An inspired, indefatigable, and shameless self-promoter and, not coincidentally, one of the most famous people in the world in the early decades of the twentieth century, Harry Houdini was a natural for the movies. Both he and the new medium trafficked in illusions. Sometimes that worked in Houdini’s favor while on other occasions cinema’s sleight of hand undermined the verisimilitude and power of his feats. In either case, Houdini’s movies reached crowds of people who had read of his tricks and death-defying exploits but would never see the flamboyant entertainer in person.
Houdini originally embraced the silver screen with “actualities,” or nonfiction shorts, that documented his derring-do. He pioneered (along with George Méliès) the use of film in his stage performances with the twin goals of enhancing the audience’s appreciation for his endeavors and luring their eyes away from him when it served his purposes.
The erstwhile magician found his niche as an escape artist then cannily extended his successful vaudeville act into sensational public performances “on location,” for which he escaped from handcuffs and other constraints while suspended upside down above city streets or tossed into rivers. The Grim Game (1919), a carefully constructed story of a clever reporter named Harvey Hanford who arranges to frame himself for murder only to get double-crossed in the bargain, cheerfully exploited Houdini’s reputation and flair for fearless high-altitude getaways. The public didn’t need to know that the filmmakers employed a stunt double now and again, and Houdini even went so far as to brazenly fuel the perception that he was onboard for the airplane crash that provides the film’s climax. (The More Things Change Dept.: A hundred years on, with CGI the norm, Tom Cruise and other action stars go to great lengths—and heights—to convince audiences they don’t simply exert and emote in front of a green screen and an industrial fan.)
Houdini was always on the lookout to expand his fame and fortune, and Hollywood was equally eager to find vehicles for a charismatic celebrity. Producers working for Universal came calling in 1915 with an adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but the forty-one-year-old Houdini made outlandish salary demands to play Captain Nemo, compelling them to cast another actor.
However, the various parties were able to agree on a submarine picture to be shot in the Bahamas. Alas, the project, entitled Houdini and the Miracle or The Marvelous Adventures of Houdini per different film historians, ran aground after the United States entered World War I. The star arranged to film the attention-grabbing opening sequence, in which he leapt off the Atlantic City pier in chains and freed himself underwater, but that was the lone adventure enacted before a camera. (Decades later, of course, the Bond pictures made the dangerous, adrenalized first reel de rigueur. And, as long as we’re acknowledging Houdini’s advances, his gift for high-risk public spectacles was inherited by the Flying Wallendas and Evel Knievel.)
The illusionist’s film career finally broke its bonds in 1918 with The Master Mystery, a fifteen-episode serial starring Houdini as a Justice Department flatfoot on the trail of a nefarious cartel guarded by the first robot in movie history. Each segment ends with our hero tied up or shackled in mortal danger, and each succeeding episode depicts his escape in real time without cuts. It was shot while Houdini was enjoying a long run at the mammoth Hippodrome Theatre in New York and the star supported its release with countless in-theater appearances.
The writers of the popular serial Perils of Pauline, Arthur Reeve and Charles Logue, were hired to pen The Master Mystery. As was his way, Houdini was a keen collaborator. “Houdini has an inborn gift,” Reeve said at the time, “and, with it all, is one of the deepest students I have met. Everything he does is figured out from a logical beginning [and] is the result of years of work and study.”
To be sure, the allure of The Master Mystery as well as the first film he made after moving to Hollywood, The Grim Game, was watching Houdini’s skillful disposal of handcuffs, chains, et al. His ability to escape any form of imprisonment (and to break in, on occasion) was the equivalent of a contemporary superhero’s unique power and reassured viewers that good triumphs over evil, at least for the picture’s running time.
But Houdini was an impressive screen presence even when he wasn’t engaged in his specialty. A barrel-chested bantamweight, he exudes strength (even in a three-piece suit and boater) and strides with confidence and purpose. He gives off an attractive aura of pent-up energy yet is utterly patient and comfortable in his scenes with love interest Ann Forrest. The man was not remotely intimidated by the camera, professional actors, or the looming audience; indeed, he seemed to revel in the whole enterprise of being watched.
The reviewer for the New York Herald declared, “Houdini has stepped to the front as a film star.” That was the consensus of the Big Apple papers, with the New York Mail critic effusing, “There is more excitement in one reel of The Grim Game than in any five reels of celluloid I have ever watched.”
Dapper, dexterous, and agile, Harry Houdini wasn’t just an escape artist onscreen: He was, self-evidently, an action hero. All he needed to do was cut back on the eye makeup a bit.
This revelation is only the result of another revelation. Long presumed lost, along with eighty percent of silent features, The Grim Game survives courtesy of Brooklyn juggler Larry Weeks, who acquired the sole extant print from Houdini’s heirs in 1947. Weeks screened the film a mere handful of times to friends and fellow performers over the years and had consistently declined any and all offers to sell it. Until the spring of 2014, that is, when film scholar and preservationist Rick Schmidlin paid the ninety-five-year-old Weeks a visit with a persuasive offer from Turner Classic Movies (TCM).
After Schmidlin received the print and other materials from Weeks, he was elated to discover that he was in possession of all five-and-a-half reels of The Grim Game. He and his team wasted no time restoring the film, and the first public screening took place at the TCM Classic Film Festival this past March.
With his enthusiasm for live performance fading and his fervor for moviemaking never higher, Houdini made three more features playing characters with the initials H.H. After the critics tossed brickbats at Terror Island (1920) for its implausible script, the star assumed complete creative control on The Man from Beyond (1922) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). “Serial melodrama and screen uplift won’t mix,” sniffed Variety about the former, while Haldane suffered from a paucity of escapes (only one).
On the eve of his fiftieth birthday and in financial straits, with audiences gripped by epic spectacles from Cecil B. DeMille and in love with new stars like Ramon Novarro, Harry Houdini accepted the end of his film career. He died less than three years later of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix on Halloween, 1926.
Presented at A Day of Silents 2015 with live music by Donald Sosin