Today I'm thrilled to offer the first of my two part interview with Rick Schmidlin, the man who produced the restoration of Houdini's The Grim Game. From the first hint of its existence in April of last year to the Hollywood premiere last month, Rick oversaw every aspect of the project. Now he tells us of his remarkable journey and what it took to bring Houdini's best film back to the silver screen.
WAH: First off, were you aware that Houdini made silent films before you became involved in The Grim Game project?
Hollywood Magic], and at one point I started buying little magic tricks. But, again, with the rings and the tricks I bought, I was not good. When people would ask me to do it again, I would and would sometimes get caught. So I decided I was not a very good magician.
What made me also very interested in Houdini was that I lived for a short time in the ‘70s at the corner of Lookout and Laurel Canyon in a massive log cabin which had a lot of Frank Zappa alumni living in it. The house next door was empty. It was the big white house with a big pool, and we used to hang out there sometimes. So when I lived in Laurel Canyon over the years -- and I lived in the ‘80s on Kirkwood -- when I would go to Universal or go over the hill to the valley, I would pass that house everyday. So I always knew as I passed the big white ghost, that that was where Houdini had been once. So in regards to Houdini, I was familiar with him since a child in the ‘60s watching on television, and he stayed with me throughout.
Now, like the rest of you, I have other areas I go into, which is partly silent film. I produce restorations of silent film and I’m considered for my work in silent film restoration and preservation, a historian. So that's what draws the interest and the connection.
WAH: So how did The Grim Game adventure begin for you?
RICK: I was in Colorado for a week doing some work cataloging an art collection for a group in New York, and I had been invited to speak on my film Touch of Evil by Brane Živkovic at NYU -- once for the students and once for faculty. In route, I stopped at Scranton, Pennsylvania to visit my mother who was there. She was in a home and I spent the whole day with her. Before I went, I asked her if there was anything I could do in Scranton, and she said, “You know Dick and Dorothy from the Houdini Museum?” I said yes, because I had given lectures on The Doors at Keystone College back in the ‘80s, and that’s where I had met them. I called them and asked if they would like to get together for dinner.
|The Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA.
So I met them and took them out for dinner. During dinner we chatted about different things, the social issues of the times, and I told them that I was now involved in film preservation and restoration. It was the first nice day of spring, I’d say it was around April 14 or so. We went to the Houdini Museum, it was so nice, we went on the outside patio and we talked, and they told me about The Grim Game. What they told me was a man in Brooklyn -- and they didn’t say Larry’s name at the time – had it, but he was holding out for a lot of money. Everyone was after him, and he was not allowing it to be sold. Also, they were not sure if he even still had it. They were very clear that they weren’t sure that he had it, that he had possibly loaned it to somebody and they had never returned it and maybe the wrong film was in the can. So that was how that started.
|Grim Game Godfather, Charles Tabesh
WAH: If TCM wasn’t interested, would you have still pursued it?
RICK: Of course, yes. But I knew this was the only place that would have been a slam-dunk. And I know this is where the slam-dunk was because I had done Greed and London After Midnight for them. So I had done those projects for them and I knew they were the right avenue and would have enough to fund it. So I wrote Dick and Dorothy and said, “Give me more information, TCM may be interested.”
Then I did my lectures, met Brane [Živkovic], and had a wonderful time in New York. Then I went back to Stratford, Ontario where I was living at the time. I had not heard from Dick and Dorothy for almost two weeks. I finally sent them a email asking, “What’s going on – TCM is interested and I hadn’t heard?” And one evening, I remember vividly, I got a phone call from both of them and they said they talked to Larry. They said, “He won’t talk to us about any kind of deal or anything, but he’s willing to talk to you.” They said they had talked about my work. I asked if they wanted to set everything up and they said, “No-no, you have to talk to him. We just set the introduction up for you.”
So I called Larry up on the phone, and Larry’s hearing was not great, as anyone who’s spoken to him in recent years knows. I told him who I was, and all he wanted to talk about was, “How much?” “How much?” I told him I was in Ontario, but I could fly down immediately and meet with him and talk to him. TCM had agreed to that. He knew the name Warner Bros., but he had never heard of Turner Classic Movies. But he said he would like to meet with me.
WAH: At his home in Brooklyn?
RICK: Yes. So it was arranged in a week that I would fly down. I stayed in a hotel in midtown, right across from Radio City Music Hall, where the NFL draft was going on. Everyone else was concerned around me with media and the NFL draft, and I’m wondering about The Grim Game. Have I found a lost film? Because for people in my field, that’s very important. It happens maybe once in a lifetime.
