Thursday, December 30, 2010

Adroit Harry and ancient hokum

It's easy enough to find contemporary takes on Houdini's movies and acting ability, but how were his films received by critics when they were first released? I took my curiosity to the Motion Picture Academy's Margaret Herrick Library and dug out reviews of Houdini's two Paramount features, Terror Island and The Grim Game.

Terror Island, Motion Picture News, Vol. 1, 1920: 
The sponsors of this picture made an apology for it in the introductory caption and so disarmed the spectator to some extent from being unduly critical. The result is one must accept it for what it is -- a mere vehicle for the exploitation of the handcuff king, Houdini. The apology was kept up throughout the length of the feature, which proves how those in charge erred in putting over something on the public. Really, Terror Island goes back to the nickelodeon days, there being an absence of rhythm and reason in theme, treatment and interpretation. A sophisticated audience will surely kid the life out of it, just as they did at the Rialto. The picture is nothing more or less than a wild serial compressed into five reels and the incidents contained in it might have been conceived in a nightmare.
Highly impossible as the ancient hokum is, it is going to take a lot of explanation as more apology than what is offered to make even a child believe the stunts that take place underwater. Houdini might get away with it on a bet, but not Lila Lee.

While Terror Island is not a masterpiece, it's not this bad. Feels like Motion Picture News had it out for Harry somewhat. It is interesting to find the phrase "goes back to the nickelodeon days" in a review from 1920. Cool how the industry had already developed a sense of advancement.

But it wasn't all bad for Harry in Hollywood. His first Paramount feature fared far better with the critics, including this review in the November 1919 issue of Photoplay:

The Grim Game, Photoplay, November 1919:
This is the best play Harry Houdini has ever grappled with, or wiggled himself out of, and it is the best of school which may be described as trick melodrama. In other words, all of Houdini's celebrated stunts, such as shaking off a set of bracelets, withering out of a straight-jacket, or breaking half a ton of manacles are included, but there are also many new and entirely localized manifestations of his diabolic cleverness; and almost all the feats, escapes, and what-not are part of a well-woven, logical plot. Includes in this five-reel fracas, also, is the actual air-collision which stirred Hollywood a few months ago. Two machines, performing at altitude for Houdini's play, accidentally crashed together and fell to earth wreaking themselves, but fortunately not killing and of the occupants. Ann Forrest -- who, at Triangle, was known as Ann Kroman -- is a delightful ingenue lead in the adroit Harry's adventures; and the cast includes, also, Mae Busch -- reappearing after nearly two years absence: she was formally at Keystone -- Anothy Boyd, Tully Marshall and Augustus Phillips.

This last review almost seems too good to be true -- and maybe it is. Recall that Photoplay was a part of Macfadden Publications where Houdini had a good friend in editor, Fulton Oursler (who would later write his own "Houdini" movie for RKO).

Nevertheless, The Grim Game is supposed to be Houdini's best film, so while this review might be a touch effusive, it's overall assessment is shared by many. One bit of nice info is that Ann Forest was also known as Ann Kroman. That I didn't know.

Harry gets comfortable and catches up on his latest reviews in Variety


  1. Ouch is right! But it's not as bad as Shark Sandwich.

  2. Now I want to see The Grim Game even more!

  3. Seems to be the story of HHs life ... there is never any in-between!