The year 1919 would be a unique one for Houdini. For the first time since he set out as a performer in 1891, he would not tour nor take the stage except for the occasional charity appearance. That's because with the release of The Master Mystery the year before, the one-time Handcuff King was now focused on making movies.
Houdini's partners at Octagon Films had elected to distribute The Master Mystery via State Rights, selling the serial territory by territory. It was a laborious process that was nevertheless proving successful. In January the serial opened in sixteen Keith & Proctor's vaudeville theaters in New York City and state. Houdini put in a personal appearance at the 5th Avenue Theater on opening day. In Yonkers an extra show needed to be added to accommodate the crowds. By all measures, the "Houdini Serial", as it was commonly called, was a hit.
With his celluloid self filling theaters for him, Houdini used his time at home in New York to begin work on a new book on sideshow performers, or "miracle mongers" as he would come to call them. He also performed for returning troops at the Camp Upton Athletic Field Fund and the Ballet of Victory ball at the Waldorf-Astoria. On April 2nd he purchased a 51% controlling interest in the historic Martinka's & Co. magic shop on Sixth Avenue.
One endeavor not going so well was his New Jersey-based Film Developing Corp. Large amounts of his income was going to keep the troublesome film lab afloat, and managing the company was giving Hardeen ulcers. But Houdini still saw movies as his future, and having proven his viability as a film star, Houdini announced that he would form his own motion picture company. But the success of The Master Mystery had not gone unnoticed by Hollywood, and instead Houdini signed a one picture deal with Famous Players-Lasky, one of the industry's biggest producers whose movies were distributed by Paramount. The producer also happened to be a customer of his Film Developing Corp.
After performing at a benefit commemorating the 14th anniversary of the opening of the New York Hippodrome, Houdini, Bess, and Julie Karcher traveled by train to Los Angeles. They arrived at the Santa Fe Station on April 20, greeted by Lasky's studio manager and a flock of reporters. Houdini initially stayed at the storied Hollywood Hotel on Hollywood Blvd. (today the site of the Hollywood & Highland complex), before moving into a rental house, possibly in Laurel Canyon.
One of Houdini's first orders of business was to get acquainted with the studio publicity department. "I regard you men as important as the people who make the picture, and I'll work as hard and as much for you as I do the producer," he told the assembled publicists. For photographers he posed for a series of dramatic "Houdini-like" escape images -- lashed to canons, steam trains, buzz saws, and telephone poles. Even though these were not actual escapes, the images appeared in movie magazines and continue to appear as classic Houdini feats. The studio publicity department might have also been responsible for the usual syndicated item reporting that Houdini was considering buying the Oakland Oaks baseball team. The pressbooks would also contain an article in which Houdini voiced his skepticism on a topic roaring back into vogue: Spiritualism.
In May Houdini began filming what was originally called Circumstantial Evidence at Lasky's Hollywood Studio on Selma Ave., and on location around greater Los Angeles. The sprawling estate of architect George Edwin Bergstrom doubled for the Cameron home (today West Coast University). The Harbour Apartments near downtown doubled as an insane asylum where Houdini dangled in a straitjacket below the building's cornice. The production also placed a biplane high atop Lookout Mountain, where Houdini feigned wing walking as technicians rocked the fuselage for effect. Near the end of the first month of production, Jesse Lasky wrote Houdini from New York informing him that the "consensus of opinion" is that The Grim Game is the best title for the movie.
On May 31, the movie's climatic aerial action was shot using Jennies leased from Mercury Aviation at DeMille Field in Santa Monica. For the dangerous plane to plane transfer, Houdini was doubled by Robert Kennedy. While at an elevation of over 1000 feet, the planes collided. Miraculously, the pilots were able to crash land and no one was killed. The ending of the movie was rewritten to include the spectacular accident which had been captured on film from a third plane containing director Irvin Willat. But in late June Houdini had his own accident when he fell and broke the wrist he had first fractured while making The Master Mystery. The injury delayed completion of the movie by two weeks.
Houdini enjoyed Hollywood and made the most of his time in the city. When The Master Mystery opened at Clune's Theater on Broadway, Houdini made a personal appearance. He performed with Will Rogers at a benefit for the Actor's Fund, and visited his old friend Buster Keaton on the set of Back Stage at the Comique Studio in Edendale. (In photos taken at this time, Houdini can be seen concealing the cast on his wrist behind his straw hat.) He also rubbed shoulders with stars of the era, being photographed with the likes of Mary Pickford, Cecil B. DeMille, Thomas Meighan, and Clarence Geldart. Gloria Swanson appears to have been a fan, signing no less than two photos to the magician, on one teasing: "Hocus Pocus, try and find it!"
"Sweetheart, I will give you this letter after the reception tonight. I am writing this whilst you and Jule are busy at the mirror making up, and as I glance at you and see the happiness in your eyes I bow my head in silent thanks to Almighty God that I am the lucky man to make you happy. May God keep you long for me my Precious Love. Yours to the end of life and ever after. EHRICH."
