"The film has not been shown to the general public for 96 years. This was one of the most sought after items… the Holy Grail of Houdini history!"
When he died or slightly before to be absolutely precise… Harry Houdini promised his wife that he would send her a message from the afterlife. Many séances later we’re still waiting but what we have here is cinematic life after death for the extraordinary Harry.
It’s part of the magic of our times that celebrities excelling in one area will use emerging media to further promote themselves. In this case, escapologist, stunt performer and aviator Harry Houdini makes a movie in which he escapes, performs stunts, flies and acts… It is primary-source evidence of his remarkable abilities and reputedly the best of his five films.
|Harry hangs on|
We all somehow know Harry Houdini… he’s still part of our cultural currency with a personality larger and indeed longer than life. Here he is relentlessly energetic and inventive with the film built around his stunts: locked doors, hand-cuffs, chains and strait-jacket hanging over the side of a multi-storey building… all are overcome with muscular ease and yes he even acts as well!
We take so much trickery for granted nowadays but these set pieces are all the more impressive for being real and, like Doug Fairbanks, his force of will powers through the screen – a superhero with believable powers.
|Tully Marshall. Harry Houdini and Augustus Phillips|
In between the skill and the strength there’s a story, not much but good enough. It is well directed by Irvin Willat with strong support from the likes of Tully Marshall (love Mr Marshall’s work!) as the aptly-named Richard Raver a crocked lawyer with his eye set on cheating his aged client Dudley Cameron (Thomas Jefferson) out of his riches.
Mr Cameron lives in the isolated paranoid state of many Camerons: his property protected by locks and high walls – all the better for Harry to climb over… Harry is his estranged nephew Harvey Hanford who works as an investigative reporter at The Call newspaper, and who just so happens to be romantically intertwined with grumpy-uncle’s winsome ward Mary (Ann Forrest) who would dearly love to write for The Call and to marry Harvey.
|Harry Houdini, Ann Forrest and Thomas Jefferson|
Harvey comes up with a plan that’ll save the paper: it’s a fool-proof one that couldn’t possibly go wrong… Using the boys’ favourite show girl, Ethel Delmead (Mae Busch) they’ll persuade Dudley to go off with her for a break in the country and then create the impression that his absence is down to foul play. Sensibly Harvey decides to frame himself for this by leaving clues around the supposed crime scene… The Call will lead the investigation and uncover the aged millionaire on his innocent holiday retreat with Ethel thereby clearing Harvey and really pissing off the old man even further…
|Lobby card showing Harvey's first arrest|
So it comes to pass that the plan goes awry and Harvey is duly arrested after Cameron’s body is found stuffed down his well. But whodunit and how will Harvey ever prove his innocence having so successfully implicated himself? Luckily there ain’t a jail built that can hold him and, with the aid of steadfast Mary he may have a chance…
The action moves on thick and fast with escape and recapture followed by a spectacular sequence involving two planes who eventually crash together. Famously this was an actual accident that was worked into the story. Whilst the publicity had Harry as the man hanging from one of the planes it was actually stuntman Robert E. Kennedy who, along with both pilots emerged unscathed.
Full marks to cinematographer Frank M. Blount for the filming – IMAX screen not required when you have actual people wing-walking, free-air dangling and actually crashing! This was Harry’s world… where bravery was actual and not an optical effect: a 4,400 feet descent attached to a rope and hanging on for dear life. Extra-ordinary.
|Robert E. Kennedy dangles and the planes collide|
Neil Brand provided admirable accompaniment without a safety net and fully match-fit fresh from a six hour stint playing along to Les Miserables at Pordenone. Hopefully this will be screened at the Barbican next year?!
The Grim Game was long considered lost until a complete print emerged in the possession of Larry Weeks, a former juggler from Brooklyn… thank to efforts from Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz of The Houdini Museum (quoted above) and then Rick Schmidlin who met the 95-year old in 2014 and subsequently restored the film for TCM.
Today’s screening was the first in Britain for a lifetime… maybe Harry finally got through the ether to send his message?