Thursday, April 27, 2023

Did Houdini do at least part of The Grim Game airplane stunt?

When The Grim Game was released in 1919, the publicity focused heavily on the famous caught-on-film plane crash that climaxes the film. What was kept secret was the fact that Houdini was being doubled by Robert Kennedy at the time at of the accident. Kennedy's involvement wasn't revealed until 1969's Houdini The Untold Story.

Today it's well-known that Kennedy was the man in the air while Houdini's shot all his plane scenes safely on the ground. However, while watching The Grim Game on the big screen a while back, there's one shot that now makes me question the totality of this conventional wisdom.

The shot is when Harvey Hanford (Houdini) transfers out of the cockpit and scoots along the wing to the first strut. It's an extended shot that gives us a good look at the "stuntman." I've gotten pretty good at recognizing Houdini from a distance as well as his movements, and everything about this person tells me it may be Houdini himself! 

This also makes sense. While a plane to plane transfer was too dangerous and required a stuntman with that specific skill (although, as it turned out, Kennedy did not have that skill), I think Houdini would have been perfectly comfortable sitting on a wing in flight. And the whole point of this shot appears to be trying to show us that it's Houdini himself on the wing. But the camera plane can only get so close.

When the shot changes to an extreme long shot of the plane to plane transfer, the man on the wing is not only in a different position, but also appears taller and somewhat lanky, just as Robert Kennedy was. You can see his legs are clearly hanging further below the wing than the man in the preceding shot.

So what do we think? Did Houdini himself go up in the air to shoot the first part of the stunt and then Kennedy went up and completed it? There are photos of Houdini in costume with the camera plane as well the pilots, so he was there. The irony is Houdini could never take credit for the part he did as he had to claim credit for entire thing.

Food for thought!


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    1. Wasn't his arm in a sling at this time from the wrist injury?

    2. Thanks! Fixed.

      The plane crash happened on May 31. Houdini broke his wrist on June 26. The photos of HH in his sling are from later airplane filming. And he could still maneuver in his wrist cast. He didn't need the sling.

    3. Understood! I was foggy on the dates of the wrist accident and plane to plane transfer. Then it definitely could be Harry up there. Hard to tell from that lefyphoto

  2. It is entirely feasible that is Houdini in the first part and another man [Robert Kennedy] doing the transfer.
    The script mentions a “man” on the rope in the long shots, but “Houdini” crawling out of his end of the plane and beginning to let himself down underneath:
    Ext air - long shot from above, showing planes one above the other. They turn in a circle as though doubling back on their tracks.
    Ext air, Houdini crawls out of his end of the plane – begins to let himself down underneath.

    Ext air – long shot of planes flying
    Ext air, Houdini prepares to lower himself by rope.
    Ext air - long shot of planes, man lowers himself on rope.

    Ext air - long shot, planes flying one over the other – man hanging by rope

    Ext air- long shot, planes nearly come together – man on rope touched other plane with foot, planes then separate

  3. Has anybody watched the GG recently? Turner Broadcasting never released the DVD. Not sure why the director would risk HH's life on a long shot stunt. Even Douglas Fairbanks avoided that. It was pointless and risky.

    1. It's a bummer. TCM doesn't seem to have any interest in releasing a DVD. Still, Dorothy and Dick keep putting the idea back in front of them. It's appears the DVD rights can be licensed through Park Circus, so someone else could do it. I've written to Kino, Criterion, and Alpha, but never got a response.

      I'm thinking about making it available on my Patreon.

    2. Houdini was willing to attempt the transfer, but Willat nixed it.

    3. I believe Harry was crazy enough to attempt the transfer. He didn't seem to have a fear of heights.

  4. Also, Robert Kennedy’s involvement was revealed in July 6, 1919 New York Tribune: