director, J. P. McGowan, left to form their own company.

Now rechristened 'Helen' by the studio, she proved to be a capable actress, and after making several more pictures she wrote a story for a one-reeler that was built around a risky stunt. To catch a runaway train, she would detach a team of horses, ride them "standing woman", and then catch a rope dangling from a bridge and use it to swing from the horses and onto the train as it came under the bridge. Kalem rewarded her by raising her salary to $50 a week.[3]

Gibson performed in The Hazards of Helen for 69 episodes until the series ended in February 1917, after which Kalem tried producing another serial The Daughter of Daring, with a starring role for her.[8] One of her best stunts appeared in this serial: traveling at full speed on a motorcycle chasing after a runaway freight train, Gibson rode through a wooden gate, shattering it completely, up a station platform, and through the open doors of a boxcar on a siding, with her machine traveling through the air until it landed on a flatcar in a passing train. The trick was to undercrank the camera and execute it all with flawless timing.[9]

By then Kalem, a producer of single-reel films, was in decline and rather than risking financial failure producing feature films, ceased production in 1917 and was sold to Vitagraph.[10] Universal offered her a three-year contract at $125 a week for two-reel, and five-reel pictures until 1919; among these were two 1919 John Ford films, Rustlers and Gun Law. Her Universal contract ended with the winter of 1919 and she signed with Capital Film Company for $300 a week, but Capital was already losing money and went out of business in May 1920.[citation needed]

Hoot Gibson, who had joined the Army tank corps, returned during Christmas 1918 and Universal gave him a contract to appear in two-reel Westerns. He found his wife had become a very successful movie star while he was away, but his ego could not handle it, and the couple separated in 1920. Census records for 1920 indicate that they were living separately; Hoot Gibson listed himself as married, and Helen listed herself as widowed.[11]


In 1920, Gibson created Helen Gibson Productions to produce her own starring vehicles. The first was to be No Man's Woman, a Western melodrama about a kind-hearted dance-hall hostess rescuing a rancher's child. The money gave out before the picture was finished, and it bankrupted Gibson personally. A year later, the film was released by another studio with a new title, Nine Points of the Law. In March 1921, the Spencer Production Company hired Gibson to star in The Wolverine (1921). 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.[5][12]

Trick riding[edit]

After her recovery from surgery, Gibson's popularity as a lead had waned. In September 1921, an independent company hired her for a five-reeler and folded without paying the cast or crew. Riding in the picture put Gibson back in the hospital, forcing her to sell her furniture, jewelry, and car. She made personal appearances in connection with bookings of No Man's Woman and |The Wolverine in theatres and at rodeos, including visiting her old friends at the 101 Ranch in Ponca City, Oklahoma.

In the spring of 1924, Gibson got a job trick riding with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' Wild West show, along with other cowboy performers such as Ken Maynard,[6] and performed in their 'after show' for two-and-a-half years.[5] In September 1926, Gibson joined a Hopi Indian act and worked the Keith Vaudeville Circuit out of Boston.[3]

Return to Hollywood[edit]

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 stunt doubling and in uncredited or bit parts.[5] As she had in her heyday, Helen became a featured guest at benefit rodeos and events such as the Annual Santa Barbara Horse Show.[13]

In 1935, Helen married Clifton Johnson,[1] a studio electrician who had been a chief gunner in the Navy. In 1940, he asked for active duty, and while he was serving in World War II, she carried on working as an extra and became treasurer of the stunt girl's fraternal organization.[14]

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 at the Academy's then-headquarters on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, 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."[3]


Gibson continued to take character parts and extra work until 1954, when the couple moved to Lake Tahoe for health reasons.[citation needed] After trying unsuccessfully to sell real estate, they returned and bought a home in Panorama City, in the San Fernando Valley. Gibson suffered a slight stroke in 1957, but it did not prevent her working as an extra in film and television.[citation needed]

Her last role was in 1961, 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.[5]

The couple moved to Roseburg, Oregon, where she spent her later years fishing and giving the occasional interview. Helen Gibson died of heart failure following a stroke in 1977 aged 85.[citation needed]


