Wednesday, November 24, 2010

RKO 589: Discovering Hollywood's first Houdini film

Part II: "The waters are dark for Pinetti."

Houdini getting lost under the ice of a frozen river is one of the most memorable scenes in the 1953 Paramount movie Houdini, starring Tony Curtis. But did you know that scene was first due to appear in a "Houdini" film 21 years earlier?

This was just another surprise discovery I made while examining the long forgotten file on “RKO 589,” aka Now You See It -- Hollywood's first attempt to make a movie based on the life of Harry Houdini. The file was unearthed by Warner Bros. archivist and Houdini buff, Steven Bingen (author of the upcoming book MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot), in the massive Warner Bros. Corporate Archives in Sun Valley, CA.

The entrance to RKO
Now You See It was set-up at RKO by Houdini’s friend and fellow crusader against fraudulent spiritualists, Fulton Oursler. From the outset it was clear this would be a Houdini film, even though the main character would be called Harry Pinetti. Actor Paul Muni was touted as being "an ideal Houdini." During September and November 1932, Oursler delivered two treatments, mining Houdini lore and his own imagination to create a raucous and fairly dark movie (see PART I for a full examination of Oursler's treatments). The studio then brought in Kubec Glasmon, writer of the James Cagney hit The Public Enemy (1931), to help Pinetti escape the page and make it to the screen.

Glasmon and Oursler appear initially to have collaborated on a revised story. A treatment in the file dated November 10, 1932 and marked “Latest Rough Version” carries both their names. Oursler had gutted his original treatment on his second pass. Now some of his original elements would be restored, including the Margery-like medium Evelyn, and having Pinetti’s Bessie-like wife “Tommy” die (although now it was by accident -- getting hit by a fire truck -- instead of suicide). The treatment is rough indeed, with many sequences incomplete, including what would be a major new climax centered around an unspecified “challenge” that nearly takes Pinetti’s life. In his first treatment, Oursler’s big stunt was having Pinetti escape the path of a speeding train while bound to the tracks. It is likely Glasmon was in pursuit of something more modern.

The most exciting find of this rough outline is the inclusion of the line, “The waters are dark for Pinetti. His career as a magician is almost over.” This, of course, is an echo of the ominous real-life prophecy laid against Houdini only weeks before his death, for which Oursler was the recipient. Having provided this last little bit of true insider info, Oursler would depart RKO 589 and let Glasmon tackle the screenplay by himself.

It’s clear Glasmon continued his Houdini research, most likely using what was then the only biography available, Houdini His Life Story by Harold Kellock. Information from this book (some of it spurious) finds its way into his “Final Script” which he delivered to the studio on November 29, 1932 (10 days after his estimated delivery date).

Screenplay by Kubec Glasmon
dated November 29, 1932
In his script, Glasmon creates an entirely new opening that introduces Pinetti in a more cinematic way. We see a “shabby” Harry Pinetti (real name Schwartz) visiting the shop of a grocer named Oppenheimer. He asks Oppenheimer how much it would cost to replace the store’s large plate glass window. Oppenheimer says it would cost him nothing; it’s insured. Pinetti then leaves the shop, picks up a brick, and throws it through the glass. He’s promptly arrested and jailed. But the next day, as Oppenheimer replaces the window, Pinetti suddenly reapers, having escaped the jail. He again breaks the glass, and he’s again arrested, this time strapped in a strait-jacket. But he baffles the police when he escapes and appears in a press agent’s office, announcing that he is Pinetti the Great! Fun stuff.

The script proceeds (as did the early Oursler treatments) with Pinetti being called to his father’s death bed, and the promise that Pinetti will one day pour gold into his mother’s lap. Pinetti again meets and marries the loyal Tommy (sans the sadistic tests), and the couple tour small towns until Pinetti resolves to make a name for himself by performing a death-defying escape from a chained box lowered through the ice of a frozen river, a sequence that is familiar indeed.

Now, it should be noted that Houdini himself is responsible for this popular fiction, so it’s not that unusual that it would appear in a movie before the 1953 Tony Curtis dramatization. Again, Glasmon most likely mined this from Kellock. The real coincidence is that, as in the Curtis film, Pinetti does this during a box escape. In Houdini’s telling it’s a straight-ahead bridge jump.

Pinetti The Great would face this same ordeal 21 years
before Tony Curtis in Paramount's HOUDINI (1953)

In this version, Pinetti escapes the box, which is then hoisted to the surface and found to contain a “jaunty” note reading: “Now you see it, and now you don’t.” But Pinetti finds himself lost under the ice sheet. He’s able to catch breath in air pockets, as holes are smashed in the ice above in a frantic effort to find him. Finally, Pinetti is able to locate a section of ice thin enough to use his shackles to break through. (That’s actually an improvement on both the Curtis and Houdini versions of this story). He then appears bleeding and trembling to the amazed crowd.

When Pinetti returns home, he throws his hat through the door, waiting to see if Tommy throws it back out or not. This, of course, was a familiar routine that the real Houdini and Bessie engaged in when they had a fight, and it is used to good effect a few times in the script. Again, this is something Glasmon probably pulled from Kellock.

