Click for details and to buy tickets

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Link: Hardeen Presents Houdini's Temple of Mystery

This is a must read over at Dean Carnegie's superb blog, Magic Detective. Dean has been on quite the Houdini-Hardeen tear of late, and this terrific article takes a look at something that doesn't get a lot of ink in Houdini bios. Click on the headline above to be magically transported Carnegie: Magic Detective and the Houdini-Hardeen Temple of Mystery.

Murray poster at auction

Ever hear of Murray?

Murray was an Australian escape artist who claimed to have coined the word, "escapologist." He really did some spectacular escapes (such as being bound in a straightjacket and thrown into a lions cage). Murray's career kicked-in after Houdini's death in the late '20s. In many ways, he was a very worthy successor. In 1974, Val Andrews wrote a nice biography of Murray, which I devoured as a kid.

Yeah, I've always had a minor thing for Murray.

Currently there is a nice signed Murray poster on eBay. Too bad it doesn't feature any escape imagery (but he is drinking a beer, so...). When I saw this this morning, it brought back some memories. Think I'll dig out that Andrews bio and give it another read.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Houdini A Pictorial Life Collector's Edition

Milbourne Christopher's 1976 book, Houdini: A Pictorial Life, has been released in a new "Collector's Edition" by 1878 Press. The hardcover contains additional material by Maurine Christopher and an introduction by David Haversat.

So is this worth the rather steep $41.95 price? I took the plunge for all of us and bought a copy, and here's what I have to report.

While the print quality is not quite as good as the original '76 book, it is a far cry better than the 1998 reprint from Gramercy. The color pages, completely missing from the Gramercy edition, are included here in a nice supplemental section containing many color pages, including an absolutely fantastic full page photo of a young Houdini holding a straitjacket that I've never seen.

Also unique to this edition is new section on Bess Houdini written by Maurine Christopher, which includes several terrific shots of Bess that, again, I've never seen. In the back of the book is a sleeve containing some "framable" extras from the Christopher collection. The book comes without a dust jacket.

I'd say this is absolutely worth the buy, especially if you don't have a copy of the original, or only have the '89 edition. And if you love your Bessie like I do...well, then there's no question about it.

 Houdini: A Pictorial Life Collector's Edition is currently being sold on eBay and Amazon.com.

New color section in Houdini A Pictorial Life Collector's Edition.

Hardeen headlines on the Boardwalk

Remy Auberjonois as Theo. Hardeen in Boardwalk Empire

After being name-checked in two episodes, Theo. Hardeen (played by Remy Auberjonois) finally made an appearance on HBO's Boardwalk Empire last night. The various reviews and recaps online have all made a point of mentioning his appearance, many drawing thematic parallels between Hardeen and the main character, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi).

Link: Houdini’s Final Texas Tour By Ron Cartlidge

Kevin Connolly at Houdini Himself has the scoop on an updated version of Ron Cartlidge's look into Houdini's adventures in the Lone Star State. Click on the headline for details.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Secrets of Houdini reprinted

Rogers Press has reprinted the 1931 book The Secrets of Houdini by J.C. Cannell in a new paperback edition for $29.95. The publisher's stated mission is to republish "classic works in affordable, high quality, modern editions, using the original text and artwork."

Nifty for us collectors and completists, but has the good old 1973 Dover edition ever gone out of print? I'm pretty certain I can walk into any magic shop in America and still find one sitting on the shelf for about $10. There was also the attractive Bell hardcover published in 1989 that is still surprisingly common.

And if one is so inclined to study the secrets of Houdini, the book you really should be reading is Houdini The Key by Patrick Culliton. Just saying.

You can buy Rogers Press' new The Secrets of Houdini paperback on Amazon.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Houdini's New Jersey film lab

This 1921 advert from Exhibitors Trade Review just sold on eBay for a tidy $104. What makes this ad so special is the company running it is the Film Developing Corp., Houdini's ill-fated foray into "legitimate" business.

Note the executive list in the left hand corner: HARRY HOUDINI, Pres., T.W. HARDEEN, Sec'y and Treas, and NATHAN SALAND, Vice Pres.

What makes this ad even better is it features a photograph, which is the only photo I've ever seen of the West Hoboken facility. It should also be noted that the name here is clearly Film Developing Corp., not Film Development Corp., as it's called in most biographies.

