Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Houdini and Zukor

Feels like we've had a lot of somewhat sensationalistic blog posts lately (murder theories, reincarnation), so here's my attempt to get back to something more rooted in real research and within my own specialty; Houdini's movies.

While doing research last year at the the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library, I uncovered a revealing letter from Houdini to Adolph Zukor. Zukor was the head of Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount Pictures, and a powerful Hollywood mogul. He revolutionized the film industry by organizing production, distribution, and exhibition within a single company, and by the 1920s dominated the industry with a theatrical chain of nearly 2,000 screens.

Zukor had produced and distributed Houdini's two Hollywood features, The Grim Game and Terror Island. Now here we see Houdini attempting to interest Zukor in his first independently produced feature, The Man From Beyond. On Houdini Picture Corporation stationary he writes:

220 West 42nd Street
New York City 
                                  July 16, 1921 
My dear Mr. Zukor -- 
    Tried to get you on the 'phone a number of times this week but unfortunately failed to do so. Am starting on my second super special. My first production "The Man from Beyond" is finished and is a competitive picture to "Way Down East," referring to the thrill finish wherein we have our episode on the brink of Niagara Falls. Would like to make arrangements to show you this picture any time to suit your convenience and any place you designate. 
   May I suggest the possibility of bringing it to your home and running it as you did "The Grim Game." As I stated above, I am working in the day time on my next picture but I could come out any evening on Sunday. "The Man From Beyond" is a full seven-reeler and really believe I have a great, big financial success. 
                  Sincerely yours, Houdini
We took six months to make The Man from Beyond.  

What's Houdini up to here? You could say he's trying to join the "producers club" by showing off his first feature to Zukor. But I think it's much more likely that he's soliciting Zukor here, hoping that Paramount might be interested in distributing The Man From Beyond (this is a full year before the film's release). Houdini clearly seems to be trying to entice him with the idea of "a great, big financial success." Also his likening the film to Way Down East (which he would continue to do in publicity), might be strategic, as that film was D.W. Griffith's first production for Paramount's competitor, United Artists.

But it's also clear that Houdini is not having much luck, failing to even get a return phone call. One can't help but sense a bit to wistfulness when Houdini mentions the screening of The Grim Game at Zukor's home.

So why is Zukor snubbing Houdini? It's possible Zukor felt he had already exploited Houdini the movie star to the maximum with The Grim Game and Terror Island. Certainly the returns and reviews on Terror Island showed diminishing interest in Houdini as a film star. Or maybe Zukor now considered Houdini, the producer, as competition, and didn't care to have a relationship. It's also possible Zukor did screen The Man From Beyond and didn't care for it.

Whatever the reasons, Paramount would not distribute The Man From Beyond. Houdini would instead distribute the film himself under the Houdini Picture Corporation banner. For his last feature, Haldane of the Secret Service, Houdini would turn to FBO for distribution.

But the fact that Houdini even solicited the movie to Zukor is a fresh revelation, and just another intriguing nugget from the still largely untold story of Houdini and his movies (a story I'm working to one day tell).


  1. I have seen all oh Houdinis available films. One thing that strikes me is the poor quality of the films themselves...unclear and primitive. Are the original prints this way or is it just the copies that I have seen that are so bad? I would think these films would be much more watchable if viewed in better condition. By the early 20's major films had reached a higher level of technical quality correct? Or am I assuming too much?

    1. Houdini's films looked better back in the day. The poor quality of the films has to do with the source material, which for these films is whatever we can find! Most are just a single used print that was luckily saved or archived, but these are not prints that are in very good shape, and only a few of his films have survived complete. The original negatives are almost certainly long gone.

      There has been wonderful restoration work done by Bruce Cardozo on The Man From Beyond:

  2. Houdini didn't spell very well, or simply didn't proof-read his work before sending it along.

    Keep up the GREAT work John!!

    1. I reproduced the letter exactly as is. He wasn't a very good speller. You see lots of crazy spelling and grammar errors in Houdini's letters, etc. This one is actually better than most.

    2. Actually, I just found two typos I made during transcription (fixed now), so not all Houdini's fault.

  3. A great find John! I enjoyed reading it very much. I also get the sense that Zukor gave Houdini the cold shoulder for the reasons you stated above. A man like Zukor had to stay two steps ahead in that business and he must have concluded that Houdini's film career ran its course after Terror Island.

  4. Thanks for sharing another nugget from your Houdini Movie Research. I can hardly wait to hear the rest of the untold story of Houdini and his movies that you have been working on to one day tell.

  5. my father had all the moves at one time when he was a kid his parents threw them away because the films where a fire hazard, the fire marshall said.

  6. Zukor and Houdini were fellow Hungarians. At the same time that Houdini was establishing himself as a living legend, Adolph Zukor was inventing the movie industry. When he formed Paramount-Artcraft, it had three production companies to produce product and the Balaban brothers theatres to display the movies. Jesse Lasky's production company was the flagship at first. It was called Famous Players -- and of course, Houdini was one. Zukor and Houdini were very big in Hungarian relief during WW1 and for a time, Zukor lived in Houdini's neighborhood and they probably played baseball in Morningside Park. Mary Pickford's production company would eclipse Famous Players.

  7. This letter from HH to Zukor is the first letter from the table of contents in the recently published book Letters From Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Moviemaking. A fascinating text for anyone studying the history of the Hollywood movie industry thru letters exchanged between the film titans.

  8. I wonder if Harry was aware that Zukor had ripped off Mary Pickford in 1915 by underreporting the profits of her films. He had been skimming off the top of the profit sharing component of her contract and she caught him red handed.

    1. I'm sure Houdini was well aware he was swimming with sharks in the movie business, just as in the vaudeville business.