Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Houdini conquers Hollywood (at last) in The Grim Game


During his introduction to the world premiere of TCM's restoration of Houdini's The Grim Game last Sunday, host Ben Mankiewicz commented on how he'd always heard Houdini was a bad actor. He then said he didn't understand this, because that is clearly not the case in the film we were all about to see -- a film that had remained unseen by the public for more than a half century. When the 71 minute movie concluded, I saw he was right. Houdini in The Grim Game is extraordinary in all regards. Here we finally see the Houdini the world knew, loved, and rooted for again and again. Houdini is a superstar in The Grim Game, which is perfectly tailored to showcase his talents and plucky personality. Yes, it's just as good as has always been rumored. I think I know why Houdini works so well in this particular film, but I'll get to that a little later.

At this point, I don't think I need to retell the story of how The Grim Game found its way to Hollywood and the TCM Classic Film Festival. It's enough to say that the world of magic and silent movie buffs turned out in force to see a film that most thought they might never see. The TCM festival scheduled the movie as their closing night event at Grauman's Egyptian Theater, Hollywood's oldest movie palace. Hours before the screening, the courtyard started filling with people, all hoping to get a seat. While the early word for non-festival attendees was that "it didn't look good," I heard everyone who tried was ultimately able to get inside. The 616 seat theater was packed when the show began at 8:30 PM.


In the audience were Houdini enthusiasts and magic luminaries, such as: Jeff Abraham, Mike Caveney, Lisa Cousins, Patrick Culliton, Rory Feldman, Joe Fox, John Gaughan, John Lovick, Joe Monti, Arthur Moses, José Luis Nazar, Joe Notaro, Fred Pittella, Gene Franklin Smith, Dave Sikula, Bullet Valmont, and Mark Willoughby. Also in attendance, although I didn't know this until after the screening, were the sons of Grim Game director Irvin Willat.

With the sons of Grim Game director Irvin Willat.

Ben Mankiewicz opened the show with his introductory remarks and a message from TCM's Robert Osborne, who couldn't attend the festival this year. He then introduced Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz of the Houdini Museum in Scranton, who are credited as consultants on the restoration. Dorothy and Dick did a short Q&A with Mankiewicz, and then performed a magic trick using a vest once owned by Houdini. Dorothy teared up and received a nice ovation when she thanked TCM for all they had done, saying that she had been "waiting for this moment all of my life." A lot of us in the theater could relate to that.

Restoration Producer Rick Schmidlin then took the stage and explained how the film was acquired from collector Larry Weeks, and exactly what the restorationists had to work with. Mankiewicz then introduced composer Brane Živkovic, who created a new original score for the film to be performed live by musicians: Aimee Kreston (violin), Simone Vitrucci (cello), Joshua Ranz (clarinet), and Susan Svrcek (piano).

It was then time for the movie (projected digitally), and when Houdini made his beautifully teased out first appearance on-screen, there was a burst of applause!

The Grim Game is easily the best written, best directed, best shot, best acted, and best conceived Houdini movie by far. It's clever, fun, funny at times, and the escapes are simply breathtaking! Director Irvin Willat also knows how to play on audience expectations. When Houdini is confined in his jail cell, the director gives us a magnificent slow reveal of the iconically chained Houdini framed in the cell doorway. It's a perfect fusion of Houdini and cinema, and this amazing moment, conceived and shot 96 years ago, brought down the house in 2015. So too did the suspended straitjacket escape (just the appearance of the straitjacket brought applause), the jail escape, the bear trap, and the famous plane crash, which is more complete and much clearer that what has been available (you can see the plane wings shatter). There was sustained applause and laughter throughout the movie (side characters have some great comedic bits), and the movie received an ovation that lasted throughout the end credits, where I was honored to see my own name and Wild About Harry listed among the Thanks.

Afterwards, a group of us went back to the Magic Castle, where librarian Lisa Cousins reserved us a private room to discuss the momentous magic history we had just witnessed.

So why is The Grim Game so much more effective than Houdini's other films?

