Written by Irvin Willet
Story by Arthur B. Reeve & John W. Grey
Directed by Irvin Willet
Plot: Harry Houdini stars as Harvey Hanford, a reporter who is framed for murder. Upon his escape from jail, he must pursue the men behind the plot, who are also responsible for the kidnapping of his fiancée, Mary Wentworth. What transpires is a series of captures and escapes, with the climax occurring in a now famous mid-air plane crash.
Personal Thoughts and Trivia: After the success of The Master Mystery (1919), Houdini wanted to continue exploring the cinematic world. After the failure of the Octagon Film Corporation, Houdini announced that a new company would be formed to make feature films starring himself. However, before that would occur, Houdini signed with Famous Players Lasky to begin filming a new project. This time, Houdini would star in a feature film but it was only a one picture deal as his star power was still being determined by Hollywood.
The Grim Game would continue with the idea that Houdini’s characters were multi-faceted. However, here he is much more of a common man, which is a contributing factor for why this is considered by many to be his best film. At 71 minutes, The Grim Game succeeds where The Master Mystery failed. It weaves a tightly written tale and exploits the escape aspects without becoming tedious. Houdini’s acting talents are sometimes questioned. However, Houdini plays a very real version of himself here. There are no spies or fancy inventions. Just a man fighting to prove his innocence and saves the love of his life. The escapes are the proverbial icing on the cake without drowning the movie goer.
The climatic plane crash has become legendary and, for many years, was the only true surviving clip from a film that was considered lost until 2014. Houdini had planned a fantastic aerial stunt that would have culminated with his character moving from one plane to another. However, when the planes got too close to each other, the resulting crash was all caught on film. With no fatalities, the footage was used and became the biggest selling point during the film’s promotions. While Houdini took credit for his participation in the stunt, it was eventually revealed that a stunt actor was actually the man involved and Houdini’s departure from the crashed plane was actually filmed after the fact.
At the film premiere, Houdini actually offered $1,000 to anyone who challenged the legitimacy of the plane accident. Needless to say, no one ever received the money, but it was an effective publicity tool. Reviews would comment on the excitement of the plane crash but Houdini’s acting abilities were once again brought into question. In reality, this is probably Houdini’s best effort and his acting really isn’t that bad. His one weakness is the lack of believability in any romantic scene. Despite Houdini’s wife being present on set to ease his nerve, Houdini would prefer not to kiss his romantic lead, something the critics noticed and, ultimately, affected the overall opinion of his acting.
Almost more exciting than the film itself is the story of it’s’ recovery. For many years, only the plane crash segment would remain intact. While considered a lost film, The Grim Game was known by some to have existed in the private collection of retired juggler Larry Weeks. He had acquired the film in 1947 from Houdini’s family and he eventually transferred the 35mm copy to a 16mm safety print. He would show it to a select group of family and magician friends over the years. It was known that legendary film historian William K. Everson had indeed showed a print in 1974 but where it was after that remained a mystery. In the spring of 2014, film historian and restoration expert Rick Schmidlin was put in touch with Larry about possibly acquiring the film print. Turner Classic Movies were notified of the meeting in advance and were definitely interested.
Upon viewing the print, it’s truly a miracle The Grim Game survived. The original nitrate print was beginning to show signs of damage in 1959, and is considered to have been perhaps six months away from permanent loss. As well, even the 16mm print was showing signs of vinegar syndrome, indicating it too was now close to being lost. The film restoration came quite literally at the last minute not once but twice in its history.
Sadly, Larry would pass away on October 13, 2014, at the age of 95. He never made it to the premiere of the film he so lovingly took care of for decades. The film was a main feature of the TCM Classic Film Festival and was presented on March 29, 2015 at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood to a packed house. It would then premiere on Turner Classic Movies in October 2015 with two different versions, each presenting a different score. The Brane Zivkovic score was seen at the Hollywood premiere while a new score by Steve Sterner made its debut on television. Each has their pros and cons while neither is considered universally as better than the other. Zivkovic’s was a little controversial due to several sequences remaining silent while Sterner’s is a more traditional silent film score. The Sterner version is the approved score for live presentations whenever the film is screened.
There has been no word on a home media release. It’s believed that TCM may be holding off on rushing the film to a release since special screenings are still occurring. Time will tell if they decide to ever release the film on DVD or Blu-ray. I thoroughly enjoyed The Grim Game, finding it to be a perfect example of what Harry Houdini could do when given a good script. Hopefully, it can one day be a permanent addition to my collection.
- Watch the plane crash segment on YouTube
- Fragments are available on the Kino Houdini: The Movie Star three DVD collection
- Complete film debuted on TCM in October 2015; not currently available on home media