Friday, July 4, 2014

Houdini in "VELVET FINGERS"


We are all familiar with the famous film footage of Houdini doing card manipulations late in his career. Little is known about this footage, except that it was made by Pathe in 1926. But while doing some unrelated research, I stumbled on two newspaper advertisements that appear to show exactly when and where this short film played and, most excitingly, the title: "Velvet Fingers."

These ads appeared in The Hutchinson News on April 1st and 2nd, 1926, and advertised the line-up of movies at the Royal Theater in Kansas City. The main feature was the Ralph Lewis newspaper drama, The Last Edition. But look below and you'll see among the short subjects on the bill is HOUDINI in "VELVET FINGERS." The second ad has the more descriptive "HOUDINI in an array of tricks." It seems almost certain that "Velvet Fingers" and the famous Houdini card flourishes footage are one in the same.


Unfortunately, I can't find any other record of a short called "Velvet Fingers" (there was a serial with this title in 1920). Might the theater have invented the title? Hard to know. But the Our Gang short that is billed above the Houdini movie was indeed called "Better Movies."

Royal in Kanas City where "Velvet Fingers" played in 1926.

It's intriguing to wonder just how many tricks in the "array of tricks" existed in the full short. In the surviving film, we see Houdini demonstrate a 32 card forward and back palm, an armspread turnover, a waterfall, and an amazing armspread toss and catch. Houdini was featuring these flourishes in his 3 Shows In 1 at this time, so this is really the only footage that exists of Houdini doing his stage act. Pretty cool.

As far as I know, this short no longer survives complete. Some footage appeared in 1950 feature documentary, The Golden Twenties. The most complete selection of footage can be found on the 3-DVD set "Vintage Magic Films" produced by The Miracle Factory. I once had the fantasy that this could have been a sound short, but certainly that would have been advertised, so I have to put that wish to bed.

And now here's a short clip from "Velvet Fingers."



Related:

UPDATE: Readers Bill Mullins and Joe Notaro have uncovered some clippings that confirm the title and give us even more details about the full footage:

Motion Picture News, March 20, 1926:
Pathe Review No. 12 brings Houdini to the screen as a master manipulator of playing cards in a novelty called "Velvet Fingers."

Greensboro NC Record, March 21 1926:
HOUDINI'S VELVET FINGERS
Houdini, master magician, brings to the screen his grace and form in handling playing cards in a current issue of the Pathe Review. He also presents an expose of some of the card tricks by means of which card sharps have mulcted the public of millions of dollars. Slow motion analyses "the gambler's cut," in which the middle and bottom of the deck are transposed, leaving the top as it was; the "forearm rifle" in which Houdini makes a whole deck of cards obey his orders and the "forearm toss," in which every card stays in its place as if under hypnotic control, and other stunts that make the cards almost sit up and talk. [typos as in original]

UPDATE 2: Was this footage originally part of a 1925 short produced by Red Seal Pictures? Click to read: The Houdini card manipulation movie mystery deepens.

29 comments:

  1. Coincidentally, the California Historical Society had a screening of a mostly-restored version of "The Last Edition" a few months ago.

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    1. Really? Now that is an interesting coincide. Wouldn't it have been awesome if this short happened to be found attached to the surviving print?

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  2. Really interesting, John! I wonder if anyone else out there has info on this. What a neat find. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Now that we have a possible title, let the search commence!

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  3. John, I see that the 1920 "Velvet Fingers" was a Pathe serial. Is it possible that the short you speak of really wasn't a short but rather Houdini making a cameo in the 1920 serial? If so, that would mean the footage of Houdini manipulating cards was not made in 1926. I know very little about that footage, to be perfectly honest. But I've always thought Houdini looks younger than 52 in the card-flourish films. I didn't research any of this in detail, of course. Just a random thought.

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    1. A good thought. I also found that 1920 film. But I'm pretty sure the only thing we did know about this footage was that it was made in 1926, and that's 1926 Houdini to my eye. And I'm not sure it would make sense for this theater to be playing a serial from 1920. This looks like it was a first run house. All the other films on the bill are 1926.

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    2. Good points. It wouldn't make sense for that theater to run a 1920 serial in 1926. I think I just found something you will be very interested in seeing. I'll be back in a few.

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    3. John, I'll email you two images and a link to a PDF that are quite revealing. Tom

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  4. Here

    http://images.posterjunction.com/Velvet-Fingers-poster-1020266863.jpg
    is the poster from episode 10 of the 1920 serial.

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    1. Great poster. Bit of an escape theme there.

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  5. Just sent something to you regarding films called "Marvel of Motion," by Red Seal Pictures Corp. ("the new Fleischer-Novagraph Process").

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  6. From the Mar 21 1926 edition of the Greensboro NC _Record_:
    HOUDINI'S VELVET FINGERS

    Houdini, master magician, brings to the screen his grace and form in handling playing cards in a current issue of the Pathe Review. He also presents an expose of some of the card tricks by means of which card sharps have mulcted the public of millions of dollars. Slow motion analyses "the gambler's cut," in which the middle and bottom of the deck are transposed, leaving the top as it was; the "forearm rifle" in which Houdini makes a whole deck of cards obey his orders and the "forearm toss," in which every card stays in its place as if under hypnotic control, and other stunts that make the cards almost sit up and talk.
    [typos as in original]

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  7. Houdini never really left card manipulations. According to Silverman, he kept it in his act in London in 1900 when he made his breakthrough to fame.

    Another great post John! I wish I could see the rest of it. The overarm catches and so on.

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  8. In addition, the following appeared in Motion Picture News March 20, 1926:
    Pathe Review No. 12 brings Houdini to the screen as a master manipulator of playing cards in a novelty called "Velvet Fingers."

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  9. HOLY COW! Bill, Joe...you guys have found the corroborating evidence that I couldn't find. So that's it. This was absolutely called "Velvet Fingers."

    We've made Houdini history today. :)

    And Tom Interval has uncovered something that is very curious, maybe related to this footage, or maybe something else entirely. It's going to take some time for me to get my head around it. Might do a second story on it. Or maybe Tom will run with it on his own blog.

    A 4th of July firework indeed! Thanks guys.

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  10. Amazing!

    Thanks John.

    This is all great.

    This film, if there is more, will help set back those who love to say Houdini had little or no magic skills

    This is a really great find. Thanks everyone!

    Everyone keep digging!!!

    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
    The Houdini Museum
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini.

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  11. Gosh, now I'm dying with curiosity over what Tom passed along to you that you need to get your head around!

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  12. Okay, I've updated the story with Bill and Joe's discoveries, and unless Tom wants to do something on his own blog, I'll post what he's discovered as a follow-up story this week.

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  13. I sent an email to Pathe. Let's see what they come back with. Perry from NJ.

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  14. From what I am reading Pathe 12 were news clips etc from 1925 so if true velvet fingers was filmed in 1925.

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    1. It was indeed filmed in 1925. This is part of what Tom has uncovered and I will be sharing soon (most likely tomorrow).

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  15. However the summary of Pathe 12 does not mention Houdini or velvet fingers so perhaps it was a separate entity from Pathe 12?

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  16. What Houdini bio showed more of this film? I know I saw the part where he spreads the cards over his arm and then tosses them in the air and catches them with his other hand. Perry.

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    1. I'm not sure. I have all the docs, so I'll scan through them and try to find it. Maybe update my YouTube clip with it if I can.

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