Apart from being just a better made movie overall, I believe one of the key reasons is The Grim Game is the only one of Houdini's films in which he plays an ordinary man and, basically, himself. In his other films, he is some version of a cliche movie hero: a millionaire inventor, a secret agent, or a man from beyond. Here he is just Harvey Hanford, a working reporter in a realistic urban setting. He's an underdog and an outsider, banned from his wealthy uncle's estate and teased by his office co-workers. But he is an optimist with an infectious grin, who just happens to possess an extraordinary ability to escape from any restraint the modern world throws on him. He is the man who cannot be held back. Harvey is the essence of Houdini, and Houdini is in his element playing the part. I sensed the audience at the Egyptian completely embraced the character, as well as delighting in the overall in-joke of the film -- that Harvey is being played by the real Harry Houdini! Ordinary man and superman in one, The Grim Game provides a quintessential Houdini experience.

Now, back to the acting. I believe Houdini became a worse actor as his movie career went along and he started to "study" the craft. He studied himself stiff. I've always thought his best performance was in his first film, The Master Mystery, when he didn't know better. He was loose and natural (apart from the love scenes). What's wonderful about The Grim Game is that he still has all that same early looseness, but with a bigger budget and better photography. There are no prolonged love scenes to strain him, and the film's plot is so modern he's never backed into a melodramatic corner. Also, when Harvey is planting "circumstantial evidence" against himself, Houdini has to act as if he's acting. He's actually giving a subtle comedic performance here, and he nails it! (Recall that he and Bess did a comedy act, The Rahners, early in their careers.) I believe my first wild-eyed words after the screening were, "The days of saying Houdini was a bad actor are OVER!"

Okay, I know what you are thinking. Of course I would give this a rave review -- I'm wild about Harry! True. There was no way I was not going to love this movie after waiting 40 years for it. But to show love is not completely blind, I will tell you the movie is not perfect. The lengthy set-up of both Harvey's plan and the three villains plotting behind his back drags somewhat, and it's all a little confusing. The beautiful Ann Forest is under used in a somewhat thankless role. And there are key moments that are not played up as well cinematically as they could be -- but you do have to remind yourself it is a 96-year-old movie.

The new score by Brane Živkovic might be the most controversial aspect of the restoration. Make no mistake, his music is beautiful, and it works incredibly well in places. But this is Živkovic's first score for a movie, a specialized skill, and he makes a few unconventional choices for a silent film, such as occasionally using no music at all. The decision to not score the jail cell shackle escape was a point of discussion after the screening. I personally liked the choice to let the escape play in total silence. I thought it created tension, almost like a silent drum roll. But others felt thrown. Also, by the end of the film, his four compositions were starting to feel repetitive. But I was happy and relieved that he created a whole new piece for the final plane chase and crash. Still, I'm hoping TCM allows a little more work on the score -- perhaps having Živkovic compose a few new pieces and bringing in a music editor -- before the movie hits the TCM channel.

A few other notes of interest: The movie appears to be set in New York, even though it was shot entirely in Los Angeles. Check out the map on the wall of the Daily Call office and the license plates on the cars. The movie might still be missing a scene in which Houdini/Harvey scales a high wall of an insane asylum. There are photos of this scripted scene, but it is not in this print. The restored print still shows some of the wear and tear of the original negative, including scenes in which we can see the beginnings of nitrate decomposition. This shows that The Grim Game was in real danger of being lost forever.

The Grim Game was made for an audience who knew and loved Houdini. But that is still the case today. In fact, Houdini might actually be more famous today than he was even in his own lifetime. The Grim Game didn't have a premiere in 1919. But it sure did last Sunday night, and Houdini brought cheers from a packed house 87 years after his death. Houdini became the Hollywood star he always expected himself to be on Sunday, and one can't help get the spooky feeling that Houdini himself is somehow behind this magical resurrection.


A very big THANK YOU to Rick Schmidlin and Charles Tabesh of TCM who provided me with tickets to the premiere and the Houdini experience of a lifetime. Also thanks to Rory Flynn and Patrick Culliton for their extreme generosity; Lisa Cousins for keeping me calm in the final moments as we waited for the theater doors to open; and Arthur Moses for providing all us "Houdini Nuts" with a wonderful Grim Game gift bag. And, of course, to Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz for making all this happen in the first place.

