|David O. Selznick and friends.
In the 1940s, Gone With The Wind producer David O. Selznick wanted to do for Houdini what he had done for Scarlett O'Hara and produce what could have been a lavish, Oscar-worthy Houdini biopic. This was after a few attempts to make a Houdini movie had fallen through at other studios. The film was to be made by Selznick's newly formed Vanguard Films, the company he established after the dissolution of Selznick International in 1943.
In early 1944, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Dore Schary would produce the Houdini biopic for Selznick. Schary had been deeply involved in Paramount's aborted Houdini project in the 1930s, and was now the head of production at Vanguard. In fact, it's likely Schary brought the idea of a Houdini biopic to Selznick when he became head of production, so it's probably more accurate to call this "Dore Schary's Houdini" (but I went with the bigger name -- that's showbiz).
Selznick first approached Alfred Hitchcock about directing the film. The duo had recently scored a huge success with the Oscar winning Rebecca. In a July 21, 1944 memo to the famous director, Selznick wrote: "Houdini with either Cary Grant or Joe Cotton can, I think, be an outstanding and enormously popular picture with very great opportunity for treatment by you." But Hitch wasn't interested, and instead the duo made Spellbound their next film.
|Garry Moore as Houdini.
In October 1944, Film Daily announced that Houdini's brother Hardeen was now aboard the Vanguard project as the technical advisor (an inspired idea), and that it "may go before the cameras in January." Then, like so many Houdini biopics before, it vanished in a puff of smoke.
It's unclear what happened to Selznick's Houdini project, but according to Shep Hyken's excellent website devoted to Houdini (1953), producer George Pal read the Vanguard script when he was preparing the Paramount classic with Tony Curtis. He didn't care for Schary's script, but as both projects were based on the Harold Kellock biography, he recommended Paramount buy it to avoid problems. But Paramount refused to pay the $5,000 price. When the film was finished, Selznick complained, and Paramount ended up paying $17,000 for the rights to keep from being sued for more.
Garry Moore, the man who was almost Houdini, went on to fame in television with his popular talk show, The Garry Moore Show. Moore was a magic buff and his show was generous to magicians, especially Milbourne Christopher who would guest host from time to time. Moore also once had the pleasure of being sawed in half by Dorothy Dietrich.
David O. Selznick dissolved Vanguard in 1951 and died in 1965. Today all the scripts and material related to Schary/Selznick Houdini movie is housed in The David O. Selznick Collection at Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin (which also happens to house a massive Houdini collection).
Thanks to Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz at the Houdini Museum in Scranton for uncovering the Hardeen connection. Selznick-Hitchcock memo is in the collection of The Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library.