Friday, April 24, 2015

Rick Schmidlin (Bonus): Where did Larry Weeks get The Grim Game?

Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Rick Schmidlin who produced the TCM restoration of Houdini's The Grim Game. I posted my Q&A with Rick in two installments: Finding The Grim Game and Saving The Grim Game.

Today I have a BONUS excerpt in which Rick and I discuss the mystery of the original 35mm nitrate print. This was said to be the last surviving print of The Grim Game, and it was disposed of in 1959 when Larry had the film transferred to 16mm safety film. But where did he get it?

WAH: Did Larry tell you how he got the original nitrate print?

RICK: He said he got it from Bess. I don't... Where would Bess have been in 1943?

WAH: Dead. Well, she died in early 1943, she was in Hollywood before that.

RICK: Exactly. So I don't think he got anything from Bess. He kept on saying that he got it from Bess. But Larry was just a kid, he wasn't even in the army in 1943. He definitely wasn't in Hollywood and he definitely didn't go to Hollywood to get this stuff.

WAH: Right.

RICK: Now, my guess is this. And this is just educated. Houdini had the lab in New Jersey. And when The Grim Game and his other film projects came they went to the lab. Basically it was like, "I've done the projects, and, by the way, guys, can you give me a print, I want to keep it for myself." Because he was an archivist, he saved his books, he saved his scrapbooks, he's gonna save his films. He was interested in films and he had the facility to keep it. Now when the lab closed...what year was that?

WAH: It's unclear when he closed to lab, but it was by mid '20s.

RICK: 1922, wasn't it?

WAH: Well, Haldane of the Secret Service was released in 1923, so I've always thought the lab closed down around that time. It took a while for Houdini to unravel his movie businesses.

RICK: Right, so the lab closes down, and the film elements of his negatives go to...probably Hardeen's Estate?

WAH: Hardeen ran the film lab, so, yes, he might have taken possession of a lot of that stuff.

RICK: That's what I'm thinking. So he took the films. Now if you look at what was said on the Kino, and you look at the history of the film, which makes perfect sense, around 1947 all this nitrate film is sitting in New York, and they have their house inspected. And they have a young Larry Weeks who's been in This Is The Army trying to buy everything he can. He may have bought a bookshelf [Larry had a Houdini bookshelf in his apartment], he may have gotten a scrapbook, he had a little money. Remember, he had been in an Irvin Berlin play on Broadway.

WAH: Now when you say this, you mean he's at Hardeen's home, correct?

RICK: Yes, that's what happened.

WAH: And Hardeen died in 1945, so Elsie Hardeen was unloading stuff.

RICK: Right. Again, this is where the deceive works comes in, and where we think logical.

Film reels showing nitrate decomposition.

So the film is sitting in New York, and the insurance man comes in to inspect the house, knowing nitrate in this day...people are watching it. I know many people who in the 1940s had to throw away many great nitrate films because, you know, they could explode an entire city block. So they have to get rid of them. And they were probably told they had to bring them somewhere that would have cost them money. So they call this kid who been pestering them for anything he can get on Houdini, and ask if he wants them. And he was up there like a flash. So Larry in 1947 obtains the films. That's my hypothesis. But if you think about it -- lab, Hardeen, the location...that's why I say "Houdini heirs" in the beginning. Does that make sense to you?

WAH: It makes sense to me. When Bessie sold 278, much of her stuff went with her to her sister's house -- the Hinsons. A lot of it remained with them when she went to Hollywood. The Hinsons did have a great many Houdini movies, and they were visited by the insurance man. That's where that story comes from. Marie Blood tells it. So when Larry said he got his stuff from "Bess", I always felt what he was saying was that he got it from the Hinsons. But the Hinsons say they threw out all their films after the visit from the insurance man and that Larry did not get The Grim Game from them. They are clear on that to this day. So, like you, I think Larry could only have gotten it from Elsie Hardeen, especially at that time. I heard that's what happened. And then he later acquired some things from the Hinsons because I do know that he visited them in 1956. And eventually it just all sort of melded together. That's why there's a confusion of when and where he got what. It all just became one collection of artifacts from the "Houdini family."

RICK: Right.


