Sunday, April 19, 2015

Rick Schmidlin (Part II): Saving The Grim Game

Today we continue our interview with Rick Schmidlin, the man who produced the restoration of Houdini's The Grim Game. From the first hint of its existence to the Hollywood premiere, Rick oversaw every aspect of the project. Now he tells us of his remarkable journey.

When we left off in Part I, Rick had confirmed the only known print of the film in the home of collector Larry Weeks, and had arranged for TCM to buy it. But then 2 days before Rick was due to return to Brooklyn to close the deal, Larry Weeks called to inform him that he was in the hospital and that "he might not get out"...

RICK: So that sunk everyone’s heart. I had sent him a copy of the paperwork so he could review it before, so it wasn’t just put in front of his face. But I did not want to pressure him. Fred [Pittella] was there when I talked to him on the phone, but Larry wanted to do everything himself. He was worried very much that somebody was going to steal the limelight. He was completely worried that somebody else would claim credit for something that he had found and that he had kept safe all these years. That was his biggest fear at that point.

So I called [TCM] and cancelled the entire trip, the hotel, the air, everything else, and we waited. We waited for about two or three weeks. Then I called Larry and he said, “Okay, I’m home, I feel better,” and then he told me about his whole hospital ordeal, and I felt for him because it sounded like he was going through hell.

We had put the film in the closet in a safe place before I had left, so we knew where it was. The plan was I’d meet with him and go over all the paperwork. So at the end of June, I was there again in Larry’s apartment, and the nurse kept on telling Larry, “They’re going to make millions of dollars off of you.”

WAH: Oh my. Oh no.

Larry Weeks
RICK: But Larry at this point was happy about what was going on, and he wanted to make it to the premiere. He really wanted to be at the premiere for TCM. And they had agreed that they would fly him and his nurse there. He was excited about a Hollywood premiere.

So now what I had to do was get him to sign the paperwork, then immediately after meeting with him, scan it and send it to TCM who had to turn around a check in 48 hours, because Larry would not wait for a check. That was a hard thing. Studios don’t do things that quick. But there was a guy there, Lee Tsiantis, he worked with Charlie [Tabesh] and he moved mountains. He was excited, so he deserves credit for what he did. Without his help the deal may have fell through!

So I made sure when Larry signed his paper, with the nurse who was basically watching him, that he did everything in a sound mind. There was no manipulation of any kind. Again, it was just the nurse, Larry and I. Larry signed everything, the nurse left and we talked for about 2 more hours. He showed me a scrapbook he had which he opened and it was falling apart.

WAH: That was the Houdini scrapbook?

RICK: Yeah. But you got to remember that Houdini’s scrapbooks were only for about six months worth of time. He was a meticulous archivist. Most of his scrapbooks are at the Harry Ransom Center in Texas. So Larry always eluded that he had "Houdini’s Scrapbook." But he had one of Houdini’s scrapbooks.

WAH: Do you recall what was in it? What time period it might have been from?

RICK: I believe it was from around 1924. And then he showed me a film can that said, “Mrs. Houdini doing laundry.” But Larry kept on saying, “It doesn’t look like her. I don’t think it’s her. I don’t know why it’s labeled that.” So that was kind of a strange thing.

So that following Friday, I met Larry with a limousine that took him and the nurse to NYU. I sat in the front seat with film cans in my lap. When we got there [the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation & Conservation Department] we were greeted by Ben Moskowitz who brought Larry down to Special Collections. There was a girl named Viv who was also there. Larry wanted to have her there. She had no real interest in Houdini or magic, she was interested in Larry because of his juggling. She was a Harvard graduate who became a juggler and a clown in New York. She wanted to talk to him about all his juggling stuff. That was a whole different part of Larry’s world, and I was getting into Larry’s world.

So went down and Ben cleaned the film, inspected the film, made sure there weren’t any tears in it, and that it could be put on a flatbed. It was an oversized reel so it was a little difficult. And we looked at it on a flatbed. We looked at the whole film. Viv was not interested, so they gave her a tour of the facilities while we watched the film. There were jitters and this and that, but the whole film was there. And that’s when we knew we had a remarkable thing. It was intact, and it was a half a reel longer than reported. But running it at 24 frames per second seemed very fast. Twenty-two seemed fast. Twenty was perfect. That was what we realized right there.

WAH: What was the frame rate in 1919?

RICK: Between 18 and 20.

WAH: Was there a standard, or was it just however fast the cameraman or projectionist cranked it.

RICK: It was how they cranked it. But you’ve got to remember, when you see Houdini at the gate, he's cranking it so the action is slow and meticulous. When you see the comedy sequence between the maid and the butler, also when you see Houdini going up the stairs when he’s escaping from the asylum, they are going faster. So in 24 frames per second, he would be flying up those stairs. Also, theaters in those days, if they didn’t like the film, would run them fast too. So a film would be reported at one length, but because the distribution company didn’t believe in it, they made it a faster movie.

WAH: Oh, that’s interesting. You always hear conflicting runtimes of movies, and I’ve never considered it could be because of that.