Related:

50 comments:

  1. I was quite surprised that I found myself totally immersed in the film and felt it was much better than I might have originally expected. Can't wait for the DVD.

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    1. It's definitely his easiest and breeziest movie to watch. No effort required.

      I hope they are planning a DVD release. There's not been any official mention of anything beyond airing on TCM.

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    2. Is was a great night for all. In regard to the 16mm print there was no splice or jump cut during this action of his escape. I only found one repaired splice and that was on the third reel and only a two frames a most were missing. Since this cut is longer then reported Houdini may have gotten it before the release.

      Also sound like you had a nice night a the Magic Castle.

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    3. Thanks Rick. I have a feeling the scaling of the wall was never shot or cut before release. Could have just been staged for publicity photos.

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    4. I can tell you that the script has him scaling a wall after releasing himself from the straitjacket, as opposed to falling into the awning. See the following posts for more details:
      http://harryhoudinicircumstantialevidence.com/?p=396
      http://harryhoudinicircumstantialevidence.com/?p=538

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    5. It sounds like maybe the pendulum swing through the window was nixed and they instead did the awning drop. Maybe along with cutting the pendulum swing they also cut the wall and just did still photos instead.

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    6. My thoughts are they were nixed because he had broken his left wrist again during the making of this film. I know that the completion of the film was delayed because of his injury.

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    7. Good point about the broken wrist, Joe.

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  2. Do you know when this is screening on TCM? :-D

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    1. They've not announced an air date. It's going to screen at some festivals first. But I will certainly share news of TCM air date here when I have it.

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  3. Wow. Just wow. I'm going to have to rest a few minutes to take this all in...and then read it again! Wish I had been there. What an incredible night it clearly must have been!

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    1. It was indeed. A huge Houdini event. Hard for me to think of anything bigger than this.

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  4. i sensed a real warmth between Houdini and Ann Forest. i was worried he might be awkward in those parts but he was fine. And, yes, that character was PERFECT for Houdini! When Harvey unbarred the gate in his first scene it really won the audience because he was letting them in on the secret, showing that it didn't take any superhuman abilities, it just took being clever and resourceful (which is just what the real Houdini had always told us). Watching that gave the feeling that we might be able to do such things too, if we only tried a little harder we could be like Houdini. After that scene we were with him all the way, we wanted him to win because he was one of us, not some super powered being but an ordinary guy -armed only with brains and guts- fighting against a big corrupt world just like we were, and prevailing, just like we hoped to.
    Historians often say that Houdini represented the little guy triumphing over -escaping from- the oppressions of the world. They're right. And it's perfectly demonstrated in this movie.

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  5. Great review, John! No question that the wait was completely worth it. Congrats on getting in. As a silent movie buff, I can't tell you how great it makes me feel to know that even in 2015 a non-talkie can get audiences cheering. I can hardly wait for the premiere on TCM!

    -Meredith

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    1. Thanks Meredith. Haven't seen you around here for a while. Good to have you back.

      I was so worried about not getting in...but that was all for not. I got a great reserved seat with all my HH buddies. Felt like I had the best seat in the house, in fact.

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  6. John, THANK YOU from the depths of my heart for giving me that ticket at a time when i wasn't sure if i would get in or not. i can't tell you how much that meant to me. And thanks for including Jill and i in the Magic Castle gathering afterward. It was really a great, awesome, spectacular night.
    As for Houdini being more famous today than ever... When i got that ticket i ran over to Jill, who was in the "stand-by" line where things were looking Grim (yes, i had to capitalize it) even though we had numbers 1 and 2. i told her to give my number to the person behind us, it was a man with his wife and two daughters. He told her it was his youngest daughter -about 12 years old- who was the Houdini fan and was so relentlessly intent on seeing the Grim Game that she convinced the whole family to drive out from Orange County to see it. You might say the girl was wild about...

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    1. Great story. Hope that 12-year-old finds my blog at some point. I was especially happy to hear that everyone got in. It sure didn't look good at first. That courtyard was mobbed! Wish I would have taken a picture of the crowds, but I just wasn't thinking straight at that time.

