Saturday, May 17, 2014

Gone With The Handcuff King: David O. Selznick's Houdini

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.
But it didn't take long for Vanguard to lock down a director and star. Radio personality Garry Moore was tapped to play Houdini, and William Dieterle, who had made the celebrated biopics The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Life of Emile Zola (which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1937), would direct. The screenplay was by Schary himself. Presumably, the movie would be released by Selznick's new distributor RKO (who had attempted to make their own fictionalized Houdini biopic in the 1930s).

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.



  1. Very interesting

    1. Thanks. I've been seeing remnants of 30s/40s HH projects for years, but I never pulled it all together before and realized it was one project moving from studio to studio. Selznick was the key.

  2. What an incredible bummer Hitchcock didn't go for it. I bet that would have been one hell of a great biopic. I've heard of the Emile Zola film but didn't know who directed it. Dieterle likely would have done a great job, too. So many could've's and would've's. Sigh.

    1. Just the idea of Hitchcock doing a biopic... And a Houdini one! Yes, the head explodes with the thought of what that could have been.

  3. Question for John since he is a writer in Hollywood and others...

    Of all of the writers in Hollywood at the time why do you think Dore Schary rose so high up in the ranks?

    For a little more on Dore Schary and Hardeen go to...

    Dick & Dorothy
    Houdini Museum

    1. He was good. He understood what audiences wanted at the time. He understood the system and was well connected. No different than today.

      I think of him more a producer/executive than a writer of the time. I didn't even know he was a writer until researching his Houdini project.

  4. Hmmm... Dore Schary. The guy who thought Marilyn Monroe wasn't photogenic or had the makings of a star, and passed on offering her a contract.

  5. Well, she ended up working for Darryl Zanuck, the only man in America who didn't understand her appeal. He knew she made money for the studio. He just couldn't figure out why people went to her movies. But I digress.

    Regarding Hitchcock, I'm not sure he'd want to do a biography of anyone. He made movies that suited his vision -- people in quandaries, caught up in forces beyond their control, etc.

  6. In an appearance on the Dick Cavett Show, Hitchcock mentioned that he preferred to read biographies over novels.

  7. My point is that I can't see Hitchcock wanting to be tied down to the facts of real person's life in a biographical movie.

    Many of his movies were based on novels, and a few came from plays and short stories: 39 Steps, Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Paradine Case, Topaz, Suspicion, Spellbound, Rope, Stage Fright, Under Capricorn, I Confess, Dial M for Murder, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, To Cartch a Thief, Marnie, Frenzy, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, Family Plot...