Sunday, January 31, 2010

'Houdini Defeats Hackenschmidt' and other cinema revelations

In his new book, Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century, Matthew Solomon shines a spotlight on Houdini’s film work as never before. In doing so, Solomon has made several discoveries that rewrite Houdini film history.

First and foremost is the discovery that Houdini’s first stab at narrative film was not the 1909 short The Adventures of Houdini in Paris (more on this later), but a lost film from 1906 entitled Houdini Defeats Hackenschmidt.

The title refers to George Hackenschmidt aka “the Russian Lion,” a popular wrestler whom Houdini befriended in the UK. The Houdinis and Hackenschmidt became great friends, and Houdini even proposed bringing the wrester to the U.S. under his management.

Houdini Defeats Hackenschmidt was shown during Houdini’s engagement at Keith’s Theater in Boston in March 1906. While nothing is known about the content of the film, Soloman suggests in his footnotes that Houdini’s “defeat” of the famous fighter could have been financial instead of physical. Houdini took pride in the fact that his box office receipts of £300 eclipsed the £210 record set by Hackenschmidt in Sheffield. If this were the case, it could explain Keith’s management's private assessment of this latest Houdini attraction as merely “fair.”

Next up is major clarification regarding what had been considered Houdini’s first narrative film, Les merveilleux exploits de Houdini à Paris aka The Adventures of Houdini in Paris. This film has long been attributed as being produced by Pathe -- an attribution that can be traced back to Houdini himself who noted this on a still production photo (below). But it turns out this is not the case.

The Adventures of Houdini in Paris was actually made by Film Lux, a rival to Pathe. While it could be argued that maybe Houdini made an earlier film for Pathe in 1901 (as noted on the photograph), Solomon’s search of the Pathe archives turns up no work with Houdini, and he even nails down the precise release date for Merveilleux Exploits; May 17, 1909.

But why would Houdini attribute this film to Pathe when it was actually made by a rival company? My own speculation is either Houdini made a mistake when he annotated this photo years later (as he did with the date), or Houdini was engaging in his famous habit of rewriting his own history. Pathe clearly emerged as the more successful French production company, even setting up shop in Edendale, California, the first film colony in Los Angeles. It’s likely that Houdini preferred history to record him as working for the more famous company. If this were the case, the ploy worked...until now. Sorry Harry.

(A significant portion of Les merveilleux exploits is included on the 3-disc DVD set Houdini The Movie Star, although it is not identified by name.)

Finally, Soloman clears up what has been an intriguing mystery for many years; did Houdini star in a lost film called The Soul of Bronze?

The U.S. film copyright record lists this film title among Houdinis other work, as do several other sources, including some encyclopedias. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that an entire film, and all the publicity that would have accompanied it, could completely vanish. So what’s the story with The Soul of Bronze?

Turns out that in 1921 Houdini purchased two cases of films from the U.S. customs office in an auction of unclaimed goods. Ken Silverman first discussed this purchase in his excellent biography, Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, noting that Houdini would re-edit and attempt to distribute one of those films, The Mystery of the Jewell, through his Mystery Pictures Corporation.

But Soloman reveals that there was another film in this acquisition -- a 1917 french film entitled L’ame du bronze. Yep, The Soul of Bronze. Houdini copyrighted both these films as his own, hence, the unreleased The Soul of Bronze appears as a “Houdini film” in the official record. Mystery solved.

Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century by Matthew Solomon is available now in paperback from A hardcover will be released on February 15.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Houdini re-released as part of Classic Cinema DVD set

The classic 1953 Paramount film HOUDINI, starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, has been re-released as part of a new 3 DVD set from Legend Films.

The Classic Cinema Collection includes HOUDINI, the Dead Martin and Jerry Lewis film Money From Home (1953), and Papas Delicate Condition (1963) starring Jackie Gleason. What is the common link here? All three films were directed by George Marshall.

The set retails for $24.95 and can be purchased now from You can also still purchase HOUDINI as a stand alone DVD.

Uncovering Houdini’s SECOND underwater test

We all know about Houdini’s famous underwater test in the pool of Hotel Shelton in New York on August 5, 1926, in which he remained sealed in an airtight casket containing only five minutes of air for an hour and a half. This is generally considered to be Houdini’s last major public stunt.

However, did you know Houdini repeated the underwater test in the pool of the Worcester YMCA in Massachusetts on September 28, 1926?

Photo of Houdini's second test at the Worcester YMCA on Sept. 28, 1926

This forgotten test was first alluded to in William Lindsay Gresham’s Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls. On page 280 Gresham says Houdini carried a new bronze casket to Worcester and “used it in a publicity stunt.” The precise nature of this “stunt” was first revealed (as far as I know) in the addendum book The Secret Life of Houdini Laid Bare. On page 301 there is a photo of an invitation to the event from the collection of Joe Holland, but there are no details about the test in the book itself.

But now Houdini expert Patrick Culliton has uncovered a newspaper clipping of this forgotten second test, complete with photograph (above).

According to the article, Houdini performed this test for an audience consisting “largely of physicians and scientific men” and that Houdini remained submerged for one hour and eleven minutes.

It should be noted that the casket used in this test was a new one. According to James Randi (Houdini His Life and Art) the Shelton casket, after being hacked open, remained poolside for some 20 years advertised as “the casket Houdini was buried alive in.”

