Her brother's ill health necessitated a family move from cold, damp Chicago to the hot, dry climate of California's Death Valley. It was there that her taste for adventure was given full rein. In that desolate, sparsely populated country she prospected for gold and for a short time lived among a local Indian tribe. Her brother soon died, though, and in 1910 Helen moved to New York and began appearing in local plays. She had become friends with film star Mabel Normand, and after a short correspondence Normand invited her to Hollywood, where she got her friend some modeling and movie work. Holmes soon achieved success, and by 1913 was starring in her own films. She met her husband, director J.P. McGowan, at Kalem Studios while she was acting in, and he was directing, The Hazards of Helen (1914) serial. The two soon formed their own production company, and their films, both serials and features, achieved great success. By 1919, though, Mutual Films, the company that distributed their movies, had gone under. Without Mutual's financial backing the budgets on their films shrank precipitously, and not being able to afford to make railroad serials anymore, Helen was now turned into a newspaperwoman, a switch that did not sit well with her fans. Although she continued to make films and serials, many of them weren't starring roles anymore, and the fact that a good percentage of them were for the cheap independent market meant that relatively few audiences actually saw them.
Her marriage to McGowan broke up in 1925. She subsequently married a movie stuntman, and basically retired from the screen in 1926, although she made a few appearances in small parts over the next 20 years. She kept her hand in the business by becoming a trainer for animals used in the movies, but that lasted until her husband died in 1946. Her health had been deteriorating for several years by that time, and she died of a heart attack in 1950
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