Houdini started the FDC in 1916, promising a faster, cheaper process for developing motion picture film using machinery and chemicals worked out by an aniline dye expert named Gustav Dietz. At the time, most film developing was still done by hand. Houdini boasted that the FDC could turn out 8000 feet and hour, "more than any 20 human beings can in a week with their present methods." (Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, p. 206)

Unfortunately, Houdini's film lab venture would prove to be a failure, costing Houdini and his investors (including magician Harry Kellar) dearly. Houdini would later confess, "It will be a Godsend for all of us if we get away from it in a legitimate manner."

UPDATE: Both Kevin Connolly (Houdini Himself) and Dean Carnegie (Magic Detective) have chimed in with their own contributions on this one.

Houdini's secret code

No, not that code, silly.

The following comes from an article in The American Weekly, June 20, 1945, written by a man named Joe Lee who claims to have been "the long and personal representative of Houdini." His "recollections" are pretty standard stuff (Houdini sealing pies from the cupboard as a boy), but there is this nice paragraph where he explains that he and Houdini had a secret code between them they would use in public.

Houdini and I had a secret signal. When an escape project was suggested in my presence Harry would think it over. If he said: "It's the toughest thing I've ever considered, but I'll tackle it," that meant: Joe, this is a chinch. Let them do what they, I'll handle it easily." and I'd go ahead and make the arrangements.
If he should say: "I'll have to give that some thought, " it would mean: "Take it easy, Joe. I'm not sure about this." I can't remember his ever giving me that latter signal."

So is this Joe Lee on the level? I'm not so sure. Lee claims, "I went with Houdini in 1922, as his publicity agent, general manager and chief investigator of phony mediums." But if Lee joined Houdini in 1922, this was somewhat passed the time Houdini was accepting challenge escapes, so his stories of arranging packing crate escapes with local manufactures are dubious. Also, Joe's colorful eye-witness account of how Houdini's vanishing elephant came about could only have happened in 1918, years before he claims to have joined the team.

Lee also makes the somewhat extraordinary claim that he was in the room during the famous Atlantic City seance when Lady Doyle  "contacted" Houdini's dead mother. But no one else puts Joe there. In fact, I can find no mention of a Joe Lee in any of the major biographies (apart from Culliton who sources this article in Houdini The Key).

So this is one to take with a grain of salt, but this "code" is a fun detail nevertheless. Here's the full article from the man who (maybe) knew Houdini.

Click to enlarge

Once again my thanks to Steven Bingen and the Warner Bros. Corporate Archive Research Center for providing this clipping.

Friday, November 26, 2010

When Indy met Harry

Houdini and Indiana Jones? Yep. Check out this clip from The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones ("Daredevils in the Desert") and find out how young Indy met Harry Houdini.



Of course, Indy, played here by Sean Patrick Flanery, is referring to Houdini’s brief career as a pioneer aviator when he became the first man to fly a plane in Australia in 1910. Apparently, he did so with Indiana Jones by his side!

It’s possible this is more than just a throwaway line of dialogue. When it first aired on CBS from 1992 to 1993, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (as it was originally called) alternated episodes set during two different periods of young Indy’s life; Indy as a teen (played by Flanery), and a pre-teen boy (played by Corey Carrier). This could be a reference to an episode that was planned for for the pre-teen Indy at some point in the future. Unfortunately, the series did not last that long.

Interestingly, there is a second Houdini connection in this particular episode. It co-stars a young Catherine Zeta-Jones who appeared in the most recent Houdini film, Death Defying Acts.

“Daredevils of the Desert” was released on DVD as part of The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones Vol 2: The War Years.

Where's Indy?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Brothers Houdini

Here's one from my own collection. This is a beautiful original photograph of Houdini and his brother, fellow escape artist, Theo. Hardeen, aka "Dash" in 1901. It's an uncommon shot.

John Cox Collection

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

RKO 589: Discovering Hollywood's first Houdini film

Part II: "The waters are dark for Pinetti."

Houdini getting lost under the ice of a frozen river is one of the most memorable scenes in the 1953 Paramount movie Houdini, starring Tony Curtis. But did you know that scene was first due to appear in a "Houdini" film 21 years earlier?

This was just another surprise discovery I made while examining the long forgotten file on “RKO 589,” aka Now You See It -- Hollywood's first attempt to make a movie based on the life of Harry Houdini. The file was unearthed by Warner Bros. archivist and Houdini buff, Steven Bingen (author of the upcoming book MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot), in the massive Warner Bros. Corporate Archives in Sun Valley, CA.

