Thursday, June 20, 2019

The 1950 Houdini multimedia project

It took Hollywood 30 years to make the first Houdini biopic. But this was not for a lack of effort. The idea for a Houdini movie travelled from RKO to Columbia to Paramount to David O' Selznick and then back to Paramount. However, there was another stop on this journey that has been largely forgotten.

In 1950 a former drug store operator, Joseph Raboff, and a real estate man, Earl Cohen, formed a company called, Film Producers, Inc. They acquired the film, radio, and TV rights to Houdini, reportedly "from the late magician's estate." It's unclear who that would be in 1950, but their rights included the Kellock book, so possibly the estate of Bernard Ernst.

Teaming with a former Paramount executive, Endre Bohem, the producers commissioned a screenplay by Stephen Longstreet (The Jolsen Story) and announced production of The Life Story of Harry Houdini for October 1950. The project would star either John Garfield or Lee Cobb in the lead role. There was also talk of a half-hour TV series following the film's release, which might be the most intriguing part of all this. What would a Houdini TV series have looked like in 1950?

It's unclear what happened to Film Producers, Inc. ambitious project, but it's likely the Raboff and Cohen realized they had bitten off more than they could chew. The Longstreet script, as far as I know, has never surfaced.

In September 1951, Paramount reacquired the rights to the Kellock book from Cohen and Raboff when producer George Pal expressed interest in doing a Houdini movie. This time the result was the classic Houdini with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh in 1953. The idea of a Houdini TV series would have to wait until 2016 with Houdini & Doyle.

UPDATESummary of 1950 Houdini Screenplay (Property of Film Producers)



  1. Love the notion of a possible Houdini TV series circa 1950! The show "Dragnet" was on TV in those days (I saw some in a "Dragnet" marathon once, and I remember it being rather grim and suspenseful, moreso than later versions) so I would imagine that in a half-hour format, a Houdini show might follow suit. Maybe it would've had an "escape of the week" format. One week Harry and Bess are in Pittsburgh, one week Albany, etc., and it could be about the difficulty of planning the escape, or doing the escape, or something going wrong, dealing with imitators, etc. and with lots of behind-the-scenes stuff with Bess and his assistants, etc. So many possibilities! (John, the show's Bible could have followed your timeline if only you'd been born earlier!)

  2. I have seen the 150-page screenplay, The Great Houdini, by Stephen Longstreet based on book by Harold Kellock (June 25, 1950) and the 172-page screenplay (property of Film Producers), The Great Houdini, by Endre Bohem and Hilda Gordon (Revised August 29, 1950). And I actually have a copy of the 3-page synopsis of the 172-page screenplay.

    1. Is that the one you summarized on your site, Joe?

    2. No, the one on my site is The Great Houdini, by Frank O’Connor and Dore Schary, dated February 1, 1936. I will plan to do a future post that summarizes the 172-page screenplay dated August 29, 1950.