Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Houdini's rough ride at Niagara Falls

The Man From Beyond crew at the American Falls (click to enlarge).

Michelle Ann Kratts, author of The Missed and a researcher and tour guide at the historic Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, has uncovered some very interesting information about Houdini filming The Man From Beyond at Niagara Falls in early May 1921. While Houdini had knack for charming local police and reporters, that seems to have failed him on this particular trip.

Houdini arrived in Niagara Falls with a film crew of 16 people, including director Burton King and five cameramen. They were there to shoot the climax of the film, which sees Howard Hillary (Houdini) saving Felice Strange (Jane Connelly) from going over the falls in a canoe. Not only did Houdini film himself swimming the rapids, but the production also maneuvered two canoes along the waters with stunt dummies doubling Houdini and Connelly aboard. Whatever faults Houdini's films have, the Niagara Falls sequence in The Man From Beyond remains genuinely exciting even today.

The canoe with stunt dummies (click to enlarge).

The first piece of wild new information that Michelle's research has uncovered is that Houdini filmed his famous scenes on the Niagara rapids on the very same day as the funeral for Annie Edson Taylor. Taylor was famous for being the first person to survive going over the falls in a barrel. Incredibly, she performed the daredevil stunt at age 63!

Was it just a coincidence that Houdini shot his own Niagara "stunts" on the day of Taylor's funeral, or was it a ploy to generate publicity? If it was the latter, it backfired somewhat.

The Niagara Falls Gazette did indeed report on the duel events on May 6, 1921, but it was decidedly critical of the film company and, worse, it did not mention Houdini or the film by name. Under the headline: "Canoes with 'Dummies' Are Sent Over Falls as Body of Mrs. Taylor, Cataracts' Conqueror, Is Buried," the paper observed:

Those who attended the funeral services yesterday spoke of the fact that just a few hours before Mrs. Taylor's funeral, a motion picture company had sent canoes carrying dummies over the American Falls. The canoes and dummies were smashed to fragments on the rocks below but pictures of them were taken as they made the plunge over the brink. These pictures will form the climax of a picture romance of Niagara that will probably make thousands of dollars for its producers, while Mrs. Taylor, the only woman who ever made the Falls trip and survived, was unable to derive a fortune from the feat and was buried through the generosity of friends.

It should be noted that the shots of the canoe going over the falls in The Man From Beyond is dummy free. It had to be for the sake of the plot! However, it's possible the film crew sent their second canoe with the dummies over the Falls as well. This photo below show the dummy canoe on the brink of the falls. While the canoe was tethered, it's possible it was irretrievable at this point and was cut free. Interesting to think that for a time a Houdini dummy lay at the bottom of Niagara Falls.

On the brink (click to enlarge).

Houdini rough PR ride in Niagara had started almost from the time he arrived in the city. The police had forbid him from performing any stunts on the Falls, and on May 4 The Gazette reported this remarkable exchange with Houdini at his hotel:

Houdini is temperamental, like the great artist he is. He was much upset when a reporter called on him at his room in the Prospect Hotel this morning. He made no excuse for his appearance, although his blue trousers has yet been flocked of the dirt they had accumulated during his work on the bank of the rapids above the American Falls earlier in the day while staging film play scenes in which he appeared as the star. His black pompadour hair, surrounding a somewhat pale but classic countenance, stood crinkly aloft and accentuated the temperamental attack which caused him to pace quickly to and fro as he conversed. [...]

"Why so upset?" ventured this interviewer.

"Why shouldn't I be upset?" he questioned back. "Here they have been circulating baseless rumors that hurt me. They say I am here to go over the falls, swim the rapids and dozens of other foolhardy exploits which can be performed only at the risk of one's life. I've been warned that I will be arrested if I attempt to stage any such stunt. Well, I would do if if I wanted to, but I don't want to. I have taken great risks but that was earlier in my stage career. I am long past that. I am accounted now an artist. I am receiving a salary of $200,000 a year for acting in moving pictures dramas and directing their filming. No more do I slip loose from manacles and chains for the
delectation of crowded houses. That is the past."

The reporter goes on to say that Houdini "summoned" his wife Bess from the other room -- "a petite and altogether charming woman" -- who stated:

"Why of course he will not risk his life in any exploit here, going over the falls or otherwise. I wouldn't let him."

Of course, Houdini (and Bess) weren't being completely forthcoming here. Two days later Houdini did swim the rapids as part of filming, although it's said he did so with a safety line attached. The production actually stayed a day later than they announced to get these shots, along with the canoe action. Perhaps this subtle betrayal had something to do with the rough treatment The Gazette gave him about shooting these scenes on the day of Annie Taylor's funeral?

It's fascinating to see Houdini so out-of-control of his own public image. But with his massive investment in his own motion picture company and career, one can understand how he'd be "temperamental" when he was still being identified as the Handcuff King. He so wants to be perceived as a highly paid motion picture artist -- a Chaplin in his own right. But Houdini's creative efforts in movies could never match his achievements on stage, and Houdini's experience here in Niagara Falls foreshadowed his coming difficulties.