The entrance to RKO
Now You See It was set-up at RKO by Houdini’s friend and fellow crusader against fraudulent spiritualists, Fulton Oursler. From the outset it was clear this would be a Houdini film, even though the main character would be called Harry Pinetti. Actor Paul Muni was touted as being "an ideal Houdini." During September and November 1932, Oursler delivered two treatments, mining Houdini lore and his own imagination to create a raucous and fairly dark movie (see PART I for a full examination of Oursler's treatments). The studio then brought in Kubec Glasmon, writer of the James Cagney hit The Public Enemy (1931), to help Pinetti escape the page and make it to the screen.

Glasmon and Oursler appear initially to have collaborated on a revised story. A treatment in the file dated November 10, 1932 and marked “Latest Rough Version” carries both their names. Oursler had gutted his original treatment on his second pass. Now some of his original elements would be restored, including the Margery-like medium Evelyn, and having Pinetti’s Bessie-like wife “Tommy” die (although now it was by accident -- getting hit by a fire truck -- instead of suicide). The treatment is rough indeed, with many sequences incomplete, including what would be a major new climax centered around an unspecified “challenge” that nearly takes Pinetti’s life. In his first treatment, Oursler’s big stunt was having Pinetti escape the path of a speeding train while bound to the tracks. It is likely Glasmon was in pursuit of something more modern.


The most exciting find of this rough outline is the inclusion of the line, “The waters are dark for Pinetti. His career as a magician is almost over.” This, of course, is an echo of the ominous real-life prophecy laid against Houdini only weeks before his death, for which Oursler was the recipient. Having provided this last little bit of true insider info, Oursler would depart RKO 589 and let Glasmon tackle the screenplay by himself.

It’s clear Glasmon continued his Houdini research, most likely using what was then the only biography available, Houdini His Life Story by Harold Kellock. Information from this book (some of it spurious) finds its way into his “Final Script” which he delivered to the studio on November 29, 1932 (10 days after his estimated delivery date).

Screenplay by Kubec Glasmon
dated November 29, 1932
In his script, Glasmon creates an entirely new opening that introduces Pinetti in a more cinematic way. We see a “shabby” Harry Pinetti (real name Schwartz) visiting the shop of a grocer named Oppenheimer. He asks Oppenheimer how much it would cost to replace the store’s large plate glass window. Oppenheimer says it would cost him nothing; it’s insured. Pinetti then leaves the shop, picks up a brick, and throws it through the glass. He’s promptly arrested and jailed. But the next day, as Oppenheimer replaces the window, Pinetti suddenly reapers, having escaped the jail. He again breaks the glass, and he’s again arrested, this time strapped in a strait-jacket. But he baffles the police when he escapes and appears in a press agent’s office, announcing that he is Pinetti the Great! Fun stuff.

The script proceeds (as did the early Oursler treatments) with Pinetti being called to his father’s death bed, and the promise that Pinetti will one day pour gold into his mother’s lap. Pinetti again meets and marries the loyal Tommy (sans the sadistic tests), and the couple tour small towns until Pinetti resolves to make a name for himself by performing a death-defying escape from a chained box lowered through the ice of a frozen river, a sequence that is familiar indeed.

Now, it should be noted that Houdini himself is responsible for this popular fiction, so it’s not that unusual that it would appear in a movie before the 1953 Tony Curtis dramatization. Again, Glasmon most likely mined this from Kellock. The real coincidence is that, as in the Curtis film, Pinetti does this during a box escape. In Houdini’s telling it’s a straight-ahead bridge jump.

Pinetti The Great would face this same ordeal 21 years
before Tony Curtis in Paramount's HOUDINI (1953)

In this version, Pinetti escapes the box, which is then hoisted to the surface and found to contain a “jaunty” note reading: “Now you see it, and now you don’t.” But Pinetti finds himself lost under the ice sheet. He’s able to catch breath in air pockets, as holes are smashed in the ice above in a frantic effort to find him. Finally, Pinetti is able to locate a section of ice thin enough to use his shackles to break through. (That’s actually an improvement on both the Curtis and Houdini versions of this story). He then appears bleeding and trembling to the amazed crowd.

When Pinetti returns home, he throws his hat through the door, waiting to see if Tommy throws it back out or not. This, of course, was a familiar routine that the real Houdini and Bessie engaged in when they had a fight, and it is used to good effect a few times in the script. Again, this is something Glasmon probably pulled from Kellock.