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  7. Dorothy and Dick here...

    Just arrived back after an extended 8 day stay in Hollywood. We would have stayed longer but had shows already booked before and after and even had to cancel a few since we did not find out until very last minute we were attending since Rick Schmidlin had told us in no uncertain terms that we would not be brought to LA, which proved to be quite wrong. Had all this been set up earlier we could have set promo etc., way in advance but had no idea until the the tenth of March we were even going to be brought out, according to Rick. As a for instance Mayor's proclamations must be requested at least a month in advance, and very hard to get in movieland with every star and movie in the running. The powers that be in City Hall were familiar with Dorothy's reputation, etc. and it went through in record breaking time. John Cox's Houdini tour on the great ones birthday would have been better attended had we had two weeks to send out press releases rather than two days.

    Once TCM came on board it quickly changed and could not have been better. Even so because of the late notice we were never sure just what we were going to do and some of the early promo only listed Rick and not ourselves. However, when we travel to events like these, we always bring about 2 hours of material (about an hour each) to cover any situation. Although Dorothy's strait jacket escape received a standing ovation it would have gone even better since it is usually set up with background music building up to a big crescendo along with the narration. We were booked last minute which didn't allow enough lead time for them to set up the music. Believe it or not we had no idea of exactly what we were doing until the day before the Sunday showing. We originally thought Houdini's vest, that we purchased from Larry Weeks, was going to be used for the Houdini biopic When they heard, after we arrived, that she brought the strait jacket and that Dorothy had done it on the HBO special "The World's Greatest Escapes" with Tony Curtis they moved it there. A great choice on their part.

    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
    The Houdini Museum, Scranton, PA
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini


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    1. From my vantage point, I thought everything came off without a hitch. You guys were great at both events. Pulling all this together so fast was trick for everyone, but I think Houdini was there giving us a hand. And pulling off the proclamation made up for anything that was missed. I just wish I had arranged more time to spend with everyone. It was blur of activity.

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  8. Being surrounded by enthusiastic people at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood for the Houdini event of my lifetime is a thrill I will never forget.

    The impact of seeing these iconic images come to life was incredible. The manacle scene was a particular favorite for me, due to the extreme familiarity of the initial pose, and the mesmerizing nature of the escape in action. In one phase of it he strokes his forearm as if smoothing the sinews, and then stands on his hand to get maximum stretch so the cuff will slide. This was all done with an astonishing quickness and efficiency, and it was very gratifying to see beyond all debate that he was REALLY GOOD AT THIS. I was among those who appreciated the choice to let this escape unfold in total silence, as it lent a breathless quality to the scene and kept all the focus exactly where it belonged.

    I did not have pre-existing knowledge of the plot, and had no trouble following it. I found the whole thing bright and fresh, with a more playful and lovable Houdini than I'd ever seen before.

    John Cox made an insightful comment about the aspect of the plot that had Houdini innocently and with good intentions creating his own crisis. When Houdini realizes this he gives us his eyes - right at the camera, right at us - and John observed "The only trap he can't get out of is the trap he set himself!" (But he got out of that one too.)

    The entire week was a non-stop celebration of Houdini, and I am truly honored to have been part of it. Getting to know Dorothy and Dick was an incredible treat. And I think we were all so out-of-our-minds with excitement as we waited in the courtyard to enter the theater that, as the moment drew near, I could hardly blame John Cox for practically needing a straitjacket himself.

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    1. I was flipping out. All I can think of is I must have been experiencing what someone goes through at a birth. Ultimate excitement and joy and anxiety and terror at the same time. Total tunnel vision. Thank you for being there to hold my hand. How fun was that final moment when we finally dropped into our seats? The entire evening was as if we were seeing Houdini himself. And we were!

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  9. J. Eduardo CaamanoApril 1, 2015 at 3:41 AM

    Is there any chance that the Grim Game will be available on DVD someday ?

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    1. I believe TCM do release their movies on DVD, correct? Hopefully it will come out after it airs on the channel. But nothing has been announced yet.

