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.

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