With the discovery of this article it appears likely that Houdini was going to use the underwater test as a regular publicity stunt, much as he performed the overboard box escape and suspended straight jacket in his younger days. However, a mere five weeks after this test Houdini would be dead, and the casket used on this day would be used to ship Houdini’s body back to New York.

With thanks to Patrick Culliton aka Houdini’s Ghost.

UPDATE: Uncovering Houdini's THIRD air-tight container test and death casket

Monday, January 25, 2010

Now meet James Vickery

Having recently uncovered the mystery of Franz Kukol, Houdini expert Patrick Culliton is turning his attention to another elusive Houdini assistant: James Vickery.

Patrick has posted several previously unpublished photos of Vickery on his website here and here.

These rare photos (including the photo posted here -- note that he's holding a The Man From Beyond pressbook) were sent to Patrick by James Vickery’s granddaughter, Janice Sauer. Patrick promises to “keep at this page until I somehow make it as good as the subject.”

As always, thank you Patrick aka Houdini’s Ghost.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Houdini artifacts once owned by Randini on display in Buxton

PRESS RELEASE: Locks and handcuffs used by famous escapologist Harry Houdini are about to go on display at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery in Derbyshire, England.

The amazing artifacts are on show as part of the BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects project.

They were once owned by Sheffield-born Randolph Douglas (right), an expert lock picker and magician who performed in the early 1900s as Randini .

Douglas was a friend and adviser to Houdini and helped devise one of his most famous escapes – from a straitjacket while hung upside down.

The locks, manacles and keys were displayed in Douglas’s House of Wonders museum in Castleton before becoming part of Derbyshire County Council's Buxton Museum and Art Gallery’s permanent collection in the early 1980s.

Other items in the collection include old photographs of Randini the “self liberater” (sic), shackles and a key from a castle where Mary Queen of Scots was held.

They are on display at the Terrace Road museum and art gallery from Saturday 16 January to Monday 5 April.

Once the exhibition is finished, a case of patent locks will remain on display for the rest of the year as part of the BBC's national project which will see a total of 600 man-made objects – including 10 from Derbyshire – on display across the country for 12 months.

From January 18, Radio 4 is broadcasting the series a History of the World in 100 Objects using man-made objects from the British Museum, including a helmet from the Sutton Hoo treasures found in Suffolk in 1939 and the Rosetta Stone, the key to translating Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Derbyshire County Council leader and cabinet member for culture Councillor Andrew Lewer said he was pleased to be taking part in such an interesting project and is urging people to take the opportunity to see the Houdini artifacts for themselves.

He said: “The last time we put the Douglas Collection on display, people came from far and wide to see it, including from abroad.

“This time our exhibition is part of a major project and I invite people to come and see the items created by a local man for Houdini – the most famous escapologist in the world.”

He added: “These items are not on display all the time, so come and make the most of this opportunity.”

Douglas was an early admirer – and life-long friend - of Houdini. They met at The Empire in Sheffield and worked together on a number of tricks.

Although not as famous as his friend, Douglas was also a skilful magician and worked in his younger years as an escapologist under the stage name Randini.

He devised one of Houdini's greatest escapes – from a straitjacket while hanging upside down.

After leaving the stage due to ill health, Douglas began creating amazing miniatures.

The other nine objects chosen by the BBC for the Derbyshire selection include a Rolls Royce Merlin engine, a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, a 40,000 year-old Palaeolithic axe from Creswell Crags and a lead pig from the Peak District mining museum.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Houdini’s Caged Torture Cell recreated

Illusion builder Richard Sherry of Sherry and Krall Magic has recreated a full size version of Houdini’s “Caged Water Torture Cell.” The cell is not based on the actual cell, but on an exaggerated version used on one of Houdini’s promotional posters. Sherry calls it his “crowning achievement.”

Sherry has also created several different working Torture Cells for the escape artist. There is a relatively faithful wood finish cell (although much larger than Houdini’s original), and an assortment of “modern versions” with different finishes. All can be seen and purchased, along with many other inventive escapes and illusions, at Sherry and Krall Magic.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Strongman friend of Houdini dies at 104

The Columbus Dispatch reports that Joe Rollino - who is said to have been friends with Harry Houdini - died Monday after being hit by a car near his home in Brooklyn. He was 104.

During his storied life, Rollino not only hobnobbed with Houdini, but also watched Jack Dempsey knock out Jess Willard and was friendly with Mario Lanza. He even had a bit part in On the Waterfront.

A decorated World War II veteran, Rollino got his start as a strongman in the 1920s during the high point of the Coney Island carnival, and he billed himself as the "Strongest Man in the World." At one point, he could lift 3200 pounds.

He later made a living as a traveling boxer under the name Kid Dundee and fought in armories in cities around the country where boxing was forbidden.

Rollino would have been 105 on March 19, and was the model of health, according to friends. A vegetarian for life, he didn't drink or smoke, his friends said, and he exercised every day. He was a lifetime boxer and was part of the Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen, an organization of men who can still rip book binders at the seam.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Patrick Culliton updates on Houdini The Key

On the Genii forums (in a fascinating thread all Houdini buffs should be following), Patrick Culliton has given an update on his new book, Houdini The Key.

Originally set for publication in October 2009, Patrick explains that some vision problems, and now two scheduled cataract operations, has delayed the book until Spring. (Patrick points out his opthalmologist is a member of the Magic Castle -- “a sleight of hand man.”)

Patrick remains excited about this latest Houdini volume. “It is getting to be what I want it to be. It will open a thousand doors to new research” he says.