As a postscript, in 1958 Larry Weeks formed the "Houdini Film Restoration Fund." Larry knew that his nitrate prints were in danger of decay (recall that Rick said The Grim Game probably only had six months left). Check out this item written by Larry himself in a 1960 issue of Abacradabra:

Reading this 55 years later, one thing becomes clear. A lot of people were involved in this effort to find and restore The Grim Game, and a lot of people deserve credit. But the person who truly saved The Grim Game, the person who is most responsible for us now being able to see and enjoy Houdini's best film, is the late Larry Weeks, "Houdini's Biggest Fan."



  1. Thank You for this bonus.
    Very interesting hypothesis on how he got TGG. Sounds like this could be an episode for Ripley’s Believe It or Not! That said, I believe he did get a 35mm nitrate original from Elsie Hardeen. And thank goodness for us all, he had a 16mm negative and print made from the 35mm nitrate original before it turned to dust.

  2. Larry was born in 1919 so he was in the army in ol 43.

    So that is why think he got in 47, when the insurance company had the family get it out of the house.

    And all, thanks for the kind comments.

  3. Larry told me the first Houdini footage he collected was "The Man From Beyond" on 8 mm from Blackhawk films. He began to search for any footage he could find. He told me that John and Marie Hinson gave him "the Grim Game." I am almost sure he said this was after 1950. 1951 rings a bell. Larry never told me it was a negative. A miracle the film survived. A good fun 1919 film starring a man who was a legend in his own time (and an industry in ours).

  4. John Hinson great nephew of Bess and Harry HoudiniApril 25, 2015 at 7:20 AM

    My father told me that in the 1930's they where living on 67 payson ave, when the where vist .by the fire marshall for some reason, and the insurance agent,came by and told them to get rid of the films they have nitrate in the film,need to get rid of then,my father familythrew them away,then the house can be insured again.

    1. Do you recall what year he threw them out, John?

  5. Does it not seem if Hardeen had it, Radner would have gotten it?
    Radner surely would have had the money to restore it. Radner had a successful rug business.

    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
    Houdini Museum

    1. That's a good point. It could be that Hardeen did not want to part with the films because they were still a potential money maker for him. Remember he wanted to redistribute The Master Mystery through Paramount in the 30s. The films weren't like props he could no longer use.

  6. Radner most likely had first refusal on a lot of Hardeen's stuff. In Silverman's bio, he mentioned how much he regretted passing up on HH's diving suit. Hardeen probably sold it to the next guy, and he may have offered to sell Radner the films. He probably didn't want any problems with the Fire Marshal either.

    1. That's also a good point. Did Sidney even collect Houdini film? I feel like that was an area he didn't go into.

      But we are not thinking Larry got the film from Hardeen himself. Not sure Larry ever knew Hardeen. If so, there would be a lot of handcuffs in that apt. :)

    2. I also feel like Sid at that time was trying to build up his own show -- remember, he was Rendar back then. He was looking for things he could perform.

  7. It's wild to think of this first great generation of "Houdini Nuts" running around back then gathering up priceless artifacts from still living Houdini family. It's a shame that, apart from Milbourne Christopher, they really weren't very good historians. So many questions we have today could have been answered back then. But I guess one doesn't really think that way when it is all so available. But I would trade a Houdini handcuff for some real answers.

  8. Also, Hardeen may have held on to the prints for a time to possibly cash in on them, but he must have eventually realized that Hollywood was not going to look over its shoulder to silent films. By the mid to late 1930s, their day was over.

    I also agree that Radner was probably giving priority to props that he could use in his own act like cuffs and jackets. At that time in his life, his funds were most likely limited.

    1. True. There was still some money to be made in silent films in the sound era. There was the possibility of converting them to a "sound" film (adding voice over -- like they did with Phantom of the Opera), which appears to be what Hardeen had in mind for The Master Mystery. Also, there were still theaters that were not equipped for sound.

      I've always wondered exactly when the Realart version of Terror Island was made/shown. The Realart version is the print in the LOC. But that had more to do with Paramount than Hardeen.

