[Until recently only a five minute clip from Harry Houdini’s feature film The Grim Game was known to exist. Rick Schmidlin will introduce his stunning restoration of the complete film (made possible by the support of Turner Classic Movies) with the premiere of a new musical score by Donald Sosin at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s “Day of Silents” on Saturday, December 5 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and the day’s schedule go here.]
I’ve read bios of Houdini all my life, and they all give the impression that Houdini — though he was an electrifying presence onstage – was a dud in the cinema, a posturing ham in whiteface. Not wanting to mar my hero’s image, I’d avoided those films.
But recently a virgin print of the long-lost film The Grim Game was rediscovered in the estate of Larry Weeks. I’d met Weeks at magic conventions when he was in his 80s — a wiry, goateed leprechaun with a beret and a wicked grin. He’d take my arm with a broad, tan, bone crushing grip (he’d been a juggler in his prime), and pull me aside to chat about Houdini. He’d obtained the print directly from the Houdini family and shared it only with his closest friends.
The Grim Game was Houdini’s third major movie venture. He’d botched a first attempt, then learned the ropes of the new medium by starring in a fifteen-part serial The Master Mystery shot in Brooklyn and bristling with his signature stunts. In the course of shooting, he’d suffered seven black eyes and a broken left wrist after he fell off a swinging chandelier, but during that time he’d learned to act for the camera. He wrote, “The smallest movie star can make the biggest spoken stage star look like a nickel before the camera, especially if they do not know the angle of the lens.” He was ready for Hollywood.
In the early spring of 1919, in the wake of the Great War, he headed to Los Angeles, where he signed with a first class studio, Famous Players-Lasky, whose stable of luminaries included Mary Pickford, John Barrymore, and Rudolph Valentino. He was in the big league now, with a star salary of $2500 a week, plus an interest in the picture. Houdini helped shape the script of The Grim Game to take advantage of his reputation for coolness, ingenuity, daring, and athleticism (he may have gotten a little thicker in the midsection in his mid-forties, but he still moved like a panther.)
The film is a Hitchcockian crime story. Harry Houdini is Harvey Hanford, boyfriend of Mary, the lovely ward of a miser. He’s also a star newspaper reporter at The Call and has a convenient knack for picking locks. The Call is deep in debt, and Hanford has an idea for a stunt to increase circulation: Hanford will arrange for the miser to be taken away to the seaside “for his health.” Then he will leave a series of clues that suggest the miser has been murdered – by Harvey Hanford. He’ll give exclusive coverage to The Call. Then when he’s been arrested and put on trial, Hanford will arrange for the miser to return, and himself to be vindicated.
It’s the perfect premise for an action thriller. Just at that level of borderline fantasy that gives films like North by Northwest their spine-tingling plausibility, but full of opportunities for flights of fancy – in this case literally.
The film’s climax is a hair-raising aerial chase. Mary has been abducted by the villain in a biplane. Hanford leaps into another plane and pursues her. Twenty-two hundred feet in the air Hanford tries to rescue Mary, sliding down a rope from his plane to the villain’s. But when the upper wing of the lower biplane gets caught on the landing gear of the upper, the two planes drag each other into a spinning crash, from which Hanford emerges triumphant.
Now, Houdini loved planes. He flew the first sustained plane flight in Australia and thought that if history ever forgot his exploits as an entertainer, he would still have a place as a pioneer of aviation. But Houdini had sprained his wrist during a jailbreak stunt and – though he offered to shoot the stunt himself – director Irvin Willat wasn’t about to risk his star’s life and his picture’s completion.
And a good thing, too. The plane crash was not in the script. It was a genuine accident during the shooting. Stunt double Robert E. Kennedy crash-landed, and, though heavily lacerated from the tumbling glide into the stony field, survived. The planes, rented from Cecil B. DeMille, fared less well.
But director Willat had kept the cameras rolling and by shooting some additional footage and editing it all together seamlessly, produced a four-minute action sequence to rival any James Bond opener.
