April 7, 1924 — January 29, 2010
The blonde, energetic, and altogether adorable Helen Talbot, a frequent leading lady in Republic Pictures’ 1940s B-westerns, could easily have become that studio’s successor to its serial queens Kay Aldridge and Linda Stirling. Her sweet and perky personality, though different from Aldridge’s wide-eyed enthusiasm and Stirling’s ladylike poise, was quite as attractive in its own way. However, her film career was a very short one, and only two Republic cliffhangers had the benefit of her cheerful presence.
Born Helen Darling in Concordia, Kansas, Helen Talbot was apparently orphaned at an early age and adopted by a family named Smith (judging from her Internet Movie Database biography, which, though it contains serious inaccuracies about her film career, seems to have been written by a member of her adopted family). She left the Smiths in 1941 to live with her brother in Los Angeles. After finishing high school, she worked as a fashion model before entering films in 1943. Her first acting work was at MGM, as a chorus member in the Danny Kaye musical comedy Up in Arms, but she was signed to a contract by Republic Pictures before the MGM movie’s release. From 1943 to 1946 (the year of her departure from the screen), all her films would be Republic productions. Her first role for the studio was the heroine’s part in the Don “Red” Barry B- western Canyon City. Most of her Republic career was spent in similar roles, opposite B-western stars like Barry, Allan Lane (in Trail of Kit Carson and other titles) and Bill Elliott (in the Red Ryder B-western Lone Texas Ranger). Occasionally, the studio would feature her in a bit part in one of their higher-budgeted films, usually as one of the chorus in song-laden Roy Rogers westerns like San Fernando Valley or Jane Frazee musical vehicles like Rosie the Riveter.
Sooner or later, most of Republic’s contract players found themselves cast in a serial, and Helen was no exception. The first of her two chapterplays was 1945’s Federal Operator 99, which starred Marten Lamont as Jerry Blake, an FBI agent out to capture the suave master criminal Jim Belmont (George J. Lewis), and co-starred Talbot as Joyce Kingston, Blake’s trusty secretary and assistant. The serial’s plot consisted of a series of duels between Belmont–who concocted various impressive heists only to be thwarted by the federal agent–and Blake–who kept checkmating Belmont but failing to capture him. This cat-and-mouse game was augmented by a clever script, some excellent action scenes and some innovative cliffhanger sequences, several of which centered around Helen’s character. The indefatigable Joyce was almost perpetually endangered throughout the serial, but managed to survive a cremation chamber, avoid being shredded by an airplane propeller, and escape rolling off a cliff in a laundry basket. While Talbot’s youthful and ingenuous appearance kept her from seeming entirely convincing as an FBI operative, it also made her character instantly appealing; the audience found it easy to be concerned about this sweet-looking girl’s perils.
Talbot’s second and final serial was King of the Forest Rangers (Republic, 1946). One of the last Republic serials filmed largely on location (in the picturesque pine woods of California’s Big Bear Lake), this cliffhanger dealt with the attempts of the villainous Professor Carver (Stuart Hamblen) to get his hands on valuable minerals concealed in some ancient Indian towers. Forest ranger Steve King (Larry Thompson) investigated the crimes spawned by Carver’s schemes, with the help of local trading post proprietor Marion Brennan (Helen Talbot). A good serial that could have been better, King of the Forest Rangers featured two rather lackluster leading performances; hero Thompson was low-key to the point of dullness, while villain Hamblen was too unthreatening in voice and appearance to make his character suitably sinister. However, both actors received an assist from their energetic aides–Hamblen from nasty henchman Anthony Warde and Thompson from the chipper Helen, whose wholesome, “All-American” good looks suited the serial’s rustic, outdoorsy milieu nicely.
Above: Anthony Warde attempts to escape the Forest Rangers by holding Helen Talbot hostage, but is trapped in a forest fire in King of the Forest Rangers. Talbot and Larry Thompson are shown on this lobby card’s border.
Forest Rangers was Helen Talbot’s last screen outing; shortly after its release her Republic contract ended. In 1945, she had married her high school sweetheart, Navy flyer Richard Hearn, following his return from World War 2, and now she retired to a happy private life. She never appeared on screen again, although she did attend several Western and serial film festivals over the years. She passed away in La Jolla, California, in 2010.
Helen Talbot’s serial career was extremely brief, but some cliffhanger buffs–this writer included–often find themselves mentally grouping her with Republic’s more prolific serial queens. She had all the spunk, innocent allure, and enthusiasm needed for chapterplay heroine roles, and she left many fans wishing she had brought those qualities to a few more matinee adventures.
Above: Helen Talbot poses with (from left to right) famed director Frank Borzage, serial cameraman Bud Thackery, and serial director Spencer Gordon Bennett on the set of King of the Forest Rangers (Republic, 1946).