As you might imagine, I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to choosing people for my columns. I get a lot of suggestions from friends (and if you give me enough on Patreon or Ko-fi, I’ll write about whoever you ask me to, with certain exceptions), but I also do a lot of “Oh, hey, that person!” when I’m watching movies or reading writing from other people about movies. And so I must admit that I was unfamiliar with the name Helen Gibson until I looked at a Cracked article about people from movies that you should know and don’t. I knew most of them, but they were right—I should have known about Helen Gibson ages ago.
In the early days of film, stunts were a man’s job. And if the person doing the stunt in the story was a woman, well, the man wore a dress and a wig. Helen Gibson is considered to have changed all that. She was originally a trick rider; Gibson was her married name from when she married Hoot Gibson so they’d get preference for getting rooms while at the Pendleton Round-Up. When the couple moved to Hollywood, Rose, as she then was, started doubling for Helen Holmes, star of the long-running Hazards of Helen serial. When Holmes left, Rose took the role and the name.
All told, Gibson made well over a hundred shorts and nearly seventy-five movies. Her last film role was uncredited, as a townswoman in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. A quick glance suggests that John Ford gave a lot of those minor roles to people with Western pasts like hers, actors and stuntmen. I’m not sure any of them are better known than Gibson, but I do think Gibson ought to be better known. It’s nice that she was part of that tribute, especially because she was mostly retired by then.
I was glancing over her biography when I saw a mention that her stardom had never recovered after her surgery. So I looked back to see where she’d been injured, and she wasn’t. The surgery was for a ruptured appendix. However, it apparently took some of the shine off her star to have had surgery at all, and of course recovery from an appendectomy was much longer then, and she never quite hit her pre-appendicitis heights again. But she still did work as steadily as she could for as long as she could, and it’s pretty impressive.
A lot of hoo-ha gets made about actors who do their own stunts and how impressive it is. And I guess. But the thing is, “stunt performer” is a job for a reason. It’s a skilled profession. Helen Gibson was from the age of sixteen able to pick up a handkerchief off the ground from the back of a moving horse. In what she considered her most dangerous stunt, she jumped from a car on to the back of a moving train—and indeed, she nearly fell off. She was doing skilled work, and it deserves to be better recognized as such instead of just something actors brag about doing so we think they’re cooler.