And Houdini as an actor? Though the makeup is a bit heavy around the eyes, I like him. He convinces me. His acting is not hammy at all. He’s doing romantic melodrama with conviction, no easy thing. And his physical power and presence is wonderful. Does he need to pull himself up into trellis to hide from a security guard? He just does it as gracefully and effortlessly as, well, Houdini. He’s a sexy Jewish Schwarzenegger with more substance. But his stunts – even with the occasional double – are not the work of a digital artist at a computer. He’s earned every bruise.
Teller is an American magician, illusionist, actor, comedian, writer, director and half of the comedy magic duo Penn & Teller, along with Penn Jillette. Teller usually does not speak during performances.
He directed the duo’s acclaimed documentary Tim’s Vermeer (2013, via Amazon) as well as a version of Macbeth (via Amazon) that successfully toured the East Coast, and the off-Broadway thriller Play Dead. After a successful Broadway run they are back at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas performing their very special brand of magic. For more about Penn & Teller, scroll to the bottom of this piece.
Interested in learning more about Houdini?
- This week, Eat My Shorts features Houdini videos.
- 100 years ago, on November 21, 2015, Houdini and Hardeen both opened their shows in Oakland, California. The brothers would perform the Thanksgiving week in direct competition in theaters only a few blocks apart. While they had played against each other in San Francisco the week before, Oakland was a much smaller city. Would it prove to be too small for two Handcuff Kings? Find out here.
- Read how Rick Schmidlin found The Grim Game here.
- The Houdini Museum official web site. The tour includes many exhibits and a live show with two nationally known magicians, Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brooks who founded the museum.
- Fred Pittella’s Houdini & Escapes Museum is dedicated to the art of The Escape. Fred Pittella was an essential part of the recovery of The Grim Game complete film.
- The Houdini Museum of New York features hundred of magic props, photos, spiritualistic expose items and other memorabilia in the second largest collection of Houdini materials (after David Copperfield’s). Admission is free, exhibits often rotate and being located at the headquarters of Fantasma Magic a visitor will have a chance to see magic performed live.
- More Houdini can be found on Amazon. Houdini: The Movie Star is a 3 DVD box set with other films starring Houdini as an actor including the serial The Master Mystery (1919, 238m, Color Tinted), Terror Island (1920, 55m, B&W) The Man From Beyond (1922, 68m, Color Tinted), Haldane of the Secret Service (1923, 84m, Color Tinted). SPECIAL FEATURES INCLUDE: Filmed records of Houdini escapes (ca. 1907-23) – Audio recording of Houdini speaking (1914) – Excerpts from the NY Censor Board files – Slippery Jim, a 1910 Houdini-inspired comedy – The illusion Metamorphosis performed by Houdini s brother Hardeen and others.
- Several dramatic and documentary films about Houdini can also be found here.
- There are many books you can find at your local bookstore and library or purchase through our affiliate programs with IndieBound and Amazon.
A special favorite for young people is The Houdini Box by Brian Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret and his newest The Marvels).
John Bengston, silent film historian and author of books on the locations where many silent comedies were filmed writes about the connections between Houdini and Buster Keaton…expect surprises. Read more here.
A fun web site to learn more is “Wild About Harry.”
A San Francisco magician recently learned of his own connection to Houdini and held a séance on October 31 to try and reach the master debunker of spiritualists.
Petaluma filmmaker Tom Wyrsch’s documentary about the Houdini Seances in Santa Rosa.
For more Penn & Teller:
- Official Web Site
- Penn & Teller show at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas
- Penn & Teller on IMDb
- Books by Penn & Teller (Amazon or Indiebound)
- Tim’s Vermeer [directed by Teller (Amazon)]
- Macbeth [directed by Teller (Amazon )]
- Penn & Teller’s Magic and Mystery Tour (Amazon) See below for more information.
- Penn & Teller’s BS (Amazon)
- Penn & Teller Tell a Lie (Amazon)
- Penn & Teller Get Killed (Amazon)
- Penn & Teller Off the Deep End (Amazon)
- Penn & Teller Fool Us
- Wizard Wars
Penn & Teller’s Magic and Mystery Tour goes to India. This is a three-episode mini-series produced by the CBC and Channel Four in Britain in 2003 about the history of some classic magic illusions. Full episode (50 mins). The Egypt and China episodes are also available from YouTube.