The box escape brings Pinetti fame and an engagement at the Palace in New York (his opening day is April 6), where he performs the Needles to great acclaim. Pinetti requests his salary in all gold and sets off to fulfill his promise to his mother, who’s named Queenie in the script. The one-page scene where he brings his treasure home to his Queenie is quite effective:

55. INT. KITCHEN QUEENIE’S FLAT - DAY
It is deserted. A clock is ticking monotonously. Pinetti sets the package down on the table, and then peers into the living room.
SHOOTING THROUGH THE DOORWAY we see an old-fashioned high backed rocker, facing the window. Seated in it is the form of Mrs. Schwartz. On the floor is a ball of yarn. It seems as if she were dozing. Pinetti, holding the bags of gold, tiptoes into the room.
CUT TO
56. INT. QUEENIE’S PARLOR - DAY
We DOLLY UP to Pinetti standing behind the rocker, looking down at his mother’s grey head. He takes both bags, and holding them over her shoulder, he pours their contents into her lap.
SOUND - THE GOLD FALLING INTO HER LAP, AND SOME OF THE COINS SLIPPING TO THE FLOOR
Pinetti’s expression of anticipation slowly fades from his face, as his mother fails to respond to the sound of the money. He steps around to the side of his mother.
PINETTI
Queenie!
    (he takes her by the shoulders)
Queenie! 
The gold continues to fall to the floor as he shakes her. From the expression on his face we know that Queenie is dead. And as the CAMERA PULLS BACK we see only the rocker before we
LAP DISSOLVE OUT

Enter Sir Gilbert Crewe (Arthur Conan Doyle) and Evelyn (Margery), and Pinetti’s battle with spiritualists, leading to Evelyn’s incarceration. Happily, Tommy’s life is spared in the script. Glasmon instead develops the major conflict of the story between the married couple (who now remain childless), as Tommy begins to believe in Evelyn’s powers and is especially frightened by her prophecies of Pinetti’s demise. (Unfortunately, “The waters are dark for Pinetti” line didn’t find its way into this final script.)

Pinetti Challenged!
Matters come to a head, when the Star Parachute Company challenges Pinetti to leap from an airplane in a straitjacket and escape while in freefall. (Glasmon found his modern escape, although Houdini had considered performing a similar stunt in London in 1908.) From her jail cell, Evelyn predicts Pinetti will die in the attempt. Despite his own reservations, Pinetti accepts the challenge in order to prove to Tommy, and the world, that Evelyn’s predictions are hokum. It’s a good setup for what proves to be a spectacular climax.

Before the escape, Pinetti dictates his “Last Will and Testament,” giving “everything I own in the world to the Society of American Magicians, to be used solely for the purpose of exposing mediums.” But the stunt goes wrong, as the straps of Pinetti’s straitjacket become entangled in the parachute pack. In a thrilling sequence of cross cuts, Pinetti struggles to free himself -- which he does just in time to deploy his (Star) parachute. Sir Gilbert and Tommy rush to his side, however, they find Pinetti dead -- his heart having failed before he reached the ground. A doctor gives him an injection of adrenaline, and the shot revives Pinetti -- back from the dead!

An amazed Sir Gilbert says, “You've been dead...what lies beyond?”

Pinetti answers, “I can’t tell you, but we must go on and live.”

Okay, the final line is a bit lame, but the script itself is actually pretty good. Glasmon would deliver a “Revised Estimated Script” on December 2, 1932, with “additions as of December 3, 1932.” Probably for budgetary reasons, this version was reduced by 23 pages with 102 fewer “speeches.”

Despite what looks like a very steady march to production (we’d call it “the fast track” today), Now You See It did not move forward. The files do not record the reasons why, but the December 2nd draft would be the last – at least from Kubec Glasmon.

Three years later playwright Vivian Cosby, whose only film writing credit was Trick For Treat (1933), would attempt to revive the dormant project. Cosby radically reinvented the story in a new 30-page page treatment dated August 3, 1936. Offering up an alternate title, Man of Magic, Cosby also suggests that “the following story will easily lend itself to a musical background.”

Pinetti would be a "Thurston type" in
the 1936 version of Now You See It
However, it’s hard to find anything all that musical (or magical) in Cosby's Man of Magic. Now “The Great Pinetti” is an older, already established master magician, who is described as being a “Thurston type.” He’s not even the lead. The new main character is Bill Lloyd, who inherits the show from Pinetti on his deathbed and continues it as “Pinetti, Jr.” With the show struggling, Lloyd resolves to perform a suspended straitjacket escape (one of the only escapes in the story).

Here we do find some fresh Houdini lore, when Lloyd tells the police strapping him into the jacket, “Treat me as you would the most dangerous of the criminally insane.” But that is pretty much it for Houdini. In fact, after Lloyd predictably strikes it big, magic takes a back seat as he is framed for murder. The story shifts into a magician-as-detective caper in the second half. Evelyn makes a brief appearance, but she is not a factor in the film aside from providing a red herring. Lloyd ultimately unmasks his assistant, Ross, as the murderer (which was painfully obvious -- Ross felt he was the true successor to Pinetti, you see), and Lloyd’s final lines of dialog suggest that he may be involved in more crime solving in the future.

Not surprisingly, Cobsy’s treatment was never turned into a script (at least there isn’t one in the file), and that appears to have marked the end of the Pinetti/Houdini story at RKO. The production number “589” would be reassigned to a film that was ultimately made (The Roadhouse Murder). All the work completed on Now You See It, Hollywood's first Houdini film, would be filed away in the archives of RKO, where it lay forgotten and undiscovered for -- well, that’s where we began our story.

The file on RKO 589 aka Now You See It at the Warner Bros. Corporate Archive

A very big THANK YOU to Steven Bingen for all his help in making this discovery possible. For information on the amazing Warner Bros. Corporate Archive Research Center, visit the official website.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

'Mysteries at the Museum' to feature haunted Houdini bust

The Travel Channel's new series Mysteries at the Museum will examine the case of the haunted Houdini bust tonight at 8 p.m. The bust in question is the one currently housed in the Houdini exhibit at the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton, Wisconsin.


UPDATE: You can now buy Season 1 of Mysteries at the Museum which includes this episode at Amazon.com.

Monday, November 22, 2010

RKO 589: Discovering Hollywood's first Houdini film

Part I: "Paul Muni would make an ideal Houdini."

Recently I had the extreme pleasure of traveling to the Warner Bros. Corporate Archive to examine the long forgotten file on what could very well be Hollywood's first attempt to make a movie based on the life of Harry Houdini.

The file was discovered by archivist Steven Bingen, a fellow Houdini buff and all around good guy (as well as the author of the upcoming book, MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot). Steve encouraged me to have a look. He didn't have time to examine the file himself, but he was pretty certain it predated Paramount's 1936 Houdini The Great. Besides, this wasn't a Paramount project. This file had come from a box in the archives of the late great RKO Studios (and I have a particular fascination with RKO).

RKO Studios at Melrose and Gower in Hollywood (now part of Paramount)

So, early on a Monday, I set off to the massive Warner Bros. Corporate Archive Research Center in Sun Valley, where Steve was waiting with an old file box from the vaults. From inside he pulled the thick file for "RKO 589" (the production number) and said it was very likely that no one had laid eyes on this in 50 years. He left me to have at it, and asked me to let him know if I found anything interesting.

The first thing I saw blew my mind.

Fulton Oursler
The film was to be called Now You See It, and was based on a 59-page story treatment titled The Master Magician by Fulton Oursler. It was dated September 1, 1932. Hardcore Houdini historians should recognize the name. Fulton Oursler was a noted writer and editor for Macfadden Publications (publishers of Photoplay and True Detective), who in the 1920s aided Houdini in his crusade against fraudulent mediums. He even crusaded himself, under the pseudonym Samri Frikell. Near the end of his life, Houdini confided in Oursler that he thought spiritualists were out to kill him, and warned Oursler was also on their hit list. It was Oursler who, two weeks before Houdini’s death, received the ominous and oft-quoted message from a medium who prophesied, "The waters are black for Houdini,” and “his days as a magician are over.”

I confess I didn't instantly recognize the name. But it didn't matter. A notation on an undated studio synopsis told me exactly what I needed to know about Oursler, and confirmed that I was holding something very special in my hands indeed. It read it full:

The leading character in this story is founded on Houdini, with whom Oursler was very well acquainted. An actual medium is the heavy. Oursler himself has participated in the unmasking of spirit mediums, and, if the story is approved, will cooperate in working out the technical detail in the exposure of the mediums and of certain of Houdini's tricks. The picture is designed as a mixture of mystery and melodrama with a topical atmosphere. Paul Muni would make an ideal Houdini.