  9. This whole thread is full of nonsense. Larry wasn't being paid as a Broadway actor -- he was being paid as a private 1st class in the U.S. Army. Of course he did know Irving Berlin from "This is the Army."
    But, Larry worked with a lot of big stars. He was a hell of a juggler and he could sell it.
    I'll bet everyone who knew him longer than 15 minutes figured out he was screwy, but, my theory is that John and Marie Hinson saw him as the best chance to keep "the Grim Game" alive. I think their role in all this is being minimized.
    I don't buy the dating of 1947. I am positive he told me the Hinsons gave him the film in the early 1950s.
    I think the answer is that when the fire department made the Hinsons dispose of an entire garage full of the film Houdini had shot and saved over his career, as well as his feature films, John Hinson held one thing out, one thing he knew HAD to be saved. Finally, he figured Larry Weeks might prove to be the best chance of saving the film.
    I'm sure Larry told Fred Pittellla and Dick and Dorothy the same thing he told me: that the Hinsons gave the film to him in the early 50s.
    One other thing that I wonder: when John Hinson used to screen Houdini's films in his home, were the films on 16 or 35 mm?

    1. That's a very good question. I doubt the Hinsons had a 35mm projector in their home. Their films would had to have been 16mm. But Larry's print was 35mm.

      The Hinsons role is being minimized only because they've minimized it themselves. They say they threw out their films. But if John had one original 35mm print, makes sense he might hold that one back. So you might be onto something there. But it also makes sense that the person who had the 35mm prints was the guy who's very business was to make them -- Hardeen.

      But that's why I did this as an excerpt. Because, as Rick discovered, there's not a straight answer on this. Requires some speculation. And we love to speculate! :)

  10. Look, when I lived in New York, I owned a VW Camper. Unfortunately, Larry Weeks found that out. So, I drove him into Manhattan many times and back to Brooklyn of course. And to New jersey twice and Connecticut once -- with my whole van filled with nonsense larry wanted to sell. I knew him well from all those trips together and we discussed the Grim Game a lot. He' said "I'll show it to you." I told him I'd wait until everyone could see it. At the time, I owned the only known pressbook from the Grim Game, I'd been through the Paramount archives at the Motion Picture Academy. I owned a lot of stills and a set of lobby cards. So Larry and I were able to talk about the Grim Game. I'm telling you what he told me and I'm sure I'm not the only one he told it to. Fred? Dick? Dorothy?

    1. Oh, I'm not arguing it really. That's what he also told Rick, in a way -- that he got it from "Bess" (which could have meant Bessie's family?). But there are still questions about that.

      Love the VW story. :)

  11. Larry told me he got everything from Bess in the early 40's.
    But I think it may have been later and got the film.He later said he
    got from Bess is 1947 which of course the time she was long gone.
    This is a interesting thread with many other who new him and how the story .and date may have changed to get The Grim Game.Thank for all the postings

    1. John Hinson great nephew of Bess and Harry HoudiniApril 26, 2015 at 1:25 PM

      Bess past away in 1943.

    2. For what it’s worth: Larry was in Hollywood in 1943 with The Irving Berlin “We’re in the Army” show. In fact, he paid William W. Larsen a visit. Note: William W. Larsen had obtained a large collection of Houdini material from Mrs. Houdini that the late Edward Saint had amassed. At the time of Larry’s visit, Mrs. Harry Houdini was very ill at Cedar Lodge, 2030 Griffith Park Blvd, Los Angeles, California and her sister Marie Hinson was with her. [Genii Vol 7, No. 6 February 1943 p 196]

  12. To Rick,
    I have checked ask Alexander for mentions of "Larry Weeks" and "the Grim Game." So, this is what I say happened based on my conversations with Larry and the magazine articles which mention the film. In 1958, Larry put out the word that he had 50,000 feet of Houdini film on nitrate. That Houdini had left it to Bess, that Ed Saint took pains to preserve it, then Ed and Bessie died and the film was left with John and Marie Hinson. The film according to Larry "went into hiding." I now think that Larry told me he started collected Houdini footage in 1951. I could be wrong. But, it appears obvious that the Hinsons hid the film in some safe place because they knew the film would be destroyed if they didn't. I believe Larry started looking for help in preserving the footage pretty quickly, so, now I say Bess to the Hinsons to Larry in (I can prove and with geometric logic) 1957. And finally, Larry to you, Rick.

