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The First Cinematic Action Heroines

The First Cinematic Action Heroines

This month’s release of Tomb Raider is just the latest part of an increasingly popular trend of female-driven action films. To honor what the female action hero has become, we look back at her humble origins in silent film.

Until recently, the action film has been a genre dominated by men. In pre-war times, they were often cowboys or ancient warriors, fighting off bad guys and monsters with guns and swords. As cultures changed in the 1960’s, audiences were introduced to the spy thriller, and in the 70’s we saw the emergence of martial arts films. 1980’s movies like Die Hard and The Terminator would come to define the action movie formula for the next 3 decades. In all this time, women’s roles in these films stayed mostly the same. Sure, there were some exceptions, but by and large they were either the eye candy and/or the damsel in distress, rarely engaging in the action along with their male counterparts.  

More recently filmmakers have discovered that females are more than capable of fronting action films much in the same way that men had done traditionally. The success of recent films such as the Hunger Games series and Wonder Woman have confirmed that audiences of today are much more receptive to these types of films than audiences may have been in the past. As such, studios are planning more female-led action films to follow. And while today’s action heroine successes are a triumph for women in film, the action film genre actually wasn’t always as male-dominated as we’ve come to know. The truth is that some of the first stars of action “films” were women.

I put films in parentheses because the state of movies during the first decade of the 20th century was much different than it is today. Feature length films did not become widely popular until the 1920’s. Before then, film length varied as there was no standard for acceptable length that customers were willing to pay to see. The first film that is considered an action film is 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, which had a 12 minute run time. As you might expect, 12 minutes of runtime does not allow for much storytelling. During this era, films were constrained by the physical media on which they were printed - a reel of celludoid film. As the technology advanced, the format of a film roll became more standardized, but in the early times of the industry different manufacturers utilized different lengths of media. It was common for films to fit entirely in one reel because it removed the complexity of having to change reels during a showing.

As such, film studios began creating what would become known as the serial. A serial is a series of short films, with each film being a chapter in one larger overarching story. Since each chapter was typically one reel of film, filmmakers could get around the physical limitations of the media at the time. Furthermore, it was easy to make films on one reel and easy for them to be shown in theaters, one reel at a time. This format lent itself especially well to what would become the action genre. Early serials were typically focused on one central character, and each chapter was another event in that character’s adventures. 

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Thomas Edison’s film company (Edison Studios) was one of the first to embrace the serial format and make it widely popular. Edison’s first major serial (and the first one made in the US) was released in 1912, entitled What Happened to Mary. This serial was made in 12 installments, with one released every month. It was released as a film version of a written story that was published monthly as well in The Ladies’ World magazine. This was not only one of the first instances of different mediums being used to tell the same story, but it was one of the first examples of advertising being used to promote a motion picture. In fact, the business benefit of the cross-promotion for Edison’s studio and The Ladies’ World magazine was mutual. The magazine saw the films as a way to increase readership, while Edison’s studio saw the magazine as a way to promote the film.

The serial starred Mary Fuller, a young actress and screenwriter whom Edison had hired in 1910 when Mary was just 21 years old. In this role, Mary became the first female action hero as well as the first in a series of leading ladies who starred in serial adventures. These women would become known as "Serial Queens" and would be among the most popular movie stars of the 1910's. At the time, it was common for characters to have the same names as the actors portraying them. This was a method of self-promotion, and as adventure serials found widespread appeal this tactic paid off. As the first major motion picture serial, What Happened to Mary proved to be immensely popular, and would propel Mary Fuller to stardom. 

The reason that Edison Studios chose to feature a woman as the lead character of their adventure was because they were interested in attracting more women to movie theaters; this serial was seen as a way to reach out to women living in the city. What Happened to Mary was written for thrills and storytelling purposes, not as an exhibit of drama. Mary's depiction strongly contrasted the way that women had been depicted in film up to that point. Mary was not seen as a romantic target, and her actions directly drove the story - not the other way around. This was an important distinction, to show the strength of a woman rather than just focusing on her beauty, and is the reason why Mary is widely considered as the first female action heroine. While the serial was not necessarily action-packed, it did put its protagonist in a number of different crises and situations that she had to work out herself. The film proved to be immensely popular with crowds of different ages as well as ethnic backgrounds. It would convince the American film industry to shift towards the production of more serials, and more adventurous undertakings.

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The attempts to capitalize on the success of What Happened to Mary took place immediately. In 1913, the Chicago Tribune was looking for a way to increase their leadership. At the time, the paper was caught up in a battle of sensationalism in Chicago, and wanted a way to gain an edge on their competition. The paper paid the Selig Polyscope Company $12,000 to produce a film version of a serial that would be published bi-weekly in the paper. That serial was The Adventures of Kathlyn, which would become another important milestone in the development of the film industry. The film focused on Kathlyn Hale (portrayed by Kathlyn Williams) who is lured to the orient only to be kidnapped. The installments were more action-oriented than Edison’s serial, and depicted Kathlyn in all sorts of peril. The filmmakers used animals from the local zoo, but the series’ real claim to fame was its invention of what we now know as cliffhanger endings. The end of each installment would show Kathlyn in some sort of danger, and the clip would end before a resolution. A title card would appear asking the audience if they thought that Kathlyn would survive, and then it would invite them back for the next installment. The film proved to be an immense success, and the Chicago Tribute even attributed a 10% increase in readership due to the film promotion.

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The use of cliffhangers in serial storytelling was a very important development. The Adventures of Katlyn would inspire many different filmmakers to follow suit. In 1914, French film magnate Pathe teamed up with William Randolph Hearst to create The Perils of Pauline. This serial was released in 20 installments and starred Pearl White. Pearl White would become famous for her role as an action heroine in adventure serials, which directly contrasted the naive and weak portrayal of women that was more typical in film at the time. Pearl’s characters could be seen firing weapons, getting in fist fights, and escaping danger in acrobatic fashion. Pearl also made an impact because she did all of her own stunts, which became more dangerous and daring over time (and even sustained several serious injuries over her career because of this). She earned nicknames such as the “Peerless Fearless Girl” and “Heroine of a Thousand Stunts”. The same year, Pearl would star in another serial called the Exploits of Elaine. Audiences loved both of these serials, and in addition to making Pearl a Serial Queen, they helped to maintain the popularity of the new serial format that would continue for more than a decade. Pearl would go on to star in a sequel to each of her first serials, and would become a staple in several more action-packed original creations.

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The profitability of The Perils of Pauline convinced many other studios to make their own. One of the most famous was released by Kalem Studios, entitled The Hazards of Helen (see a theme here?). This serial was released in 26 installments, starting in 1914, and starred Helen Holmes. Kalem Studios tried to position their serial against the others by creating bigger thrills, which often meant more insane stunts. Holmes was a very athletic performer, which made her very popular. Like Pearl White, she ended up doing most of the stunts herself, and in many ways is considered one of the first stunt women in the industry. She completed fetes such as jumping between moving train cars, off of moving vehicles, jumping motorcycles, and engaging in (staged) gun duels. Her director was her husband, J.P. McGowan, who wasn't afraid to put his wife in dangerous situations. They would go on to make many more action films and serials together, although the appeal of Serial Queens began to fade by the 1920's. The reason for this was because more and more kept being made each year without any new innovations. Soon audiences became bored of the routine and began looking elsewhere for cinematic thrills.