The Grim Game completed production in late July and Houdini returned to New York. There he screened the movie with executives at the Famous Players-Lasky offices on 5th Avenue. He also began preparing for a return to Europe in the Fall. He would not only fulfill bookings in England that had been postponed because of the war, but he intended to tour Italy for the first time. He applied for a new passport for himself and Bess on September 3.
The new movie, which would alternate between the working titles Salvage and Deep Sea Loot, took inspiration from the popular 1919 novel White Shadows in the South Seas by Frederick O'Brien. Whereas The Grim Game showcased Houdini's urban feats--suspended straitjackets and jail escapes--the new movie would showcase his underwater skills. Houdini began shooting at the Lasky Studio in Hollywood on October 10th. There the interior of a submarine was built on a stage that could be flooded with water. A week into shooting, King Albert of Belgium visited the studio while taking a tour of Hollywood. Never one to miss a chance to perform before a crowned head, Houdini did an escape in the studio water tank for the Royal party.
While filming continued at the Lasky studio, The Grim Game went into wide release around the country. Reactions from critics and exhibitors was positive, with one Kentucky theater owner writing: "Went fine for us, and is such a relief from love stories. There isn't a kiss in the whole picture and the only person who objected was an old maid." Publicity focused largely on the spectacular caught-on-film plane crash, with Houdini characteristically offering a cash award for anyone proving the crash was not genuine. The fact that he himself was not the man hanging from the rope was a well kept secret.
In November the Lasky production team moved to Riverside to shoot the extensive underwater action in the large swimming pool of La Elliotta Springs. At last Houdini was able to use the underwater photography techniques pioneered by the Williamson Brothers. While on location, cast and crew stayed at the palatial Mission Inn, where they were rumbled awake by an earthquake on November 4. While Bess appears in photos taken during the Hollywood shoot, it doesn't appear she accompanied her husband on location, adding fuel to rumors that Houdini and co-star Lila Lee engaged in a fling.
The production then traveled 30 miles off the pacific coast to Santa Catalina Island, which would double for the cannibal infested South Seas island where the last half of the movie is set. Houdini traveled by seaplane; part of an air passenger service started by Charlie Chaplin's brother Sydney. "All I could think of was my wife and the dramatic collection," Houdini wrote of the harrowing flight. He had wanted Harry Kellar to join him, but Kellar took one look at the plane and refused to get in.
The production spent approximately three weeks on Catalina, which was a popular filming location (wild buffalo, said to have been brought over for westerns, still populate the island today). Each day the Catalina Flyer would shuttle cast and crew from the town of Avalon to the native village set located in a private cove called Banning's Beach (today Toyon Bay). Coastal scenes, notably the scene in which Lila Lee is locked in a safe and thrown into the sea, were shot along Avalon's Pebble Beach where the production also made use of a shipwreck.
Houdini enjoyed the island and told the captain of the Flyer that he would one day return and build a home there. While the crew stayed at the Hotel Catalina and Hotel Central, the reported 200 African American extras encamped on location where it was said they elected a man named Stoll as their mayor. Houdini stayed at the newly built beachfront Hotel St. Catherine.
It was in front of the St. Catherine on Thanksgiving day that Houdini attempted some real-life movie heroics when the Catalina Flyer stalled in rough seas and began drifting into the rocks. As anxious hotel guests watched and cameraman William Marshall rolled film, Houdini attempted to swim a life line out to the boat. But he soon found himself "buffeted like a cork" in the heavy surf and had to be reeled in by a pair of local divers. It took the efforts of others a full hour to bring the boat in safely. The incident made the papers in Los Angeles, but the 300 feet of film shot that day never surfaced. If Houdini had been successful in his rescue attempt, perhaps it would have been worked into the plot Grim Game-like?
"As soon as I get through with this picture, I leave immediately for London," Houdini told the local Catalina Islander newspaper. "It's a long jump from Santa Catalina Island to London, where I expect to eat my Christmas dinner."
Production wrapped during the first week of December with a few days location shooting back in Los Angeles (possibly the "waif" picnic finale). Houdini then returned to New York via the Santa Fe Limited. That week the film's title was finally settled on and announced as Terror Island.
Houdini did not embark for Europe on December 15 as initially reported. Instead he spent the remainder of the year at home going through thousands of new additions to his Theatrical Collection, acquired on his behalf at an American Arts Galleries auction in October. He was delighted and felt he was on his way to having "a young Harvard collection."
Then on December 30, with magic and movie equipment in tow, Houdini and Bess boarded the Mauritania and set sail for England.
Much of the Terror Island filming details come from information uncovered for the first ever exhibition devoted to the movie at the Catalina Island Museum in 2018. Today the museum has a section devoted to the movie in their permanent display on Catalina history. Thanks also to Joe Notaro of Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence and John Bengtson of Silent Locations.
- Houdini conquers Hollywood (at last) in The Grim Game
- What caused The Grim Game plane crash?
- Houdini's madcap Hollywood lunch
- Terror at the Hot Springs
- Return to Terror Island