RICK: You've got to remember, I’m coming from it as a person who understands it’s Houdini, and it’s the best Houdini, and having seen by this point The Master Mystery and Terror Island and everything else – but I’m a person who coming at it as a silent film historian. That’s what separates me from the others in the Houdini world. I’m interested in silent film. And that’s what made Larry interested. I was not a Houdini fan trying to claim Larry’s glory. I was somebody who was interested in silent cinema. He could talk about silent cinema and he liked that. He was interested in a lot of silent cinema. He said his favorite film was The Cat and Canary with Lon Chaney and it still gave him nightmares.

WAH: Had you researched the film before? Was there anything in that surprised you – such as Mae Busch being in it?

RICK: The whole thing is it was an A-cast. An A-cast 100% throughout. It was like an A-film of today. They gave him great villains. Tully Marshall is in it, he was a great villain. Mae was becoming a major star and would be a major star through the 1920s. So you’ve got people who are going places and would work all throughout the 1920s and some into the 1940s.

WAH: It’s also a very well made film for the time, that’s what really struck me.

RICK: It’s a well made film. One of the things you have to remember -- and you can think of it in today’s market -- is if you are a fan of movies in 1919, you’re watching a young Chaplin, a very young Keaton, and Douglas Fairbanks is happening. The Victorian melodramas of even Griffith were waning. Houdini was not the young Fairbanks that caused the girls to go pitter patter over. He came from a different kind of generation and that was why the film was probably a little less well received. It was a well made movie, but he wasn’t a teen idol.

WAH: That seems to be especially true of some of is other films. They do seem Victorian.

RICK: They’re melodrama. And that’s what happened with some of these actors. When you look at D.W. Griffith, you see melodrama, in a day when DeMille is going bonkers. It’s the Jazz Age. And Houdini was not a member of the Jazz Age. The turn of the century was Houdini’s big day. Houdini was part of the melodrama. But today when we look at it, we’re forgiving because the Jazz Age is old too. So that’s the biggest thing have to remember when going into a project like this. I’m looking at Lasky, I’m looking at Willat the director, I’m looking at all the actors. I’m looking at a great silent lost film. And it is a Houdini film, which make it even more exciting. But it’s still a lost film and you have to realize that to the audiences who will see on television and at festivals and other locations around the world, they’re going to see a lost silent film and then they are going to be excited about Houdini as the star. The majority of the people in the audience are into silent cinema. That's what makes it exciting. Now, it introduces them to Houdini, and it gives them a great star, but the interest is lost silent cinema. And that’s where I came from.

WAH: Let’s go back now to the restoration itself. You said Larry’s print was showing signs of vinegar syndrome?

Kimberly Tarr
RICK: This is what happened. Kimberly Tarr comes into the picture, and Kimberly inspects the entire movie. She looks at the edge codes of the negative and the print and sees they were done at the same time, and that was 1959.

WAH: So 1959 was when the 16mm negative and print were made?

RICK: Right.

WAH: And those were made from a 35mm nitrate original?

RICK: Exactly. It came from the nitrate. What Larry did was he made a new 16mm negative. He could not afford a 35mm negative. And off the 16mm negative he made a print. And that was the print we had. All that survived of the negative were two reels. My guess is the rest of it just shriveled and died.

WAH: And the original 35mm nitrate print was probably tossed by the company who made the dupes?

RICK: It was probably tossed at the time. It had bad cancer going into it, which you can see in reels 4 and 5. It was going to disintegrate and it was highly flammable. And Larry knew this. He knew he was dealing with danger and he was dealing with something that was going to fall to dust.

RICK: So Kimberly Tarr does a complete inspection on the film frame by frame. And she does a meticulous job. They have a nice vault down there, which is where the film now permanently sits. And she said there is a little vinegar syndrome in it. Just a slight bit of vinegar, not much. But it if it had sat there for five more years it would have fed in and just stunk.

WAH: So you think the film only had about five more years left?

RICK: And that’s being very liberal…. So Kimberly inspects it, cleans it and prepares it. The next step is it goes to Metropolis Post, where they now digitize it and make the first transfer at 22 frames per second. And we see it’s out of registration, which is not rare.

WAH: And what does “out of registration” mean exactly?

RICK: It means a little of the top is at the bottom of the fame. When it was transferred [in 1959], it was transferred very quickly and it wasn’t registered correctly. There were actually four reels out of registration, it was happening constantly.

So we screened it, and at that screening were Dick and Dorothy, Metropolis, Brane, and Kimberly Tarr. Also the colorist, who was there to do the black and white, just to make it look as good as we could. We all looked at it for the first time. Then I made solid deals with Metropolis. Dick and Dorothy were paid as consultants. And that’s when we posed for the photos. Now, if you look at the title card there, you see that the Paramount logo is on the top of the screen and The Grim Game title is underneath it. If you look at the picture that was taken at the premiere, the Paramount is below. That’s the registration change.

Title card at first screening (top) and premiere (bottom) shows registration change.

WAH: And you were able to correct that?