So what happened then was that I eventually mentioned the name of man named Zinn Arthur, whom I knew. Zinn Arthur had been a big band leader in New York in the 1930’s, and was big in the Borsht Belt back in the pre-war years. And Larry lit up like a Christmas tree. All the magic connections, studios, everything else were just like, "Okay, I’ve heard it before." But here I know somebody that was from his past. Who was a contemporary. And Zinn Arthur has done some home movies with Larry during This Is The Army. So that was the connection: Zinn Arthur. When you do something like this, you have to remember that sometimes the littlest name is the biggest key. And that was the key. I was a buddy of a buddy of his, and that made me good.
He then pulled out a few film cans. Now, what had happened that I did not know prior to my visit was Fred Pittella, who was a close friend of Larry’s, had been there a couple days prior to search through Larry’s closet to see what was there was on The Grim Game. Larry didn’t pull the film out. He had a closet full of film and The Grim Game was buried somewhere in there. So Fred prepared that for Larry so when Larry sat with me he could say, take a look at this.
WAH: So Fred Pittella was involved.
RICK: Fred was very involved. But I didn’t realize that until late, near the end. I did not know Fred’s name at that time.
|Fred Pittella with Larry Weeks and Dorothy Young (Houdini's assistant).
WAH: So what did Larry have exactly?
RICK: There was one short reel I couldn’t inspect because it looked a little fragile. But there was another reel that was an oversized reel. It was a sunny day in Larry’s apartment, and it said on the can, “Possibly The Grim Game.” It did not say The Grim Game. It was a label that would have come from even maybe the ‘60s that was kind of falling off. So I open that up and there was an oversized reel. I had to by hand very carefully unspool it, and at first I wasn’t sure because the first thing you see is the end, and the next thing you see is them reading the newspaper, which is not what I had seen on the Kino video segment. That scene did not exist.
WAH: Yeah, that Kino short ends after the plane crash.
RICK: So, of course, my heart went down. So then I looked a little further, and it was 16mm so very small, and I saw fields and then I saw them [Houdini and Ann Forrest] again, and they were dressed differently. Hmmm. It might be. Then I went a little further and I could see the plane coming down. Because it was tails out, which was lucky.
WAH: That was your eureka moment?
RICK: That was the moment I know I had a major big reel that was bigger than even five reels. It was on one reel.
WAH: Oh, the whole movie was on one reel?
RICK: On one reel. And that was when I had the moment where it was like, okay, yes, this is the film.
RICK: Yes. The other was negative – it was heads up but very fragile and so I couldn’t tell what it was. There were two cans. One had two reels and one was a full.
After that, Larry and I went through everything -- the kind of money we’re talking -- and agreed to get together after I talked to the studio. He was excited and he almost didn’t want me to leave. He enjoyed talking about the war years and he enjoyed talking about Zinn Arthur. He said, “Don’t you want to project the film?” I told him I had to arrange for a facility. We didn’t want to put it on his little projector and just run it. So I said I would be back. And he said, “You promise?” And I said, “Yes.” And that was how we left it. He stood by his little door after about 4 hours and waved.
WAH: That's great.
RICK: Then I met with Brane, and he told me Kimberly Tarr had given a tour of the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation & Conservation Department at the NYU library. So we went there and I met with Paula De Stefano, because Kimberly wasn’t there, and I told her about finding The Grim Game. I said my plan would be to bring it there as soon as I could and put it on a flatbed with Ben Moskowitz, and that we could bring Larry and inspect the film. They all agreed 100%, and I asked if they would come onboard and help on the project and they said yes. That night I had dinner with Brane and I said, “You’ve been teaching for 26 years composition for film and television at NYU, you would be great for the score.” So Brane agreed. Then I went back to Ontario.
I called TCM and they were very excited. I told them the money we had talked about with Larry, and they said that was fine, and that they would arrange for another visit. I asked them to make it a simple bill of sale, because that explained all rights. I didn’t want to give Larry a 10-page studio contract. He didn’t need that. He was selling something. So I called Larry and made arrangements and booked the whole thing for the first part of June.
And then I got a phone call from him 2 days before I was supposed to leave. He was in the hospital. He was sick. And he didn’t know if he was going to get out.
Watch for the next installment on Sunday: Rick Schmidlin (Part II): Saving The Grim Game.