Now You See It went through several drafts, including one that suggested "a musical treatment" before being shelved indefinitely in the 1936. (Click here for the full story on "RKO 589".)
Calvert was interested. Unfortunately, the head of Columbia, Harry Cohen, was not, complaining that Houdini's story was "lacking in romance and needed a better ending than a punch in the solar plexus."
Not long after the sale, Arnold Furstenberg in The Linking Ring announced an "Exclusive Scoop" that Chester Morris was being considered for the lead role in The Great Houdini (later called Houdini The Great). Apart from being an actor, Morris was an amateur magician and a member of the IBM. "He is by far the most logical man for the role," said Furstenberg.
Houdini The Great would languish in development for many years with drafts written by Frank O' Conner and Pierre Collins. Despite Chester's lobbying for the role ("He spent time and money" reported George Boston in Genii), the studio never gave the project the green light.
Unfortunately, Hitchcock turned down Houdini (as well has Selznick's second suggestion, a Technicolor remake of SHE with Ingrid Bergman) and instead made Spellbound as his next film.
It's unclear what happened to Film Producers, Inc. ambitious project, but it's likely Raboff and Cohen found they had bitten off more than they could chew and used Endre Bohem's connections to sell their valuable Houdini life rights to Paramount.
Did the studio ever seriously consider Welles? This isn't known, but I agree with Hopper that Welles would have been an inspired choice, and it's somewhat amazing the actor, who was a magician and had seen Houdini in his youth, never played Houdini on stage or screen. However, Paramount did pretty well when they ultimately cast Tony Curtis in the part.
Welles would later collaborate with Another Burgess on a Houdini stage musical, but it's not clear if he had plans to star in the show himself.
On the strength of the talent involved, Columbia Pictures agreed to distribute the film, which promised to be in production within a year (it was in a race with yet another Paramount Houdini project). Unfortunately, Stark's Houdini movie would never emerge from development hell.
Patrick Culliton, who worked as a technical advisor on the project, says two names producer Bill McCutchen mentioned to him to play Houdini were Robert Blake and Charles Bronson. Bronson was a big movie star at the time so that was probably wishful thinking, but Robert Blake was a real possibility and pretty good choice. Blake was the star of the hit TV show Baretta at the time.
The Heart Is Quicker The Eye never made it beyond the script stage and NBC lost it's race with ABC, which aired The Great Houdinis in October of 1976 with another TV star in the lead, Paul Michael Glaser.
|Tony Curtis in the '80s|
The project was announced for production in Fall of 1988 with Curtis reprising his famous role. Unfortunately, Harry's Back! never materialized.
Don Ferguson - In 1986 it was announced in The Linking Ring that a new "Magical Music Show" called HOUDINI LIVES AGAIN! was headed to Broadway. With a book by Walter B. Gibson and music by Scott Joplin, the ambitious $2,500,00 musical would feature a cast of twelve "portraying forty-seven different roles" and star "magician-escape artist illusionist, Don Ferguson, in the title role as Houdini." Houdini Lives Again! never saw life, and Don Ferguson would later cause controversy when he claimed to be a blood relative of Houdini.
But Zemeckis would suddenly leave the project in September of '92, saying he wasn't "100 percent certain what direction the project needs to take". Director Paul Verhoeven signed aboard in 1997, but dropped out a year later, also citing difficulties with the script. Stark would continue to try and get his Houdini/Tom Cruise movie made until his death in 2004.
Periodically news about the Houdini Broadway musical surfaces, but as of yet, there is no firm date for when we might see Jackman's Harry.
With all the recently announced Houdini movie and TV projects in development (no less than five are currently making their way through the Hollywood machinery), maybe Piven will get his wish?
Thanks to Bill Goodwin of The Magic Castle's William Larsen, Sr. Memorial Library for helping me nail down the date of 'Harry's Back'. And thanks as always to Patrick Culliton for the information on 'The Heart Is Quicker Than The Eye'.