  13. Here are a couple references that Patrick is alluding to: The Magic Wand Vol 46, Part Three Number 255 [1957] p 135 “Can Houdini Live Again? by Larry Weeks and M-U-M Vol 48 [October 1958] p 195 “Houdini Films Discovered”.
    According to Larry Weeks in the 1957 and 1958 articles mentioned above, he just recently acquired 50,000 feet of 35mm nitrate film that included a complete and perfect print of The Grim Game, plus a Monastery Escape that Houdini did in France, the original films of his historic first flight in Australia in 1910; his Hanging Strait-Jacket Escape filmed in many cities; his Over-board Box Escape; Lafayette’s Funeral; Houdini’s own funeral; and others like a fine clean copy of Reel One of another of his major pictures.
    So we don’t know for sure that Larry got TGG in 1957, but that is definitely when he broke the news that he had it.

    1. Also, The Magic Wand article mentions that after Beatrice Houdini died, the collection of film went into hiding for “several years”. Bess died in 1943.

  14. Yep, I'm well aware of all these articles, etc. I know what Larry said back then. Thing is, the Hinsons say it didn't happen that way, and in the end Larry started telling Rick some very different information, starting with a much earlier year. But Rick never got the full story from him. So we played around with a different idea here, a different possibility. That's what this was all about.

    But ultimately it's not all that important where Larry got it. He got it, and he preserved it to 16mm at just the right time. Thank goodness.

  15. The Hinson family thought Larry Weeks was creepy, and did not want him around. They never gave or sold him anything. My source is Ruth Kavanaugh.
    In the 1930s, the Hinson family would invite children over on Saturdays,so
    they could watch Houdini's movies in the basement of Payson ave home.
    On a Saturday, a fire marshal for the city noticed lots of children heading
    to this house and was curious to see what was going on. When he knocked on the door Marie Hinson told him about showing Houdini movies in the basement. For safety reasons he asked to see their set up
    and noticed the nitrate film, ordered John and Marie to dispose of it immediately. He also noticed some props including a water torcher cell, and told the Hinsons to remove that as well. The Hinson had all five movies of Houdini and hours and hours of other footage from over the years.
    This was told to me by Marie Hinson, Marie Blood, Vinnie Hinson, and Ruthie Kavanaugh at different times over the course of 30 years. Not once did the story ever change.
    The truth about where he got it is sad and something people who know Larry Weeks should have suspected.
    Back shortly after Hardeen death, Larry went to see his widow, and put pressed her to LOAN him Houdini/ Hardeen items including several scrape books, photos a few props (not Bobbies handcuffs. I also know their secret as well.) and a ton of original footage including most of the movies including THE GRIM GAME. Some time had passed, and Hardeens 2 sons Theo jr. and Harry H. Hardeen came home from the service. When they discovered not only what had happened and how upset their mother was, decided to pay Mr. Weeks an unannounced visit.
    When they arrived Larry opened the door, and noticing one of the scrapbooks on a table pushed their way in and started tearing the place up looking for the rest of it. After a good amount of time they asked him for the rest and he refused to tell the brothers where it was.
    Theo and Harry then ruffed Larry up pretty good and left, with a fraction of
    the items Larry intended to steal from a grieving widow.
    They never did find any of the movie footage. This was told to me on my
    second visit to Harry H. Hardeens home.
    Jon Oliver

    1. Hmmm....thank you, Jon, for chiming in on this. Of all the versions we've discussed here, this is not happiest, but it's human. You gotta think even the Hardeen boys would, at this point, agree that Larry was the correct caretaker. Eventually they would have been faced with decaying and dangerous film and probably would have thrown it out. History plays out in curious ways.

      The Hinsons had a Water Torture Cell???

    2. You know, not to throw us totally off topic, but if Larry had this much interaction with the Hardeens, could he have also acquired a copy of the now lost Hardeen short film, Medium Well Done? Might that have been among the film he transferred to 16mm, and could it still be in his closet today? That would be a sensational find.

  16. John Oliver's story has to be believed as the same story came from different sources. Larry although a great Houdini fan was not that great of a person.

    1. I never met Larry myself. While I've heard he was a "character" (aren't we all?), I've never heard anyone say he wasn't a good person. Takes a certain kind of person to devote your entire life to your art and passions. Easy to misunderstand.

