4.30.2023 [archived ~ originally published 4.6.2017]
One hundred years before the best-selling novel The Girl on the Train was published, there was a different girl on the train that made a debut the Lyceum Theatre in Deer River. The theater had opened early in the year, setting up chairs and concessions in the original Brooks store.
Silent films were a favorite diversion and acceptable form of entertainment for men, women, and most of the time children. In late November, patrons were excited to see the first serialized film or at least twelve minutes of it!
The Girl and the Game ~ Itasca News 12-2-1916
“For the first time in Deer River, a ‘serial’ story film is being shown in the movies, and judging by the first section, the step is a success. With a desire to please their patrons, Managers Evenson and Sandgren of the Lyceum have been giving them the largest and biggest creations made in the film industry, the same, in fact, that the big cities are using as their best, and the enormous response by the people is evidence that the best is what Deer River wants, regardless of price. And the best is what the house will continue to serve.
Beginning with last Monday night the Lyceum began its run of the serial, ‘The Girl and The Game,’ and the first installment was witnessed by a full house. The picture portrays a thrilling railroad story with which is linked a love affair, and as well as exciting, it is very interesting. One chapter of the story is to be run every Monday night and there are fifteen chapters. Besides a serial, two other reels are run on each of these nights and the price is fifteen cents.
As a matter of interest to readers of The News, we have arranged in conjunction with the Lyceum management to run the story in the paper, and the first two chapters are on another page of this issue. One chapter will be in the paper every Saturday right along with the movie until the happy ending of the drama.”
‘The Girl and the Game’ starred Helen Holmes as Helen, and the man who would later be her first husband, J.P. McGowan as Spike. The first two chapters, mentioned above, were titled Helen’s Race with Death and The Winning Jump. Helen was quite athletic and performed almost all her stunts. She was in more than100 short films, often playing an independent, quick-thinking and inventive heroine.
“…as part of her dangerous exploits Helen did such things as leap onto runaway trains or treacherously chase after bad guy train robbers. While occasionally the plot called for Helen to be rescued by a handsome male hero, in most episodes it was the dauntless Helen herself who found an ingenious way out of her dire predicament and single-handedly collared the bad guys, bringing them to justice.” [wikipedia]
‘The Hazards of Helen’ was not Miss Holmes’ first film shot on a train or even her most famous role. That distinction goes to ‘The Hazards of Helen,’ which was released several years earlier.
In March 1914 the adventure film serial titled ‘The Perils of Pauline’ starring Pearl White as a bold and daring heroine, became an enormous box-office success. As a result, the Kalem Company, where Helen was working, decided to make a similar serial. In November 1914, they released an adventure series called ‘The Hazards of Helen.’
The original version of ‘The Perils of Pauline’ had 20 episodes, totally 490 minutes. The first 3 were 30 minutes and the rest 20 minutes. In their attempt to outdo the Pathe Freres film company, Kalem’s serial of 119 twelve-minute episodes released over a span of slightly more than two years, the last in February 1917. At 23.8 hours, it is one of the longest non-feature-length motion picture series ever filmed and is believed to be the longest of the film serial format.
Building on Success
The Kalem Company, like the Pathe Freres Company, broke away from the cliffhanger style that serials were up until that time. Cliffhanger meaning something terrible was happening to a pivotal character and no help was in sight. Of course, the beginning of the next segment was another key character saving them. Instead, each film was actually a melodrama. The reviews were that the public favored the melodrama over the cliffhanger, even if the film was short.
Because of the rave reviews of the ‘The Hazards of Helen’ serials, in which railroads played a great part. Helen was either jumping onto, off, running across the tops of, or escaping from railroad cars, locomotives, train stations, etc., the producers created ‘The Girl and the Game.’ It was not based on a book as ‘The Hazards of Helen’ was. Instead, Kalem hired famed western author Frank Spearman to write the serial articles after the films’ production. This was an interesting technique as it was free advertising, like many papers, the Itasca News being one, printed it.
Spearman’s other chapter titles provide a fairly comprehensive outline of the film’s plot:
3. A Life in Peril
4. Helen’s Perilous Escape
5. The Fight at Signal Station
6 Helen’s Wild Ride
7. Spike’s Awakening
8. A Race for the Right-of-Way
9. A Close Call
10. A Dash Through Flames
11. The Salting of the Superstition Mine
12. Buried Alive
13. A Fight for a Fortune
14. Helen’s Race Against Time
15. Driving the Last Spike.
In my search for more information, I found a postcard, with a lovely photograph of Helen Holmes and the title of this film. On the back was a handwritten note (or it was made to look handwritten) saying “Dear Friend, I saw Helen Holmes the fearless film star in ‘The Girl and the Game,’ the great railroad film novel, she’s Great! You simply must see her.” A promotional gimmick to be sure, but one I had not seen before.
After her marriage to co-star and director J.P McGowan, the two soon formed their own production company, Signal Film Productions. Between late 1915 and early 1917, they made a dozen films together that met with reasonable success but financial, and distribution problems ended the production partnership.
Helen later married film stuntman Lloyd A. Saunders, and as a result of the popularity of the Rin Tin Tin dog films, the two began training animals for use in the movies.
A final note on the Lyceum Theatre – in 1920 the fire marshal condemned the Brooks building. At that time, it was reported to have been the oldest building still in use in Deer River. It had been built in 1898 and had moved twice. The building was razed, and films were shown in the coliseum until a new brick building was constructed.
What an interesting story. Helen sounds like quite a woman.