Paul Muni
Paul Muni! How many times did we all wonder who might have played Houdini, had the earliest Paramount picture gone forward in the 1930s? At least with this project we know exactly whom the studio had in mind. And Muni, best known for the Howard Hughes hit Scarface, would have been a superb choice.

Unfortunately, the main character in Now You See It would not be named Houdini. Possibly there were life rights concerns. Oursler would instead call his magician Harry Pinetti. The author explained: “Houdini, whose real name was Weiss, stole his name from the master magician of the French Empire, Robert-Houdin. Penetti [sic], whose real name was Mendel, stole his name from Pinetti, the glittering court magician of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.”

In his original treatment, Oursler fleshes out the character of Pinetti in some detail. Interestingly, he does so in the past tense, clearly recalling the deceased Houdini instead of introducing a living main character. Coming from a man who knew Houdini well, Oursler's description is fascinating and revealing:

Pinetti was a truly remarkable man. He was a showman whose genius for showmanship and self-advertising, for flamboyant effects that crashed the front page, exceeded Barnum and all his tribe. Pinetti was a man of keen intelligence. Without formal schooling he had educated himself. He had a mocking sense of humor and could turn any situation to his own advantage. He was a master of the deadly art of ridicule. There was a strain of cruelty in him at such times.
Physically he was a Greek god, with muscles of an athlete and the grace of a panther. He could have been a champion wrestler or boxer, runner or jumper. He was first of all a superb human animal. He did not smoke nor drink nor swear. He was devoted to his mother and loved his wife with a tender affection of a father toward a child. But he could hate with the ferocity of a python.
His interests were boundless. He had probed into aviation, languages, music; and he had an ambition for social advancement. He wanted to have a finger in every pie and believed that he was capable of reaching the top in any field. In other words, Pinetti the Great was an egomaniac, and that was the quality that made him great. If his faith in himself were ever destroyed, his soul would be blown to smithereens. When his egotism was not crossed, he was good hearted, gentle and kind.

Fulton Oursler's original 59-page treatment for The Master 
Magician (aka Now You See It) dated September 1, 1932

Now You See It opens with the struggling Harry Pinetti performing handcuff and chain escapes in a sideshow. When he’s told his father is dying, Pinetti rushes to his side. The father assures his grief-stricken wife that their son Harry will one day pour gold into her lap. After his father dies, Pinetti’s mother implores him to give up show business. But Pinetti “tenderly refuses” and sets off on a tour of the “tank towns.”

While performing in Kennett Square, Pinetti meets the equally destitute Antonia Scott, aka “Tommy,” in a tavern. (Oursler notes: “Here I plan to show first Houdini’s expert trick of pitching his hat at a nail and never missing, even at incredible distance.”) Pinetti gives her a job in his show, testing her loyalty by hiring men to offer her bribes if she’ll reveal his secrets. He even has her kidnapped and threatened. Tommy remains loyal throughout, and her final reward is an offer of marriage.

"The Great Pinettis"
After the wedding, a theatrical manager tells the Pinettis that Europe is “crazy over mystery and magic,” and that they would do well to make the trip. To get the money for passage, Pinetti marches into a safe manufacturer’s workshop and cracks their best safe. He then tells them he’ll reveal how he did it for $5000. (Oursler notes: “If this will not play believably, other kind of incident can be substituted. The purpose is to show Houdini’s supreme trait – a boundless resourcefulness which came to full heat only when Houdini was faced with apparently insolvable difficulties.”)

Aboard ship, Pinetti amazes the passengers with his feats, including an escape from an “old Chinese torture cell.” But in Europe, Pinetti and Tommy fail to find bookings and are reduced to performing in the streets. Even his escape from a Russian Siberian Transport Prison van fails to get him bookings, when Russian authorities censor news of the escape and banish him from the country. And now the young couple has a baby.

In desperation, Pinetti aggress to be chained in a box and thrown into the Seine. The escape is a sensation, and Pinetti becomes the talk of the Folies Bergeres. Then comes an offer of $5000 a week to return to New York. Pinetti agrees only if his first week’s salary is paid in gold.

Sir Gilbert Crewe, I presume
Pinetti returns to New York and is a hit at the Palace. In the audience is the eminent British scientist, Sir Gilbert Crewe, who is also “the St. Paul of spiritualism.” Crewe believes Pinetti is a true medium. But Pinetti laughs off the suggestion, saying he believes all mediums are frauds. Pinetti receives his salary in gold and rushes home to pour it into his mother’s lap. But he is too late. She has died.

