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Helen Gardner

Born in 1884 in Binghampton, New York, Helen Gardner was eighteen when she became the second wife of Duncan Pell, Sr., and moved to Orlando.

Though the two would later divorce, Helen Gardner would go on to make successful films including the 1912 film Cleopatra, and the 1913 film A Sister To Carmen.

Helen would later move back to Orlando in the 1950s, and remained here until her death in 1968.

Early Life

Helen Gardner was born in Binghampton, New York in 1884. Her family remained there for the early years of her life but would later move to Connecticut where they lived in Bridgeport.

The Wyoming Hotel from the State Archives of Florida

Shortly after her 18th birthday, in 1902, Helen became the second wife of Duncan Pell Sr. Though their residence in Orlando was the Mizell Estate on the property now known as Leu Gardens, they stayed weekly at the Wyoming Hotel. The couple had one daughter, Helene Gardner Pell.

Duncan Pell listed in the 1907 Orlando City Directory

Although they were together for a short period of time, Helen left a mark on Orlando. According to a 2001 article in the Orlando Sentinel, Orlando native Lillian Lindorf remembered Gardner “walk[ing] down Orange Avenue with her hourglass figure.”

The Pells were frequently mentioned in the gossip columns of the day. The couple separated in 1906, apparently largely due to Duncan’s financial problems.

Film Career

After moving back to New York, Helen Gardner started working at Vitagraph Film Company, where she was cast in the 1911 film Vanity Fair. Gardner’s performance in this film was lauded in Moving Picture World:

The individual work of the principal characters is particularly strong in every instance, but head and shoulders above them all is Miss Helen Gardner as Becky Sharpe. It seems a much too difficult task to attempt to describe her phenomenal work in this exceedingly complex role. […] We might ramble on for hours in ecstasies over the superb work of Miss Gardner and at the end of that time have given but a faint idea of what we saw her do.

“Vanity Fair”, Moving Picture World, December 16, 1911
Helen Gardner in 1911’s Vanity Fair

Following her success in that film, Helen Gardner decided to walk away from the Vitagraph Film Company and chose instead to start her own motion picture company. Helen Gardner Picture Players was formed in 1912. In doing so, she became the first person to start her own film production company.

Full page ad from Moving Picture World, June 1912

Helen Gardner continued to make films with her production company until 1914 when the company folded. Some of the films that she made with that company are still extant, including Cleopatra and A Sister to Carmen. Because of her role in the former film, Gardner is sometimes considered the first on-screen vamp.

Though her production company folded, Helen continued to appear in films (through her former employer, Vitagraph, but also Rex, IMP, and Gold Seal) and worked on films as a director or scenario writer. She continued working in the motion picture business until 1924.

Later Life

Though much appears to be unknown about the period in Helen Gardner’s life between the mid-1920s and the 1950s, she appeared to have worked as a writer; the 1930 US Census records her as being a self-employed author working in poetry.

In 1955, Helen Gardner moved back to Orlando, and remained here until her death in 1968. Her death was announced in the November 21, 1968 issue of the Orlando Evening Star, and her funeral took place at the Carey Hand chapel.

Posthumous Recognition

More recently, Helen Gardner has not been forgotten. The decision to install an outdoor projection screen at Leu Gardens to show movies on was in honor of the silent film star and former resident.

Though a large number of silent films have been lost to time, or have been destroyed, a surprising number of Gardner’s works remain extant. Her version of Cleopatra still exists to this date, and has been shown on TCM in the past. Through a grant from the New York Women in Film and Television, Helen Gardner’s third feature film with her own production company, A Sister to Carmen, was restored as well.

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1907 Orlando City Directory

Duncan Pell listed in the 1907 Orlando City Directory

Vanity Fair, 1911

Photo features Helen Gardner as Becky Sharpe in the 1911 feature film Vanity Fair.

Helen Gardner Picture Players advertisement

Full page advertisement/announcement from the June 1912 issue of Motion Picture World about the Helen Gardner Picture Players.

Helen Gardner obituary, Orlando Evening Star

Helen Gardner obituary, as reported in the November 21, 1968 issue of the Orlando Evening Star

Helen Gardner obituary, Variety

Helen Gardner obituary, Variety. Variety Obits 1964 - 1968; December 4, 1968.

Hotel Wyoming

State Archives of Florida photographic collection. Photo of the Hotel Wyoming

Hotel Wyoming

Postcard of the Hotel Wyoming

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Comments to “Helen Gardner”

  1. Karen Caverly Molineaux says:

    I am a PhD of history student, focusing on the economic opportunities the silent film industry afforded women entrepreneurs. Thank you for your information, and links to additional sources on Helen Gardner.

    • Kim P says:

      Greetings Karen! Thank you for visiting Orlando Memory and your kind words about the Helen Gardner post. We hope you will peruse other posts on the site about events in Orlando during the silent movie era. THE ORLANDO MEMORY TEAM

  2. David L. Kaliner says:

    Actress Helen Gardner (born in Binghamton, New York, on September 2nd, 1884) was a true pioneer in the film industry, successful as a performer, writer, producer, and costume designer. In 1902, she reportedly married businessman Duncan Clarkson Pell, Sr. I believe the couple separated just a few years later but never officially divorced. Ms. Gardner, prominently featured in several silent films, is best known for her acclaimed portrayal of Becky Sharp in the 1911 picture “Vanity Fair” and for playing the title role in the first full-length 1912 “Cleopatra” movie. In 1910, she left Vitagraph Studios to start the Helen Gardner Picture Players, her own production company. At age 84 (on November 20th, 1968) in Orlando, Florida, Ms. Gardner passed away.

    • Jessica B. says:

      Greetings David! Thank you for visiting Orlando Memory. We hope that you find other topics to read about while you’re here! THE ORLANDO MEMORY TEAM

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