Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I've seen The Grim Game

This dramatic poster image was created
from an equally dramatic still photo
Okay, I haven't really "seen" The Grim Game. But last week I had the pleasure of examining the original Paramount files on Houdini's first Hollywood feature in the Special Collections of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library. I was able to delve into some 40 original stills (most I've never seen) and read the original typescript story by Arthur B. Reeve and Charles W. Grey, as well as the full screenplay (or "scenario" as it was called) by Walter Woods. I spent 5 hours immersed in The Grim Game and came away truly feeling like I've finally seen this, ahem, "lost" Houdini film.

This is all going toward a book project, but here are a few interesting nuggets that I'll share now.

Houdini's character name in the original story treatment was Sterling Steel and the paper he works for was called The Star. Come screenplay time, the paper is now The Daily Call and, interestingly, Houdini is just called Harry Houdini throughout the script in both description and dialogue. The name Harvey Hanford doesn't appear until the title card continuity script created after the movie was shot.

Reeve and Grey titled the film The Grim Game from the start, but at one point the alternate title, Circumstantial Evidence, was suggested. Subsequent paperwork scratches out "the", indicating Grim Game was the preferred title. In the original treatment, the villain makes reference to his "grim game" and Mary's career-making newspaper story is titled "Life's Grim Joke." In the script, the villain's grim game line is gone and Mary's story is now called "Tales of the Sunny South."

Houdini style escapes abound in The Grim Game. Houdini escapes handcuffs affixed to his wrists while he sleeps by playful fellow reporters in the Call office; he picks several door locks in the course of the film, and frees himself from heavy shackles and a prison cell. Following the jail escape, he works his way down the side of a tall building using an ever shortening length of flag pole rope. The sequence in which he frees himself from a straitjacket while dangling from a building is absolutely spectacular in its description! I can only imagine what it must be like on film.

Houdini also frees himself from an elaborate bear trap, a sequence that is giving much play in both the treatment and script, yet has been largely forgotten. Maybe that's because the dramatic stills that depict the escape (there are several in the files) have rarely, if ever, been published.

The Daily Call logo can be spotted
in a single behind the scenes still
The mid-air plane transfer is not in the original Reeve/Grey treatment (which has a very different ending), but it is in the screenplay. It's noted that The Daily Call is the only paper to use "aerial delivery," hence Houdini uses the newspaper's plane more than once in the story. In fact, in one of the behind-the-scenes stills, you can see The Daily Call logo on the side of the plane, something I've never spotted in any other still or even the available plane footage.

Curiously, the screenplay contains the famous mid-air plane crash written exactly as it occurred by accident in real life. Maybe this is fresh fodder for conspiracy theorists as Scene 418 clearly specifies "miniature planes falling to earth." Hmmm...

From what I experienced reading the script, I'll join the consensus in saying this is Houdini's best film. It's very lively and modern and is not weighed down with the sometimes creaky melodrama of his other films. The premise is pretty outrageous -- ace reporter Houdini frames himself for murder to score a scoop and prove a point about the dangerous of circumstantial evidence and capital punishment (modern indeed). Of course, the "victim" (Mary's rich father) turns up dead and Houdini finds himself facing an ironclad case against him -- created by himself! From the moment he pitches his plan, it's pretty obvious this is going to happen, but waiting for that shoe to drop is part of the fun, and you are entirely sympathetic to Harry's plight. The film is downright Hitchcockian in this regard.

I was also able to examine the equally voluminous file on Houdini's second Paramount feature, Terror Island, but I'll save that for another time.

My thanks to the staff of Motion Picture Academy's Margaret Herrick Library for allowing me the opportunity to finally "see" The Grim Game.

Houdini's suspended straitjacket escape is a true highlight of The Grim Game

COMING TOMORROW! A terrific behind-the-scenes photo from The Grim Game from the Arthur Moses Collection.

UPDATE: I've now really seen The Grim Game. Read: Houdini conquers Hollywood (at last) in The Grim Game.


  1. I should have attempted to describe the suspended jacket escape, but it's a fairly elaborate sequence. But know that it's awesome! Also wish I could have reproduced some of the pics from the file. I had a handful of copies made, but they are all copy protected "for research purposes only", and I obviously want to stay in good with the library. I have a feeling I'll be going back to these files again. I also looked through the equally voluminous Terror Island file, but I'll save that for another time.

  2. 8-O ...W-O-W! Fantastic work, John! And what a great opportunity you had in combing through Paramount's files. This should be one of the top posts!

    And of course, I wish I could see "The Grim Game", even a few reels of it. It sounds fantastic. ),:

  3. Really good - you come up with some amazing stuff.

  4. I didn't read this until today. Not sure how I missed it. Incredible.

    1. Yeah, this is an old one. I haven't made it back there.