Discovering the Film Career of Harry Houdini

harry-houdini-1On March 24, 1874, Erik Weisz was born to Rabbi Weisz and his wife Cecilia in Budapest, Austria-Hungary. That may mean nothing to most of you until I tell you that he was better known under the stage name of Harry Houdini. He was a world-renowned magician and escape artist but did you know that he was also an actor?

Harry began his magic career in 1891 doing mostly card tricks before he started experimenting with escape acts. He would become famous for his handcuff tricks, even being nicknamed “The Handcuff King”. By the early 1900s, he was moving on to more daring acts. There was the Chinese water torture act and the straitjacket challenge, not to mention even being buried alive. But while he was becoming a legend in the field of magic, he was also dabbling in the world of Hollywood.

harry-houdini-2As early as 1906, Houdini was showing films of his escapes during his vaudeville act. In 1909, he was offered the part of Captain Nemo in what would have been the original version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It would be another nine years before Hollywood tried again. In 1918, he would receive another opportunity with the cliffhanger serial, The Master Mystery.

Between 1919 and 1923, Houdini would go on to make another four films, the last of which was Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). He even founded his own film laboratory, The Film Development Corporation, with his brother Theodore. However, by 1923, Houdini had grown tired of the business, claiming there was too little profit.

harry-houdini-3It may come as another surprise that even Houdini’s voice was recorded. He made a total of six Edison wax cylinders in 1914. Presumed lost for many years, they were rediscovered in a private collection in 1970 and are now owned by magician David Copperfield. You can hear his voice on YouTube in a recently remastered version with noise reduction.

Harry Houdini died on Halloween afternoon, 1926, of peritonitis and a ruptured appendix. He was only 52 years old. There has been speculation for years about his death, some believing it was the result of an attack on his abdomen by a student. Despite the controversy, his legacy as a master magician lives on today. But his film career is seldom talked about. Houdini has been the subject of several films over the years, including Houdini (1953) starring Tony Curtis, The Great Houdini (1976) with Paul Michael Glaser and, most recently, Adrien Brody took on the role in the mini-series Houdini (2014).

houdini-dvd-coverHarry Houdini’s five films deserve more recognition. Kino International released a fantastic DVD set in 2008, now out-of-print. It only included about five minutes of The Grim Game (1919) as the film was considered lost at the time. However, the movie was in a private collection and it was sold to Turner Classic Movies in 2014. They restored it and publicly showed the film in March 2015, followed by a television broadcast in October 2015.

In honor of this master magician and escape artist, I’ll be reviewing The Master Mystery (1918) next week with the rest of his five films following every Friday through December. I hope you’ll enjoy this retrospect and glimpse into the seldom seen and little known film career of the legendary Harry Houdini.

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