The box escape brings Pinetti fame and an engagement at the Palace in New York (his opening day is April 6), where he performs the Needles to great acclaim. Pinetti requests his salary in all gold and sets off to fulfill his promise to his mother, who’s named Queenie in the script. The one-page scene where he brings his treasure home to his Queenie is quite effective:

It is deserted. A clock is ticking monotonously. Pinetti sets the package down on the table, and then peers into the living room.
SHOOTING THROUGH THE DOORWAY we see an old-fashioned high backed rocker, facing the window. Seated in it is the form of Mrs. Schwartz. On the floor is a ball of yarn. It seems as if she were dozing. Pinetti, holding the bags of gold, tiptoes into the room.
We DOLLY UP to Pinetti standing behind the rocker, looking down at his mother’s grey head. He takes both bags, and holding them over her shoulder, he pours their contents into her lap.
Pinetti’s expression of anticipation slowly fades from his face, as his mother fails to respond to the sound of the money. He steps around to the side of his mother.
    (he takes her by the shoulders)
The gold continues to fall to the floor as he shakes her. From the expression on his face we know that Queenie is dead. And as the CAMERA PULLS BACK we see only the rocker before we

Enter Sir Gilbert Crewe (Arthur Conan Doyle) and Evelyn (Margery), and Pinetti’s battle with spiritualists, leading to Evelyn’s incarceration. Happily, Tommy’s life is spared in the script. Glasmon instead develops the major conflict of the story between the married couple (who now remain childless), as Tommy begins to believe in Evelyn’s powers and is especially frightened by her prophecies of Pinetti’s demise. (Unfortunately, “The waters are dark for Pinetti” line didn’t find its way into this final script.)

Pinetti Challenged!
Matters come to a head, when the Star Parachute Company challenges Pinetti to leap from an airplane in a straitjacket and escape while in freefall. (Glasmon found his modern escape, although Houdini had considered performing a similar stunt in London in 1908.) From her jail cell, Evelyn predicts Pinetti will die in the attempt. Despite his own reservations, Pinetti accepts the challenge in order to prove to Tommy, and the world, that Evelyn’s predictions are hokum. It’s a good setup for what proves to be a spectacular climax.

Before the escape, Pinetti dictates his “Last Will and Testament,” giving “everything I own in the world to the Society of American Magicians, to be used solely for the purpose of exposing mediums.” But the stunt goes wrong, as the straps of Pinetti’s straitjacket become entangled in the parachute pack. In a thrilling sequence of cross cuts, Pinetti struggles to free himself -- which he does just in time to deploy his (Star) parachute. Sir Gilbert and Tommy rush to his side, however, they find Pinetti dead -- his heart having failed before he reached the ground. A doctor gives him an injection of adrenaline, and the shot revives Pinetti -- back from the dead!

An amazed Sir Gilbert says, “You've been dead...what lies beyond?”

Pinetti answers, “I can’t tell you, but we must go on and live.”

Okay, the final line is a bit lame, but the script itself is actually pretty good. Glasmon would deliver a “Revised Estimated Script” on December 2, 1932, with “additions as of December 3, 1932.” Probably for budgetary reasons, this version was reduced by 23 pages with 102 fewer “speeches.”

Despite what looks like a very steady march to production (we’d call it “the fast track” today), Now You See It did not move forward. The files do not record the reasons why, but the December 2nd draft would be the last – at least from Kubec Glasmon.

Three years later playwright Vivian Cosby, whose only film writing credit was Trick For Treat (1933), would attempt to revive the dormant project. Cosby radically reinvented the story in a new 30-page page treatment dated August 3, 1936. Offering up an alternate title, Man of Magic, Cosby also suggests that “the following story will easily lend itself to a musical background.”

Pinetti would be a "Thurston type" in
the 1936 version of Now You See It
However, it’s hard to find anything all that musical (or magical) in Cosby's Man of Magic. Now “The Great Pinetti” is an older, already established master magician, who is described as being a “Thurston type.” He’s not even the lead. The new main character is Bill Lloyd, who inherits the show from Pinetti on his deathbed and continues it as “Pinetti, Jr.” With the show struggling, Lloyd resolves to perform a suspended straitjacket escape (one of the only escapes in the story).

Here we do find some fresh Houdini lore, when Lloyd tells the police strapping him into the jacket, “Treat me as you would the most dangerous of the criminally insane.” But that is pretty much it for Houdini. In fact, after Lloyd predictably strikes it big, magic takes a back seat as he is framed for murder. The story shifts into a magician-as-detective caper in the second half. Evelyn makes a brief appearance, but she is not a factor in the film aside from providing a red herring. Lloyd ultimately unmasks his assistant, Ross, as the murderer (which was painfully obvious -- Ross felt he was the true successor to Pinetti, you see), and Lloyd’s final lines of dialog suggest that he may be involved in more crime solving in the future.

Not surprisingly, Cobsy’s treatment was never turned into a script (at least there isn’t one in the file), and that appears to have marked the end of the Pinetti/Houdini story at RKO. The production number “589” would be reassigned to a film that was ultimately made (The Roadhouse Murder). All the work completed on Now You See It, Hollywood's first Houdini film, would be filed away in the archives of RKO, where it lay forgotten and undiscovered for -- well, that’s where we began our story.

The file on RKO 589 aka Now You See It at the Warner Bros. Corporate Archive

A very big THANK YOU to Steven Bingen for all his help in making this discovery possible. For information on the amazing Warner Bros. Corporate Archive Research Center, visit the official website.


  1. It's been great fun reading this John! Thanks so much for doing the research and sharing it. The new site is awesome. :)

  2. Thanks, Tracy. It was really a thrill to find something like this and share it.

  3. Thank you for your continuing and unrelenting pursuit of all things HOUDINI. I've learned so much from you!

    You're a great friend.