Tuesday, April 7, 2015

What caused The Grim Game plane crash?


Our friend Bill Mullins alerts me to an article in the September 1939 issue of Flying Magazine about Cecil B. DeMille and his aviation interests. It was DeMille's company, Mercury Aviation, that rented the two "Jenny" biplanes used in Houdini's The Grim Game from "DeMille Field No. 1" in Santa Monica.

The article includes an account of the famous accident while filming. What's interesting is it blames Houdini's stunt double, Robert E. Kennedy, for causing the collision. This is the first I've ever heard of blame being placed on anyone for the accident. Here's the excerpt:

Money came in rapidly from airplane rentals to film companies. Harry Houdini made a picture at the DeMille fields, called "The Grim Game." A wing-walker, doubling for Houdini, got down on his ladder and "froze." The pilots jockeyed and jockeyed – and finally locked wings. They started a double flat spin, broke apart. One pilot landed with the wing-walker still clinging to the ladder, with a shattered upper right wing. The other came in with more serious damage, rolled over on its back.
"No one was injured," DeMille recalled. "The pilots jumped from their ships, took out after the frightened wing-walker to vent their wrath, for he was the cause of the accident. They didn't catch him. So far as I know, he's never been back to Hollywood since."

One clarification to the above is that Kennedy was hanging from a rope, not a ladder. Ladders were more typically used by wingwalkers for this kind of stunt. The accident footage is especially clear in the new TCM restoration of the film, but its still hard to tell exactly what happened. A few times the planes come in close, but Kennedy never seems close enough to safely transfer, and at one point he comes dangerously close to the propellers. Perhaps DeMille just wanted to shield his pilots from any blame.

Of course, publicity for The Grim Game claimed it was Houdini himself dangling from the end of the rope and who survived the crash. Houdini never denied it.


Thanks Bill.

UPDATE: You can read more about the happless stuntman Robert E. Kennedy at Joe Notaro's HHCE: How did Kennedy get the plane-changing job? and What happened to Kennedy after the plane incident?

Related:

20 comments:

  1. There's a photo of Houdini with his arm in a sling, along with Kennedy and a few other people in Christopher's Pictorial History. The photo proves Houdini was nursing his injured wrist and could not have been involved in that aerial stunt.

    Based on my memory of Kennedy in the Christopher book, I could swear the man posing next to the upside down plane in this photo is Kennedy. Kudos to John for his tireless detective work on the straight dope about this accident.

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    1. The man in the photo is David E. Thompson AKA Lt. “Tommy” Thompson.

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  2. I heard a similar account that went something like this:
    The planes began to close the gap, so that that the Kennedy could descend. But Kennedy didn't. Somewhere over Beverly Hills, he had apparently discovered he didn't like being in the air any better than Houdini. If he hadn't gone up in the first place, there might have been sympathy. Now, it was a take. The rope touched one of the wings, surely the man would jump. Instead, the wings of the two planes locked.

    Other accounts report that just before Kennedy released the rope to drop on Thompson’s top wing, a gust or air pocket caused the two planes to collide.

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  3. Most accounts of the crash say that "..the cameraman had the presence of mind to keep rolling and get it on film," or something to that effect, but i don't think that's true. The beginning of the crash and the seconds leading up to it just aren't there. i'm guessing the planes had already been in trouble a few seconds before they got the camera on them. And there's no footage following either of them after they separate. Willat's son said the camera plane was also involved in the crash, which could be why they didn't keep filming: they had to concentrate on saving themselves.

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    1. Interesting observations. It is highly possible that the camera plane while filming was “struck” with debris from the other two planes that threw bits of wood, metal and fabric around the sky and then had to concentrate on landing with the others.

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    2. Joe, i agree, the camera plane was probably hit by debris thrown by the propeller of one of the others. You can even see a large piece of something flying toward the right side of the screen just after the collision. Likely there were lots of splinters scattered about. Did you notice that, before he boards the plane (when he's still on the ground), Houdini's left arm is in a splint but when you see him on the wing the splint isn't there?

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    3. Just watched Desperate Chances again and you are absolutely right. Nice catch Bullet!