A Daughter of Daring (1917)
In the Path of Peril (1917)
Year Title Role Production Company Notes
1912 Ranch Girls on a Rampage Ruth Roland's sister Selig Polyscope Company
1913 Old Moddingington's Daughters Moddington's daughter Vitagraph Studios Short
A Girl of the Range Short
1914–1915 The Hazards of Helen Helen Kalem Company 63 episodes, (1915-1917)
1915 Man of God Lubin Manufacturing Company Short
1917 Daughter of Daring Helen Kalem Company 11 episodes
The Wrong Man Bison Motion Pictures Short
Ghost of Canyon Diablo Short
Border Watch Dogs Universal Pictures Short
A Perilous Leap Universal Pictures Short
The Dynamite Special Bison Motion Pictures Short
The Little Outlaw Pathe Exchange (dist) Short
The Girl of Gopher City Short
Trail Divided Pathe Exchange (dist) Short
Saving the Fast Mail Helen Bison Motion Pictures Short
The End of the Run Nona Durman Universal Pictures Short
Fighting Mad Mary Lambert Universal Pictures
1918 Play Straight or Fight Helen Rankin Universal Pictures Short
The Midnight Flyer Helen Morgan Universal Pictures Short
The Branded Man Helen Ewing Universal Pictures Short
The Pay Roll Express Helen Universal Pictures Short
Bawled Out Century Films Short
Danger Ahead Universal Pictures Short
Under False Pretenses Universal Pictures Short
The Fast Mail Universal Pictures Short
The Dead Shot Universal Pictures Short
The Silent Sentinel Universal Pictures Short
Captured Alive Dolly Martin Universal Pictures Short
The Robber Universal Pictures Short
Wolves of the Range Universal Pictures Short
1919 The Secret Peril Universal Pictures Short
The Black Horse Bandit Universal Pictures Short
The Canyon Mystery Universal Pictures Short
Riding Wild Universal Pictures Short
Ace High Universal Pictures Short
The Rustlers (John Ford) Postmistress – Nell Wyndham Universal Pictures Short
Gun Law (John Ford) Letty Universal Pictures Short
Down But Not Out Universal Pictures Short
Loot Maid Universal Pictures
1921 No Man's Woman The girl Helen Gibson productions
The Wolverine Billy Louise Spencer Productions
1922 Nine Points of the Law Cherie Du Bois Rainbow Film Company
Thorobred Helen
1927 Heroes of the Wild Julia Mascot Pictures Corporation
1928 The Chinatown Mystery Trem Carr Pictures
The Vanishing West Mrs. Kincaid Mascot Pictures Corporation Serial, Ep. 10 The End of the Trail
1931 The Lightning Warrior Ch. 1 The Drums of Doom Pioneer woman & stunt double: Georgia Hale Mascot Pictures Corporation Serial, [ch 1-2]
The Cheyenne Cyclone Townswoman Willis Kent Productions Uncredited
1932 Human Targets Mrs. Dale Big 4 Film Uncredited
Single-Handed Sanders Judd's Wife Uncredited
The Silver Lining Dorothy Dent Alan Crosland Productions
Law and Lawless Mrs. Kelley / molly Majestic Pictures
1933 King of the Arena Circus cowgirl Universal Pictures Uncredited
1934 Wheels of Destiny Settler's wife Ken Maynard Productions Uncredited
Rocky Rhodes Townswoman Buck Jones Productions Uncredited
The Way of the West Townswoman Empire Films
365 Nights in Hollywood Student actress Fox Film Corporation Uncredited
1935 The Pecos Kid Party Guest Uncredited
The Drunkard Betty Weiss Productions
Cyclone of the Saddle Mrs. Carter Weiss Productions
Bride of Frankenstein Villager Universal Pictures Uncredited
Fighting Caballero Drusella Jenkins Uncredited
Gun Play Woman at Dance Uncredited
Five Bad Men Mrs. Swift Sunset Studios
1936 Custer's Last Stand Calamity Jane Weiss Productions Serial, [Chs. 4-7, 10]
The Lawless Nineties Townswoman Uncredited
Lady of Secrets Nurse Columbia Pictures Uncredited
Last of the Warrens Mrs. Burns Supreme Pictures Uncredited
Winds of the Wasteland Settler's Wife Uncredited
Ride Ranger Ride Wagon Trail Woman Uncredited
Roarin' Lead Adopter Uncredited
1937 Jungle Jim Mrs. Raymond Universal Pictures Serial, Uncredited
Git Along Little Dogies Dwire's Wife Uncredited
Range Defenders Townswoman Uncredited
Danger Valley Nana Temple Monogram Pictures
High, Wide, and Handsome Paramount Pictures Uncredited
Range Defenders Woman in Saloon
1938 Condemned Women RKO Pictures Stunt, Uncredited
The Old Barn Dance Woman at Dance Uncredited
Flaming Frontiers Townswoman Universal Pictures Serial, [Ch. 9], Uncredited
1939 Stagecoach Girl in saloon Walter Wanger Productions Uncredited
Southward Ho Mrs. Crawford Uncredited
Spoilers of the Range Woman at Dance Serial, Uncredited
The Oregon Trail Wagon train pioneer Universal Pictures Serial, [Ch. 6], Uncredited
New Frontier Mrs. Turner Uncredited
The Marshal of Mesa City Mrs. Bentley Uncredited
Saga of Death Valley Woman at Party Uncredited
Cowboys from Texas Settler Uncredited
1940 Covered Wagon Trails Woman in wagon train Monogram Pictures Uncredited
Deadwood Dick Townswoman Columbia Pictures Serial, Uncredited
Young Bill Hickok Relay Station Woman Uncredited
The Trail Blazers Woman at Ceremony Uncredited
1941 The Singing Hill Emmy Walters Uncredited
Sheriff of Tombstone Liza Starr Republic Pictures Uncredited
Sunset in Wyoming Fllod Victim Uncredited
1942 The Sombrero Kid Mrs. Lane Uncredited
The Valley of Vanishing Men Helen Columbia Pictures Serial, Uncredited
1943 The Blocked Trail Townswoman Uncredited
1944 The Climax Minor Role Universal Pictures Uncredited
1946 The Scarlet Horseman Townswoman Universal Pictures Uncredited
1949 Cheyenne Cowboy Cookie Universal Pictures Short
Outcasts of the Trail Woman with Boy Uncredited
1950 Crooked River Mother Lippert Pictures Uncredited
Lonely Heart Bandits Minor Role Uncredited
Fast on the Draw Mrs. Ellison Lippert Pictures
Kansas Raiders Minor Role Universal Pictures Uncredited
1951 Hollywood Story Self – old-time movie star Universal Pictures
The Dakota Kid Woman at Party Uncredited
1952 The Treasure of Lost Canyon Mother Universal Pictures Uncredited
Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair Uncredited
Horizons West Townswoman Uncredited
1953 City That Never Sleeps Woman Republic Pictures Uncredited
The Man from the Alamo Woman on train Universal Pictures Uncredited
1954 Ma and Pa Kettle at Home Ranch wife Universal Pictures Uncredited
1959 The Horse Soldiers Townswoman Uncredited
1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Townswoman John Ford Productions Uncredited, (final film role)



