A city editor orders an armed female reporter to chase down a con man and “get the story.” A railroad telegrapher seeks vigilante-style justice against two robbers who attacked her. An adventure-seeking heiress outruns a giant boulder Indiana Jones-style … decades before Harrison Ford was ever born.
In the current movie landscape, female action heroes tend to be so few and far between that their mere existence seems like an accomplishment (think: Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Rey in Star Wars, or the four stars of the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot). But more than a century ago, before women had even won the right to vote in many countries, actresses headed up some of the U.S’s most popular and successful action movies—even if they performed stunts in skirts that ended only a few inches above their ankles.
During the early years of cinema in the 1900s and 1910s, men starred in action films such as westerns, but women dominated the so-called “serial” or “chapter” film genre. These were movies in which the same character appeared over several installments released on a regular basis, with plots that were either ongoing or episodic. The story lines typically featured female leads getting into danger, getting out of danger, brandishing guns, giving chase in cars, and battling villains. The film scholar Ben Singer estimates that between 1912 and 1920, about 60 action serials with female protagonists were released, totaling around 800 episodes.
What’s most striking about the category, Singer says, is its “extraordinary emphasis on female heroism.” Protagonists exhibited traditionally “masculine” qualities like “physical strength and endurance, self-reliance, courage, social authority, and the freedom to explore novel experiences outside the domestic sphere.” Then, by the early 1920s, those films and their stars, the so-called “serial queens,” disappeared.
What happened? The answer may have to do with the early film industry’s short-lived tolerance of greater female involvement at all levels of the filmmaking process—a phenomenon that helps explain why today, even after women have shattered so many cultural barriers, action movies still continue to be dominated by male stars.
To understand what happened in the 1910s, it’s necessary to put the emergence of the serial film into context. During this period, two film formats jostled for dominance: what we’d now call “shorts” and “features.” But short films weren’t labeled as “short” at the time—they were simply the industry standard, and were usually described by their length (in number of reels). Features, meanwhile, were the newcomers, with higher production values, more ambitious plots, and greater production costs. Serials were something of a bridge between the two formats. Each episode in a serial was the length of a 15- or 20-minute short film, but over several weeks, a serial could tell a more complicated story.
Serials focused on women action heroes from the start, possibly thanks to the format’s tie-ins with magazines and newspapers, which aimed to draw female readers because they were attractive to advertisers. In 1912, Thomas Edison’s film company teamed up with Ladies’ World magazine to put one of the earliest instances of a serial film, What Happened to Mary?, into print. This example of cross-promotion would continue as other “chapter films” were serialized in newspapers. The Chicago Tribune printed the story of The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913) while the film episodes played in theaters. (Incidentally, Kathlyn was the first film serial to have a narrative thread that continued from week to week instead of relying on the same leading character to provide cohesiveness.)
The focus on heroines seems also to correlate with the film industry’s fascination with the “New Woman.” “She wore less restrictive clothes,” the film curator Eileen Bowser notes, “she was active, she went everywhere she wanted, and she was capable of resolving mysteries.” The proliferation of women in all areas of the film industry during the 1910s—not just as actors, but as screenwriters, theater managers, gossip columnists, film producers, and directors—reflected the increasing number of women in the American workplace, and also the efforts of the vocal and energetic women’s suffrage movement. It’s important to note however, that the abundance of serial-queen films in the 1910s wasn’t caused by women producers or directors pushing for them; the female stars of these movies often provided ideas and sometimes directed, but for the most part, serial films were written and directed by men.
In 1914, a breakout year for the category, the actress Mary Fuller played a daring reporter in The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies. The same year, Grace Cunard appeared in Lucille Love, The Girl of Mystery, which was billed as the “Most Sensational Series of Pictures Ever Produced … AEROPLANES—LION—TIGERS—CANNIBALS—SHIPWRECKS …” Also in 1914, Pearl White, perhaps the best-remembered serial queen of all, made headlines as the fearless heiress Pauline Marvin in The Perils of Pauline, and Helen Holmes began her stint as the brave railroad telegrapher in The Hazards of Helen, which went on to become the longest-running serial, with 119 episodes over six years.
