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The First Stunt Women of Cinema

Helen Gibson, Polly Burson and Lila Finn each have a filmography that extends almost 50 years in contributing to the magic of cinema. Their pay was poor, and it was uncommon for women to take on such a dangerous profession as being stunt women.

Helen Gibson started in rodeo shows and quickly moved to being a cowboy extra earning $8 a week. The first role where she could display both her acting and stunt talents was in the film series “The Hazards of Helen” (1914) when she replaced the previous star Helen Holmes. Interestingly enough, Gibson was a stunt double for Holmes in Episode 13 entitled “Escape From The Fast Freight.” The new role would require Gibson to perform dangerous stunts such as jumping from a galloping horse to a moving freight train. With the amount of fame she was able to achieve with this role, Gibson opened her own production company, Helen Gibson Productions. Unfortunately, her production company would be short lived. “Nine Points of the Law” (1922) was the only film it produced with Gibson in the starring role. The film did poorly, and Gibson returned to what she did best. She continued to do stunt work and play uncredited roles until she was 69 years old in her last film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962). Afterward, Gibson retired. She passed away 1977.

Polly Burson grew up on ranches in her home state of Oregon. By the time she was a teenager, Burson was performing in rodeo shows. In 1945, Burson headed to Hollywood to be a stunt woman. One of her first stunt jobs was to double for Betty Hutton in “The Perils of Pauline” (1947). She continued to double for actresses such as Lucille Ball in “Fancy Pants” (1950), Julie Adams in “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1945), and Kim Novak in “Vertigo” (1958).
Burson became the first female to become a stunt coordinator while working on the film “Westward The Women” (1951). In 1990, she was the first to receive the Tad Lucas Memorial award of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. In1992, Burson would perform her final stunt work in “Hero” (1992). In 2002, Burson was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. In 2006, Burson passed away at the age of 86.

Throughout Lila Finn’s filmography, she has doubled for a few famous actresses – Vivien Leigh in “Gone With The Wind” (1939), Donna Reed in “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946) and Paulette Goddard in “Unconquered” (1947). In the film series entitled “Unusual Occupations” (1947), she appeared as herself for a short about stunt women. In 1933, Finn received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Women In Film. She was founding President of the Stunt Woman’s Association. At 85 years old, Finn was credited as a stunt woman in her last film, “Folks!” (1992). She passed away in 1996.

Although they still remain uncredited for their stunt work, they are legendary stunt women among Hollywood who paved the way for future stunt women.

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