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  10. Great review! Can't wait to see it! Hats off to all involved!

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    1. Thanks David. Wish you would have been here. Maybe you can make it if they ever restore and premeire Terror Island. :)

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  11. Excellent recap John. I wish I could have been there to see it on the silver screen, but I will settle for seeing it on my flat screen when it airs on TCM!

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    1. I'm probably spoiled for life having first seen it on the big screen with live music. It's never going to have that impact again.

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  12. It should be noted that The Grim Game did not have a premiere in 1919 because the film premiere had not been invented yet! The first one took place on October 18, 1922 for Douglas Fairbanks's Robin Hood, and it occurred at (where else?!) the Egyptian on the theater's opening night. I attended a 90th anniversary screening of Robin Hood at the Egyptian in honor of this event a couple of years back.

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  13. John Hinson great nehew of Bess and Harry HoudiniApril 1, 2015 at 12:56 PM

    Now its been seen by people ,not put in a draw an forgoten about,thanks to all that help put this together.

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    1. It's in the world now! By this time next year, it will be the most seen Houdini movie of them all, as it should be. :)

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  14. Wow..wow..wow. Great review John. The atmosphere in the theatre must have been electric. Glad everyone got in. Cannot wait for release on TCM/DVD. Most importantly, the film has been restored and is safe. Thanks to all involved. Now to re read the review. Cheers. :-)

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    1. Also check out the comments by Bullet and Lisa here. They really captured some aspects of the movie that I didn't in my review.

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  15. I also loved how Sunday night just felt like cosmic reset on Hollywood. How long has Hollywood turned its nose up at Houdini's movies and movies about him. But on Sunday, there's a mob on Hollywood Blvd., killing themselves to get into a 96-year-old silent movie because it starred the real Houdini, while Hollywood's best Technicolor effort, the Tony Curtis movie, is playing down the street in a small theater as a curiosity. And Adrian who?

    The boss is back.

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  16. A very nice summation of the evening, and you caught most of the things I would have mentioned. Like Lisa, I had no prior knowledge of the plot, but had no trouble following. And, in fact, on the way back to the closing night party after the screening, a friend - who knew nothing about Houdini - remarked how much he enjoyed the plot and how suitable it would be for a remake. I don't know about that, but it speaks to its overall clarity.

    Two observations, though. I would have loved to have seen Harry escape from that jail cell through the door, rather than the window. Seems like that would have presented more of a challenge, considering how tight the bars were.

    Second, and more importantly, I preceded this with the screening of the Tony Curtis movie, and it struck me -- along with this one -- why that one, for all its hideous inaccuracies, is still the gold standard. Curtis, like the real Harry, is just having a ball being Houdini. So many of the others focus on gloom and doom and melodrama and miss the theatricality and ballyhoo with which he lived his life. Tony and Harry project nothing so much as "isn't it the best thing ever that I can do this?"

    I'm glad you chose that image of Harry in the handcuffs (as did TCM) because that was such a marvelous moment; when he breaks the fourth wall to connect with us his disbelief that they think these things are going to stop him. That "really?" moment sums up so much of what I love about him.

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    1. Beautifully said, Dave. Glad to hear the plot wasn't confusing for you. Maybe it isn't. Maybe I was just worried for the audience. And, yes, that fourth wall moment is wonderful. The filmmaking is so much stronger in this than any other Houdini movie. It plays with expectations and Houdini iconography with both the story and camera. The sophistication of that was really unexpected, and it really connects with a modern audience.

      And you're friend is right, I've always thought the basic idea behind the movie is worthy of a remake. I even once pitched it to a producer and he thought it was great.

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  17. Dorothy and Dick again..

    As to the movie, "The Grim Game" a few quick comments. John and others have got it right in their reviews so no need to repeat it all. Houdini rules again and it is his best movie. No more ever "Houdini was a bad actor". Houdini in his later movies seems at times a bit stilted as compared to "The Grim Game". But remember in Grim Game all he had to do was worry about playing the part. In the "Man From Beyond" and "Haldane of the Secret Service" he was producer, writer, director, set up the shots, had to pay the bills, find the places to shoot, etc. That would be enough to set anyone back.