  1. ^ a b Truitt, 1984.
  2. ^ 1900 United States Census for Cleveland, Ohio
  3. ^ a b c d e f Gibson and Kornick, 1968.
  4. ^ Roach, Joyce Gibson, 1990.
  5. ^ a b c d e "Gibson, Helen. unpublished letter December 24, 1966". Archived from the original on January 11, 2020. Retrieved January 19, 2017.
  6. ^ a b Wise, 1973.
  7. ^ "Kalems for July". The Moving Picture World. July 8, 1916. Retrieved November 26, 2013. Helen risked her life by a thrilling leap from the cab of one engine to the warning ropes strung around the tracks and a drop a second later to the top of a closely pursuing locomotive. A half day's rehearsal and many narrow escapes were encountered before the double-barreled feat could be accomplished.
  8. ^ Acker, 1991.
  9. ^ Lahue, 1964.
  10. ^ Singer, 2001.
  11. ^ 1920 United States Census for Los Angeles, California, Sheets No. 19A and 10B
  12. ^ Lowe, 2005.
  13. ^ L.A. Times, July 22, 1931.
  14. ^ Baxter. 1974.


  • Acker, Ally (1991). Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema 1896 to the Present. London: Batsford. ISBN 0-7134-6960-9.
  • Baxter, John O. (1974). Stunt; the story of the great movie stunt men. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-06520-5.
  • Gibson, Helen; Mike Kornick (January 1968). "In Very Early Days, Screen Acting Was Often a Matter of Guts". Films in Review.
  • "Horse Show Promising". L.A.Times. July 22, 1931.
  • Lahue, Kalton C. (1964). Continued Next Week : A History of the Moving Picture Serial. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Lowe, Denise (2005). An encyclopedic dictionary of women in early American films, 1895-1930. New York: Haworth Press. ISBN 0-7890-1843-8.
  • Roach, Joyce Gibson (1990). The Cowgirls. Denton, Tex: University of North Texas Press. ISBN 0-929398-15-7.
  • Singer, Ben (2001). Melodrama and Modernity: early sensational cinema and its contexts. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-11329-3.
  • Truitt, Evelyn Mack (1984). Who was who on screen. New York: Bowker. ISBN 0-8352-1906-2.
  • Ware, Derek; Wise, Arthur (1973). Stunting in the Cinema. London: Constable. ISBN 0-09-459090-7.

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