RICK: Yes. That was a ton of work. That was work that Thomas Eberschveiler at Metropolis spent hundreds of hours on. So that night after the screening, we all went to dinner. It was Brane, Kimberly Tarr, and Dick and Dorothy. And that was the night that we all talked about the film and were happy and cheerful.

After that screening, I learned that Larry had passed away. At that point everyone was worried about what was going on in his apartment, if there was anything else there, and I was getting alarming emails. So, through Viv, this girl I met at the screening, I got Fred Pittella’s email. And Fred filled me in on everything that was going on. And Fred and I started good communication. He helped a lot when it needed to be done and was part of the process.

Thomas Eberschveiler
So from that point on we just went on into the project and into the restoration. Thomas Eberschveiler worked every day. Metropolis let him work as many hours as he needed. It was like a week before Thanksgiving and we all met in New York again. It was Paula [De Stefano], Ben, Kimberly, Brane, Fred, and Dick and Dorothy. So with Brane’s score on it, we all watched the film and everybody likes it. Then Charlie Tabesh and another executive from TCM come and they watch The Grim Game, and they love it.

Then Jack Rizzo, who owns Metropolis Post, comes in after we watched it and said, “Rick, I’d like to put in two or three more weeks of work on it just to make it perfect.” And that was not on the clock. They went beyond. They worked on it very hard through the nights and I got the final around December 1st. And from that point on we started doing the mastering and everything else.

WAH: So all the restoration work was done digitally, not on film?

RICK: Digital. Yes.

WAH: And what exactly was the restoration work – cleaning and...

RICK: There was a lot of cleaning, there was a lot of picture adjustments, we were timing, getting it perfect. There were a lot of washed out faces, especially with Old Banks. There were some jitters in the picture that needed to be smoothed out. Basically just a lot of clean up. Remember, this was a film that was processed in ’59 and run through a projector several times.

WAH: I also noticed there were these distinct white plus signs that appear throughout…

RICK: Those are the reel changes.

WAH: But they are not in the corner like changeover marks, they are sometimes in the center of the screen.

RICK: Exactly. In the teens they did it like that. They just put them wherever. They didn’t care. They just punched.

WAH: Did you ever consider fixing the nitrate damage?

RICK: To fix the nitrate damage you’d have to spend hundreds and hundreds of hours. But it did not interfere with the story and it did not interfere with the picture, so why alter it? No action was lost and no title was lost. I wanted to persevere what is there. And it’s a good history lesson for schools because it shows you how close that film was in 1959 to having those scenes 100% lost. I would say within six months they would have been gone.

WAH: Six months it would have been gone? Wow, that’s terrifying. It’s seems this movie was rescued at the last minute several times, wasn’t it?

RICK: Yes.

WAH: So it was it always the plan to debut the film at the TCM Festival?

RICK: From day one. Charlie said, “This would be great to premier at the Festival”, and I agreed. And I also said wouldn’t it be great to also show the Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis film there. That came from me.

Rick Schmidlin with Grim Game music composer Brane Živkovic.

WAH: I think the premiere came off wonderfully well. It was packed and the audience really responded to the movie. Have you received feedback from TCM? Are they happy they got into the Houdini business?

RICK: Oh yes. TCM is totally happy with it.

WAH: What’s the future hold for the film?

RICK: It’s going to be on TCM. They’re still deciding what date, and that’s all we know right now.

WAH: A lot of people are asking me if there will be a DVD release?

RICK: That has not been announced.

WAH: Finally, would you ever become involved in another Houdini film restoration project, possibly restoring Terror Island or The Master Mystery if the lost footage could ever be located?

RICK: Yes, I would love to be involved in more Houdini projects. Again, Houdini is a fascinating subject. Houdini is someone who should be explored more, and my interest in silent film has a burning passion.

Thank you, Rick!



  1. Fantastic Interview! I will be very interested in the bonus interview on where Larry may have gotten the original 35mm print.

  2. Great interview, John! Living history, and reliving it!

  3. Wonderful, simply wonderful. I'm so glad you did this interview and looking forward to the Bonus section. Great job John!

  4. Brilliant. Thank you so much everyone. Bravo to all involved.

  5. John Hinson great nephew of Bess and Harry HoudiniApril 19, 2015 at 4:39 PM

    You out did your self with this interview.

  6. Thanks all. "Bonus" will come later in the week. I haven't even transcribed yet.

  7. This story has so many cliffhangers in it that I've started to catch on: We were all characters in some gigantic, cosmic Houdini movie.

    Thankfully (as Rick so astutely points out here), Houdini is from the "Melodrama" era - so we were guaranteed a happy outcome from the start!

  8. Great interview. Rick really puts the film into historical context and its a good reminder that the silent film genre evolved and changed over time. I feel like I am ready to see the movie!
    TCM should have this interview or something like this on their website or magazine to give people more background.
    Great job John and thanks also to the many people involved in the project. Too bad Larry didn't make it to the premiere.

    1. Thanks Mark. It is a heartbreaker Larry didn't make it to the premiere, knowing now how much he was looking forward to it.