Pinetti goes into a “profound depression” and starts attending séances in hopes of reaching his late mother. But all he finds is fraud. He also starts to perform more and more dangerous escapes, to Tommy’s increasing alarm. Finally Sir Gilbert invites Pinetti to a séance with “the greatest of all mediums,” a “dangerously beautiful” young woman named Evelyn. The séance is impressive, until Pinetti shines a flashlight on the scene and exposes Evelyn as a fraud. She begs Pinetti not to publically expose her. He refuses and drives her out of town.

Pinetti becomes the great enemy of spiritualism, offering $10,000 for any manifestation he cannot reproduce. When he learns Evelyn is now performing in Washington, D.C., he travels to the capitol to introduce an anti-spiritualist bill in Congress. He puts on a raucous demonstration at the hearings, once again exposing and humiliating Evelyn, and ending his friendship with Sir Crewe. Afterwards Evelyn plots with her boyfriend, Leighton Stark, “the complete destruction of Pinetti.”

Stark kidnaps Pinetti’s son. Evelyn then informs Tommy that the boy will be released unharmed, if she tells them Pinetti’s secrets – especially the method by which he plans to escape the path of the Mercury Limited after he’s bound to the tracks by iron bands (an upcoming stunt). Worried for her son, Tommy relents and tells them all.

Houdini and his "Evelyn"
Pinetti is nearly killed in the train stunt. He escapes only by breaking his leg. (Oursler cautions: “The method he uses again involves how much exposure will be countenanced by the Society of American Magicians.”) When Pinetti returns home, he finds that Tommy has taken poison and left a suicide note confessing her betrayal. Pinetti goes after the maid, Emilie, blaming her for allowing the kidnapping. He strikes her down, leaving her in a comatose state from which doctors cannot revive her.

Mad with grief, Pinetti vows to kill Evelyn “with my own hands, slowly, painfully, pleading for mercy.” Using all his magical skills, he terrorizes her in her duplex apartment. As she swims in her rooftop pool, Pinetti pulls her underwater. Stark arrives and drains the pool, but Pinetti is gone. Pinetti then shows himself to Stark and Evelyn, “his eyes glowing with a mad light.” He tells them he’s created a “mechanical” version of himself, which is establishing an alibi 50 miles away.

As Pinetti is about to kill them both, the telephone rings. On the other end, Pinetti hears the voice of the deceased Tommy, begging him to think of their son and not commit murder. The voice from beyond snaps Pinetti back to his senses. He rushes home to find the source of the call. The doctors tell him it was the maid, Emilie, who had risen up in a “strange trance” and spoken in Tommy’s voice over the phone. Pinetti embraces his son as we FADE OUT.

Pretty wild stuff, eh? Clearly many of the episodes are taken right out of Houdini’s life, with some dramatic embellishments. Sir Gilbert Crewe is obviously Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Evelyn is clearly the infamous Margery (aka Mina Crandon). And I can’t help but think about The Automaton from The Master Mystery when Pinetti speaks of his “mechanical man.” However, Houdini's expert hat-throwing skill is news to me!

Oursler's revised treatment
Perhaps the story was a bit too dark for the studio. Perhaps it was also too expensive. Instead of moving on to a screenplay, Oursler worked on a revised treatment, which he delivered October 29, 1932.

The trip to Europe was now gone. Instead, Pinetti escapes his box in San Francisco Bay. Gone too is the testing of Tommy, her suicide, and the conflict with Evelyn. In fact, the medium isn’t even in this treatment. Instead Lady Crewe gives Pinetti a séance in which she brings back his dead father. But with these missing elements also went much of story, which now ends abruptly with Pinetti coming home with his bag of gold and finding his mother dead. Oursler may have lightened the tone and cut back the scope, but this new approach did not move the project forward (it's also possible this treatment is simply unfinished).

For that, the studio would turn to a new writer, Kubec Glasmon, who penned the James Cagney hit The Public Enemy (1931). Glasmon would skillfully reconcile the two Oursler treatments and bring in even more Houdini lore. And then a third writer would attempt to resurrect the project years later, by turning Harry Pinetti into…Howard Thurston?

But we will save all that for PART II.