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    4. I think the crash is all there. Trouble is, they insert a shot of Houdini/Harvey landing in the cockpit right before the crash. Then they cut back out just as the collision is happening. But I think if you took that insert out and reconnected the two pieces of film you'll see the lead up to and full collision (apart from one lost frame from cutting the negative -- if I remember my film school education).

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    5. I concur: “caught the entire collision and the start of what looked like a fatal crash”

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  4. Thanks Joe! Sounds like Lt. Thompson might have been one of the pilots. It appears that the crash was in a bean field, you can see the rows of plants. A thanks also to Bill Mullins for the article from Flying Magazine.

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  5. Here is another possibility; the camera plane may have led to the collisions.
    You see the three rented DeMille airplanes and pilots were scheduled to take off for the calm air of the early morning on May 31, 1919; however maintenance problems and a delay in mounting the camera held things up until after lunch. In compliance with the flight plan, Pickup, with Kennedy aboard, flew straight and level while Thompson with less weight and wind resistance, and better visibility in the lower machine, moved into position directly below. Al Wilson maintained a steady camera platform position to the left, and in line with the performing machines, so that neither his tail section nor wing tip appeared in the camera’s field of vision. By this time of day the air was rough and it was difficult for the pilots to maintain their positions.

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  6. Probably explains why Kennedy may have hesitated to finish the transfer. With rough winds and both planes jostling around, who could blame him?

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  7. Al Wilson was piloting the plane when stuntman Jean Perkins was killed (in The Eagle's Talons -1923). A few days later they hired a new guy, Cliff Bergere, to do the stunt -climbing down a ladder from the airplane onto a moving train- and they succeeded. Only afterward did they tell Bergere that Perkins had been killed trying the same stunt.
    Irvin Willat also lost a stuntman to drowning a few years after Grim Game. Stunting was a more dangerous profession in those times.
    Leo, i think Kennedy may have froze after that close call with the propeller, that must have been terrifying.

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    1. I also wonder if using a rope instead of a ladder makes it much harder to line yourself up and make a successful transfer. It's possible Kennedy had never done it on a rope and didn't realize until he was up there that he had a problem. And, yes, that near miss with the propeller could have shaken him

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  8. That was the first time that Kennedy had ever attempted a plane change.

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  9. Douglas Fairbanks did his own stunts but even he had a stand in for the long shots. It was pointless and risky to attempt difficult stunts when the camera was 50 yards away. I wonder, was Kennedy still dangling from the rope when the planes locked in midair? According to Silverman, he was slammed and dragged across the bean field, sustaining only a few cuts from the stones.

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  10. Everybody--examine that photo of the two planes in John's blog L.A. Daily Mirror Pinpoints...

    I can see (propeller?) damage to the upper wing of the lower plane. Look at the upper plane, is that Kennedy dangling from it? I see something dangling from it.

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    1. Thompson’s upper wing tore into Pickup’s landing gear. That is Kennedy dangling from the upper plane.

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  11. I spoke with Irvin Willat about this stunt. Everything in the article is wrong. Kennedy was supposed to drop into the rear seat. This makes some sense. Kennedy was on a rope. Dangerous! Each of the three planes was leaving a "wake" and a plane could ride it or bounce over it and that was what was happening. The two pilots worked for DeMille (who owned the airfield). Art Ronnie wrote all about this stunt with great illustrations in his book "Locklear, the Man Who Walked on Wings" and also in his American Heritage magazine article "Houdini's High Flying Hoax." Art met Robert Kennedy and so did Manny Weltman. I believe he lived in Anaheim and still had a broken propeller from the accident. Mr. Willat told me he was in the third plane, but, didn't mention his plane being involved, but, I believe it. He told me he wanted to turn the crank himself because the shot was too important and they were figuring on getting it on the first shot try. The collision might have left Willat's plane momentarily out of position to film, then, he picks it right up. Everybody showed a lot of guts. Houdini was never scheduled to do that stunt and I think that the Kellock book says Houdini sent to France for Brassac to gaff the stunt and I don't think Brassac was anywhere around Culver City either.

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    1. Great stuff. Thanks Patrick. Manny Weltman met Kennedy, and he still had a propeller? That is incredible. Wonder what ever happened to that propeller?

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