Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Whoa! Was there a Water Torture Cell movie?

Film of Houdini doing his Chinese Water Torture Cell is high on the wish list of all Houdini nuts. But no footage is known to exist, and I've never thought it was very likely Houdini ever filmed his greatest stage escape. However, I recently found something that suggests there may have been some kind of film after all!

The below is from a review of Houdini's show at the Palace Theater in the December 27, 1916 issue of The New York Clipper.

"A moving picture explanatory of his Chinese water torture cell." Holy smokes! What could this have shown?

This footage would have been silent, and because it's an "explanatory", it may have been entirely made up of text. It could be Houdini's familiar stage patter (as heard in his voice recordings) on individual text cards. But it's also possible film footage of the apparatus being explained might have been interspersed between the text. I doubt Houdini would have showed himself being raised above the cell or lowered inside, as that would spoil what was to come.

Below is what might be a second mention when he was playing Keith's Theater in Boston in 1921.

Variety, December 23, 1921

Showing movies were a regular part of Houdini's act at this time. These were typically of an outdoor stunt or his 1909 short The Adventures of Houdini in Paris (or both). I've seen many mentions of these in reviews. But apart from the above, I've never read any mention of this Water Torture Cell movie. Did these reviewers get their notes scrambled? Or did other reviewers feel it not necessary to mention what was just an explanatory film?

The possibility of any kind of Water Torture Cell film footage is exciting, so this is one to hold out hope for, if only to see it in our minds.



  1. John, I have always held out hope that there is indeed film footage of the USD escape as the audience saw it. Part of me believes Houdini was such a leader in this new media of film as it came to the subject of magic and his exploits that he would have wanted to capture his greatest prepared escape on film, even if it was just to watch it himself. The other part of me believes he would have filmed it to preserve it for posterity. Maybe he already intended that the equipment be eventually destroyed as he specified in his will but he could leave behind a legacy in film of this escape for future generations. It makes me wonder: After his death, was any film (other than his commercial ones ) ever found? He worked with film for so long, you'd think he'd have made something for himself, don't you? One can still hope footage exists and this post gives my hope for that new vitality. Thanks, John!

    1. I'm replying to my own comment but I think it is warranted. I remember reading somewhere that, after Houdini began leaning more towards spiritualism debunking in his shows, he didn't perform as many of his prepared and sensational escapes. He wanted to concentrate on the fraud aspect of spiritualism but he did show some film footage of his exploits. I'm sure some of them were of his commercially made films but I wonder if he had actual footage of some of his bridge jumps and underwater box escapes and maybe even the USD. I can remember reading that sometimes people complained that they had paid to see Houdini perform his escapes, not just show film and talk about them. Does anyone else remember anything like this? If so, it lends further credence to the possibility he had at least some film of his stage and public escapes.

    2. Hey Jim. Houdini filmed many of his outdoor escapes such as bridge jumps, overboard boxes, and suspended straitjackets, and he began showing them before his act as early as 1907. A lot of it survives.

      True that in his later (post movie career) vaudeville tours he was sometimes criticized for talking too much. "Talks for 10 minutes about his greatness and then puts on an escape he's been doing for years" is how one review went.

      When Houdini began to weave Spiritualism exposures into his vaudeville act (which was very late) it went over extremely well. In fact, there's a specific Variety review of his act at the Hippodrome that suggests he should forego the escapes and do all spiritualism. It was the "new" Houdini.

  2. Is there some significance to the words “stepped out well timed from the films?” Could he have walked out through the screen? It’s been done before as an illusion and would have been a great opener. Film to life.

  3. Fantastic find, John. You must've stopped breathing when you saw these items - I did when I saw this post! And you surely must be right that he wouldn't have shown too much of the USD set-up/escape, but the phrase "was given a whale of a hand when he stepped out..." makes me think the film must've been something dramatic. Of course he'd get a whale of a hand with any entrance, but there must've been something in the film which the audience of the time regarded as pretty spectacular; why show it otherwise? Truly tantalizing information!

    1. Guardedly excited! It's possible a reviewer taking notes on a dozen acts of vaudeville might get their facts scrambled. I was happy to find a second mention, but the wording is a little odd, so not a solid confirmation. But it's an intriguing possibility!

  4. John, I read Silverman's " Houdini " again along with his sources in the back. The article Sid Radner wrote titled: " Hardeen " is especially interesting. I know Hardeen managed some of Houdini's film companies. Late in his life Hardeen was giving and selling Houdini's equipment to Sid Radner, ostensibly to pay gambling debts etc. The article says Hardeen offered Sid Radner several hundred rolls of 35 mm film for free but Radner declined. He didn't want the " prone to burn " acetate at his house. Radner commented that declining this offer was a huge mistake on his part. I must be led to believe ( and hope ) that we are not talking about unexposed film which would have little value due to age, but film that had something on it of value that had probably belonged to Houdini. Makes you stop and think, doesn't it??? I wonder now what ever happened to that film after Hardeen died. His sons were not interested in escapology or their uncle Houdini. What do you think? Who can we ask?