  17. What a horrible assumption to say the Hardeen family would not have had the film restored!
    Shame on you Mr Cox.
    Both Theo jr and Harry went to collage and had well paying jobs, and interest in their family history.
    IF LARRY HAD NOT stolen these films (all the nitrate footage) Harry Hardeen would of had them restored and made available.
    Larry Weeks was lucky that this film was restorable, after his lifting it, and keeping it hidden for all these years!
    Larry N E V E R put 2 cents out of his pocket for there care.
    A few years ago, the building manager where he (LARRY)had his apartment
    went and gave him a month to clean his storage in the basement of the
    building. He did nothing , and all the papers and magical artifacts ended
    up in the New York City Dump.
    So much for this Houdini historian.

    Jon Oliver

    1. Apologies. I just thought it's an expensive and difficult thing to do, especially in the 1940s and 50s when the idea of film conservation was pretty uncommon (if it even existed at all). It's not so much that they would have elected to not do it, they might not have known it was even an option. Having a collection is work, and sometimes families can feel burdened. But you knew them and didn't so, again, my apologies.

  18. You pay homage to both Larry and Sid Radner 2 of the biggest liars out
    If Sid was truly Hardeens Protégé, as he claimed , who is Doug Geoffrey's? You know Hardeen jr.
    Why was it only after Doug passed that Sid started this line of bull???
    Of course we can forgive Sid because of giving so many people to own
    Houdini handcuffs.
    Selling at auction. Why not tell the whole truth on the auction houses
    getting better then 50 percent back because the patient dates on the cuffs
    were years after Houdini died.
    If this a site looking for truth wait for the smoke to settle and then review
    your facts.
    Jon Oliver

    1. Oh, I've always been a fan and a champion of Douglas Geoffrey. As far as I know, I'm the only site to have ever tackled his story and give him credit as, you correctly point out, Hardeen's chosen successor: The untold story of Hardeen Jr..

      As far as handcuff authentication goes, I leave that to the auction houses and people who are more expert in it than I. But I've acknowledged the general uncertainly surrounding some cuffs from the Radner collection.

  19. One final thought, Tony Hassini also knew Larry Weeks, and filmed him
    for one of his dvds. This was the first time EVER Larry claimed to have
    the Houdini book case. I know many who have been to his apartment.
    Secondly and most importantly Tony Hassini told me he saw the nitrate
    movie footage Larry claimed was the Grim Game, and it was in horrible
    condition. Tony was trying to get Larry to have him restore it. Larry said
    The people who finally did the work claimed it was it great shape.
    This makes me think the footage Tony saw was the other reals of the
    different movies that are now gone for ever.
    So much for your savior
    Jon Oliver

  20. Intriguing info. Thanks, Jon. I've always said -- you're the guy who knows where all the bodies are buried. ;)

  21. I don't believe any thing Jon Oliver says about this matter. He has never published anything about this most important subject -- ever -- and if there was something to it he should have. Also, the last time he mentioned Douglas Geoffrey to me, it was to tell me that Harry Houdini Hardeen told Jon Oliver that Douglas Geoffrey sold the Houdini Hardeen props supposedly for the family, then, never passed the proceeds along to the Hardeens. Is that true? I don't know. Nothing about that has previously been published. The fire captain made the Hinsons throw away the torture cell? Jon told me termites ate it in Ruth Kavanaugh's backyard. And anyway, it wouldn't have been the Torture Cell, (I suspect it was probably the prop for "Freezing an Indian in a Block of Ice). Where was the film before 1958. We know the Hinsons owned a print. Who else? Hardeen? You'd think. What year did Larry "borrow" 50,000 ft. of nitrate film from Elsie Hardeen -- never to return it? Where was the flim after that? And why weren't there any rumors about the film being taken from Mrs. Hardeen then or since? This story doesn't come from multiple sources. It comes from one. Is Jon Oliver correct? When did Tony Hassini visit Larry's apartment? Did he know that Larry had two adjacent apartments? The condition of the Grim Game as described by hassini doesn't tally with the film we saw at the Egyptian March 29. I think this thread has been hijacked by Jon with a flood of irrelevant information. If Jon had published the story he says Harry Houdini Hardeen told him the second time they talked about Larry Weeks, we might have some answers. But, Jon has pushed us way off topic.

  22. Interesting to see some controversy here. When we posted something even milder we got deleted, so have backed off a little on posting.
    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz

    The Houdini Museum, Scranton, PA
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini
    Our Mission Is To Do Things Historic For Houdini

    1. Sorry again for that, guys. But that was 2 weeks ago on a different post and I emailed and explained why I thought it was best to delete. You're always free to comment here. Hope you will.