A very big THANK YOU to Steven Bingen for all his help in making this discovery possible. For information on the amazing Warner Bros. Corporate Archive Research Center, visit the official website.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Houdini Gut Punch

Houdini Gut PunchI'm not sure whether this new book has anything to do do with Houdini beyond the title, Houdini Gut Punch, but, hey, it has Houdini in the title!

This appears to be an anthology of stories -- "a multicolored galaxy of uppers, downers, laughers, and screamers" -- complied by Jonathan Moon.

You can purchase Houdini Gut Punch on Amazon.com.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Monday...

On Monday I will reveal what I believe is the earliest attempt by a major studio to make a movie based on Houdini's life. As far as I know, this information has lay undiscovered for over 70 years. Houdini and Hollywood history might be made right here at our humble little blog...


Monday.

HOUDINI (1998)

On Sunday, December 6, 1998, writer/director Pen Denshem (who produced the 1979 documentary, Houdini Never Died) realized a dream when his cable film HOUDINI aired as a “TNT Original” movie. The film was supported with strong advertising, making the broadcast a cable television event. The network even broadcast two “encore” presentations immediately after the debut.

HOUDINI, which was filmed under the title, Believe, stars Johnathon Schaech as Houdini, Stacy Edwards as Bess, and Mark Ruffalo as Theo (Hardeen). Shimada also makes a cameo appearance as a street magician. Production design is magnificent, as is the musical score, and while not the best of the Houdini biopics, it has much to recommend it.

Notably, HOUDINI is the first Houdini biography to tackle and dramatize the issue of Houdini’s egotism. Certainly in this way Schaech’s manic Houdini is far different from Tony Curtis or Paul Michael Glaser. Of course, it also makes him less likable and more alienating. But as Bessie says in the film, “I fell in love with Ehrich Weiss. I put up with Houdini.”

While Houdini takes plenty of dramatic license (Houdini’s mother never kissed or held him?), it still does a good job of weaving in Houdini history. It is the first Houdini film to give an accurate account of how he and Bess met. In HOUDINI we see them come together as fellow performers; Bessie as part of the Floral Sisters and Harry performing with brother Theo as The Houdini Brothers (okay, they were “The Brothers Houdini,” but that’s a quibble). We also get to see the death bed promise young Ehrich makes to his father. Jim Collins (Karl Makinen) and Martin Beck (George Segal) play their critical rolls in Houdini’s life and career. Even Houdini’s authorship of The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin is given a mention.

Hardeen gets a larger role in HOUDINI than he's ever had in any biopic. But as with Houdini's relationship with his mother, the filmmakers twist the brothers relationship for their own dramatic needs. Here Houdini creates "Hardeen" as a way to repress his brother's own magic ambitions -- "It would be just too confusing; two Houdinis," Harry tells him. This film also sets up a class division between the two, with Houdini performing before royalty and Hardeen performing at a Union Hall. But it is nice that part of the dramatic arc for Theo in this film is to forgive his older brother for stealing the spotlight, and it's effective when he "exposes" the final Houdini seance just as Bess is starting to believe.

The film starts to get somewhat loose in both history and drama in the final third, with Houdini suddenly ensconced in a throne-like office space and, yes, failing to escape from the Water Torture Cell after being punched in the stomach. The great Hollywood myth of the USD contributing to Houdini’s death continues here. Unbelievable.

But the film keeps the pedal to the metal in its depiction of Houdini’s stunts, eager to show Houdini as the original king of “extreme” (is that still a thing?). Standouts are the suspended straightjacket escape and a rather flamboyant depiction of the Milk Can. Jim Bentley and Jim Thompson are credited as magic consultants.

The framing device for HOUDINI is a live radio seance. This is presumably the 1936 final Houdini seance which was held on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. Here it is presented on a theater stage, probably for budgetary or production reasons. Oddly, the film climaxes with Houdini making a rather star-child return from the dead. It’s a bit off the reservation, but it’s well written and beautifully performed, and does give the movie an emotional and, yes, magical conclusion.

Densham explains his ending by saying, “Well, you can look at it three ways: Either he dreamed it, or she dreamed it, or it really happened. I have my own theory, but I’d prefer not to say.”

HOUDINI was released on VHS in 2000, but it has yet to appear on DVD. While Death Defying Acts was released in 2008 making it the most recent Houdini film, HOUDINI was the last straight-ahead biopic of the great magician. Let's hope it isn't the last.

UPDATE: HOUDINI is now available on DVD.


Johnathon Schaech as Houdini

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