Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Evidence of an unmade 1936 Houdini movie

Two recent eBay auctions offered evidence of a Houdini biopic in development at Paramount some 17 years before their HOUDINI with Tony Curtis would hit the screens.

Click to enlarge.

Two trade ads, both from 1936, show the film was to be called Houdini The Great and would be produced by the legendary Dore Schary for Paramount Pictures. Writer Pierre Collings is credited with an adaption (presumably of the Kellock book) on the first ad. Collins wrote the acclaimed The Story of Louis Pasteur for Paramount. He died in 1937.

Dore Schary
The second ad shows Schary working on Houdini The Great with writer Frank O’Conner. There is no mention of it being an adaptation this time. O’Conner and Schary are credited with an “original story and screenplay.”

The year is significant. Nineteen thirty-six was the 10th anniversary of the death of Houdini and the year of the final Houdini seance atop the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. That event marked the zenith of Edward Saint's postmortem Houdini publicity blitz, and certainly helped the studio see the potential in a film about the great escape artist. In fact, I’ve seen documents that show Saint and Bessie Houdini were the driving force behind this early Houdini movie.

At the late great Aladdin Bookstore in Fullerton, I got a peek at what I believe was an original script for Houdini The Great (I don’t recall if it was by Collings or O’Conner). Interestingly, the story ends with Houdini being assassinated by a spiritualist gunman in a crowd. As Bessie was involved in this version, it’s maybe telling that she was okay with pinning the direct cause of Houdini’s death on the spiritualist community. Did she consider J. Gordon Whitehead an “assassin”?

It would take more than a decade for Paramount to finally make the Houdini movie, and when they did both Bessie and Edward Saint were dead and Dore Schary had moved onto MGM. That film was, of course, the classic HOUDINI starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh.

One wonders who the studio might have had in mind to play Houdini in their 1936 version?



  1. Chester Morris was called the most likely candidate because of his knowledge of magic. (see MAGIC, March 1995)


  2. Thanks, BeastieB. I'm thinking of doing a story on all the actors who have at one time or another have been connected with playing Houdini. I'll add Morris to the list.

  3. Wasn't there a SILENT movie done with a similar title? I remember seeing a clip of it at sometime, unless it was faked, but i do remember that it was credited in the ending credits on whatever i saw it on.
    Bill Smith

  4. Yes, it was in a documentary. Forget which one right now. I'm going to do a blog post and try to get to the bottom of it. Not sure it's legit.