Finally, Michelle pointed out is that Oakwood Cemetery has a special section dedicated to Niagara's daredevils and stunters, including the aforementioned Annie Edson Taylor. While Michelle has yet to uncover evidence that Houdini visited Oakwood's "Stunters Rest", it seems very likely that he did. Houdini could never resist a cemetery, and to have a section devoted to daredevils would have been irresistible for him.

Perhaps if his safety line broke while he was swimming the Niagara rapids, he might have become a resident of "Stunters Rest" himself. But, as always, Houdini escaped.

The Man From Beyond screens at a local Niagara Falls theater.

Thanks to Michelle Ann Kratts for sharing this unknown Houdini/Niagara Falls history. You can purchase her book 'The Missed' on Amazon. And thanks to John C. Hinson for the amazing unpublished images of the stunt canoes.

Related posts:

Sources:
  • Niagara Falls Gazette: Houdini, The Great, Who Defied the World's Best Straightjackets and Manacles, Scorns Falls Feat. Niagara Falls, NY. May 4, 1921.
  • Niagara Falls Gazette: Houdini Pulled Off a Thriller. Niagara Falls, NY. May 6, 1921.
  • Niagara Falls Gazette: Canoes with "Dummies" Are Sent Over Falls as Body of Mrs. Taylor, Cataracts' Conqueror, Is Buried. Niagara Falls, NY. May 6, 1921.
  • Oakwood Cemetery (website)

17 comments:

  1. Fascinating! Was it the press circulating the rumors, do you think? Could that be why they did not mention his name in the article, and why he was so upset?

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    1. I think the police were genuinely worried that he was there to do some kind of a unsanctioned falls stunt, and I'm sure the town was abuzz with rumors that he might. Why else would The Great Houdini be there!? And I think HH was genuinely upset that he was still being thought of as an escape artist when, at this point, he wanted to be seen as a cinema artist. It's such an interesting snapshot of the time.

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    2. Love the crew pic, with those old hand-cranked cameras. Those cameramen each sang a song to themselves, to keep the right pace for shooting.

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    3. I would be fun to find the exact spot where the photo was taken.

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    4. Such a great article and fascinating photos of an area near and dear to my heart. Unfortunately, I think that exact spot where the crew photo was taken no longer exists. It looks to be an area over looking the Horseshoe Falls that was removed due to unstable rock and ground conditions in the late 1960's.That area has now been reshaped into Terrapin Point. But I think you can still see the remains of the removed rock from Terrapin Point. Once the weather start warming up here, I'll take a closer look and try to verify!

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    5. Is that the Horseshoe Falls behind them? I see them in the distance, but I was thinking this was overlooking the American Falls. But it sounds like you really know the area! Shame if this spot is gone.

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    6. You are correct John. The Horseshoe Falls are behind them in the distance in that photo. The crew is to the right of the brink of the American Falls. My choice of wording was not the best when I said overlooking. Must have been too excited!

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    7. Understandable! :)

      Too bad we can't go recreate that photo.

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  2. Great photos. Every crew member wore suits and ties.

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  3. Great stuff! BTW: Supposedly, had Houdini become a resident of “Stunters Rest”, he had ready an alternative ending to the Man From Beyond. Also, Houdini challenged any producer in the world, and was willing to forfeit $5,000 to anyone who can produce upon the screen a greater thrill than the Rescue Scene at the Brink of Niagara Falls.

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    1. I've always been suspicious of that "alternate ending" in case HH was killed while filming. Sounds like a press agent's invention to me. However, it did cross my mind that shooting the canoe going over the falls with the dummies onboard might have been this alternate ending. Howard and Felice are swept to their deaths, but are reunited as their past selves…Beyond!

      The $5000 challenge…yeah. One wonders who would have judged that. :)

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  4. UPDATE: I added a paragraph to the story and clarified that the interview at the hotel actually happened before the canoe shooting. This is important because Houdini wasn't being completely honest with the reporter -- he did swim the rapids -- and maybe that had something to do with the tone The Gazette took about his shooting on the day of Taylor's funeral. Thought this was an important part of the story that I didn't make clear before.

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  5. Well well well...So the man who created himself as Harry "Handcuff" Houdini, now no longer wants to be regarded/associated with mere manacle releases...after all, he is MOVIE star, an artiste!
    Oye!

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    1. Well, he believed in himself, and he put his money where his mouth was by starting his own production company and writing, directing, and starring in his own films. But making the transition from stage to screen is tricky. He wouldn't be the last superstar to get tripped up by the movies.

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  6. I think Houdini was just trying to tell that Gazette reporter that he was there to shoot a film scene and nothing more. He didn't intend on going over the Falls handcuffed and in a barrel as some folks there might have speculated.

    Houdini had been trying to get away from handcuff escapes since about 1908 when he introduced the Milk Can. The cuffs died a natural death that year. The public is always behind on these things.

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    1. Good point, Leo. But it's funny how Houdini could never escape the "Handcuff King" label. He was so indenified with that. The press would refer to him as "The Handcuff King" right up to his death.

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