    The early scenes with the maid and the butler were funny but should have played a few times extra. Running gags like these often work well when they go in threes.

    Harry should have kissed the girl at the end, and barring that he should have held the newspaper up to cover both their faces and fade to black leaving it to the audiences imagination. He did, by the way kiss her in one of the garden scenes that looked great and also I believe on another occasion.

    Dorothy did mention to Brane that she felt it should have had two more themea but i guess it is what is, and be thankful for it.

    Lastly we would like once again to thank all our new and old Hollywood friends for making this one of the most memorable weeks of our lives.

    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
    The Houdini Museum, Scranton, PA


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    1. Yeah, kissing the girl and covering it with the paper would have been a great way to end the film. Is it too late to reshoot?

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  18. Bullet Valmont brought this home for me: He noted Houdini as the ordinary guy--not super powered mind you, but an ordinary guy doing extraordinary things. I recall getting loudly rebuked here last week by an anonymous individual for expressing this thought.

    Thank you Mr. Valmont. I feel vindicated...

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    1. I tried to make that point in my review, but I think Bullet did so much more eloquently. Your debate was actually on my mind while I was watching The Grim Game. I think Houdini was seen as both an ordinary man and superman during the course of his career (and today). I think kids would see a superman and adults an ordinary man, and other countries might have perceived him in some way that we don't really understand. Hard to know the minds of people at that time. But the movies really help illustrate your point. In all his other movies he plays a superman, and that works okay. But in The Grim Game he's an ordinary man with extraordinary abilities, and that does seem to be the version of Houdini that works the best, both for him and his audience.

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  19. Thank you Dick and Dorothy for contacting Larry so I could call.

    I am so glad you were there and the fans cheered just like Elvis fan's when I showed my film Elvis That's The Way It Is Special Edition.

    Thank you John because you site inspired me and I sent it to TCM when I made the pitch.

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    1. Seems so many puzzle pieces had to fall just right to make this happen, and they all did. Thank YOU for being the puzzle master. :)

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  20. I saw a good actor in Houdini in his other films. I just attributed it to possably bad directors, so so scripts, etc. I always felt he could do better & obviously I was right. I hope they do put out a dvd. I would love to see this too! Bravo to Dorothy & Dick, TCM, & all the people responsible for saving this almost lost gem! Bill Smith.

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    1. I was thinking last night that I really should have given more credit here to director, Irvin Willat. He could be the reason this movie, and Houdini, are so good. He seems to have an understanding of cinema that you don't see in the other films.

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  21. Larry Weeks should have been given more credit. After all he's the one that obtained it and curated the film for over 60 years. Not much mentioned about Larry.

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    1. I feel like Larry's been getting credit. I don't think there's been an article about the restoration that hasn't mentioned him. The NY Post piece, probably the most read and reproduced article, was all about Larry. And he was mentioned several times at the premiere. It's shame he didn't live to see this. He certainly would have been the guest of honor at the premiere.

      But how Larry obtained it and the steps he took to preserve it is a largely untold story, because Larry himself didn't seem to tell it (at least to anyone who would write it down). I wish I knew more about Larry's history with the print. It's all rather murky.

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    2. Larry told me he got the negative from Bess 1943, then he later said maybe is was 1947. He also said he bought from Bess
      ore film's and her doing laundry, said it did not look like her.
      There were many other films in his collection stored away. He also had a scrapbook in bad shape that belonged to Houdini,a brass shaving mug and a bookshelf that also came he said from Bess. At the time I had to stayed focused on "The Grim Game." I would say in the two visits I spent a total of six hours
      in his apartment where he showed me what he had.

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    3. In regard to Larry Week's being involved his story is in the opening
      intro card before the film starts so all know about it from the start.

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    4. That's pretty awesome that you got to see what else Larry had in his apt, Rick. I've always wondered what other film treasures he might have -- a more complete version of Terror Island or The Master Mystery perhaps? At least you got The Grim Game out. Thank goodness.

      Hopefully his estate will all get sorted and there will be an auction.

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