A clip from a 1916 episode of The Hazards of Helen exemplifies the heroism on display in “serial-queen” films. In it, Holmes, the railway telegrapher, battles vagrants, who’ve caused her to lose her job, atop a moving train. She spies them from a distance, makes her way across beams suspended above the tracks, jumps onto the moving train, grapples hand-to-hand with one of her antagonists and falls into the water with him. In the end, she gets her job back.
Perils of Pauline, which established White as one of the era’s most popular stars, features a different kind of bravery: one in which the lead character pursues her explorations to the point where she has to be rescued—usually by her beau, Harry. Over the course of the series, White (in the title role) is set adrift in a hot-air balloon and kidnapped on horseback by bandits. In an episode titled The Goddess of the Far West, Pauline charges down a steep hill to avoid being crushed by a massive boulder hurtling behind her, like Indiana Jones would do in the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark nearly 70 years later.
Harry lassoes her out of the way in the nick of time. But make no mistake, it’s Pauline, not Harry, who carries the show. Although she’s bound and gagged and subjected to every sort of danger, her agility, resourcefulness, and strength are constantly on display as she runs, jumps, tumbles, fights off villains, or burrows her way out of a cave. The challenges she faces are the result of her own desire to push the boundaries, and she returns in each episode, unharmed and eager for her next adventure.
Though these serial queens are rarely remembered today, in their time, actresses such as Grace Cunard, Gene Gauntier, Ruth Roland, and Kathlyn Williams all boasted their own devoted followings. White’s enthusiastic audience of all ages and genders voted her as one of their top three favorite actresses from 1916 to 1918 in a Motion Picture magazine survey. Her fandom was also global: She was particularly beloved in France where she was seen as the incarnation of the “athletic, good-natured young American girl,” and she inspired spin-offs as far away as India, where the actress known as “Fearless Nadia” channeled “Fearless, Peerless Pearl” in her movies for the producer Homi Wadia.
Unfortunately, the celebrity of White and her cohorts would be short-lived. Serials like The Romance of Elaine and A Daughter of Uncle Sam adapted to the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 by introducing plotlines featuring German saboteurs and spies as villains, with women starring in patriotic roles. But by 1919, after the war had ended and women had won the vote, serials and their female stars faded from popularity. The action heroine didn’t really make the transition to features. Or if she did, then as now, it was only in sporadic titles.
World War I also sparked a seismic transformation in the American film industry. Previously, the United States had been just one of several nations that produced and exported films. While the war crippled its European competitors, the U.S. film industry, now firmly based in Hollywood, succeeded in flooding foreign markets with its product. Movie-making became a big American business, and expensive-to-make features were Hollywood’s calling card.
Serial films were, like short films, demoted to a cheaper, less prestigious B-genre. The once-plentiful mom-and-pop production companies couldn’t compete with new studios that could finance and distribute large slates of lavish features, and serial queens, along with a legion of female directors and producers, also found themselves out of work. By the late 1920s, the movie business, which had once been relatively welcoming to women at all levels of the filmmaking process, now relegated them to only a few behind-the-camera roles, such as screenwriter or costume designer. Those who directed, like Dorothy Arzner in the late 1920s to the early 1940s, were in the minority, and no women headed major studios.
As movies became big business, filmmaking became more of a boy’s club, and women were pushed to the sidelines, with their disempowerment behind the camera reflected by female characters’ shift away from action roles. This persists to some extent today, even though, as movies like last year’s Mad Max and Melissa McCarthy’s Spy or the Hunger Games franchise show us, there’s certainly an audience out there for female-driven action movies.
So why do the 2010s lag behind the 1910s in terms of a robust body of films with female action leads? No doubt, industry experts could pull out a formula filled with box-office returns to explain and justify this. But perhaps looking to the past provides an equally compelling, if less intuitive, answer—that when women flourish in all aspects of the filmmaking process as they did during the early days of the business, when the current massive gender imbalance in the industry is corrected across the board, the conditions will be ripe for female action heroes to once again take over the big screen.