Friday, January 1, 2021

Houdini in 1921

Let's kick off 2021 with a look back at what Houdini was up to 100 years ago.


In 1921 the only way to see Houdini was at the cinema. Fortunately, this was not difficult. All three Houdini movies were still playing in theaters across the country with his latest offering, Terror Island, continuing to open in new markets. Then suddenly appeared several "new" Houdini movies with titles such as: The Marked Woman, The Lure of Power, The Doctor’s Vengeance, and The Law Pirates. The culprit was Amber Productions in Philadelphia who used recut footage from Houdini's serial, The Master Mystery, to whip up their own releases. In the January 8th issue of Motion Picture World, producer Octagon Films issued a "Warning to Exhibitors" that the movies were pirated and anyone showing them would be "prosecuted to the full extent of the law." With his own lawsuit against Octagon still pending, Houdini remained quiet on the rogue films.

For Houdini, the first bloom of the new year was the publication of his first new book in eleven years, Miracle Mongers and their Methods: A Complete Exposé of the Modus Operandi of Fire Eaters, Heat Resisters, Poison Eaters, Venomous Reptile Defiers, Sword Swallowers, Human Ostriches, Strong Men, Etc. Favorably reviewed at the time, today it is considered Houdini's best work. Unlike The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, it's an exposure without the vitriol or self aggrandizing by its author. It also offers a nod to a form of entertainment that was quickly becoming the realm of nostalgia for a society rushing headlong into the Roaring Twenties. For Houdini it was a chance to reflect, as evidenced in the inscription he wrote in a copy he gave to Bess on her 45th birthday:

Sweetheart Wife.
as you have fought side by side with me almost Twenty-seven years in the battle for our existence as "wonder workers" – you will know the heart throbs the people living in this book had to go through as Miracle Mongers. Your Devoted Husband,
Harry Houdini

Houdini was now ready to "battle for existence" among a different class of "wonder workers". While Hollywood was skeptical of his continued viability as a movie star, Houdini was willing to bet on himself. On February 19th he signed papers bringing the Houdini Picture Corporation into existence. The company was capitalized at $500,000 and planned to produce four pictures a year. Offices were located on the 18th floor of the Chandler Bldg. in Manhattan. Newspapers heralded the company's arrival with headlines such as, HOUDINI BECOMES MOVIE MAGNET. But exactly how his movies would be distributed was not spelled out in any of the reports.



Meanwhile, Will Goldston published Magical Rope Ties and Escapes in the UK. Houdini had worked with Goldston on the book during his UK tour the previous year. He had rejected Goldston's original choice of cover portrait ("This is, without any question of doubt, the worst portrait of me in existence"), and substituted one of his favorite movie star headshots. He also realized, too late, that he had failed to include a dedication. A sticker was added to all copies dedicating the book to Harry Kellar, "Dean of Magicians and Master of Mystifiers." It's a good book filled with choice images of Houdini in various rope ties and restraints. Miracle Mongers publisher Dutton purchased the American rights, but the book was ultimately never released stateside.

In March Houdini finished the script for his initial Houdini Picture Corporation offering. He had considered adapting one of his favorite books, The Count of Monte Cristo. Instead he crafted an original story tentatively titled The Far North. (A title likely inspired by D.W. Griffith's Way Down East, the blockbuster success of which Houdini hoped to emulate.) Keenly aware that his previous films were sometimes criticized for being mere stunt pictures that lacked romance and proper stories, Houdini cut the escapes down to one and created what would be advertised as "the strangest love story ever told." The script sees Houdini's character, Howard Hillary (continuing the tradition of his main character bearing the initials HH), as a man revived after being frozen in ice for 100 years. Hillary returns to New York society where he meets a woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his long lost love. It was high melodrama mixed with action, and the idea of a revived iceman would become a familiar Hollywood trope, be it Frankenstein's monster or
Austin Powers.

The major theme of the movie was reincarnation. "Houdini went around everywhere talking about reincarnation," claimed Walter B. Gibson, Houdini's colleague and occasional ghostwriter. According to Gibson, Houdini believed he was the reincarnation of Friedrich von der Trenck, a German spy executed in 1794 who had the uncanny ability to escape Prussian jails. As early as 1919, Houdini proselytized his beliefs in an essay entitled "Houdini Believes in Reincarnation", which appeared in The Grim Game pressbook. He may have also seen this as a palatable way to tap the increasingly fashionable and commercial world of the paranormal. At least it wasn't spiritualism! But the quasi-religious aspects of his story reflected Houdini's continued grappling with the question of life after death.

For his leading lady, Houdini hired an old vaudeville friend, Jane Connolly. Connolly had no experience in movies and at age 38 was a far cry from the teenage ingenues typical of the silent screen. But at least she was an age appropriate love interest for her 47-year-old leading man (or 147 as the story goes). Also brought onboard was Nita Naldi, a bonafide movie star who had co-starred with John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and would soon star opposite Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand. The "female Valentino", as she was sometimes called, Naldi would play the de rigueur "vamp" of the movie, Marie Le Grande. Inexplicably, the surviving film offers no scenes in which Houdini and Naldi appear onscreen together. This is either a marked failing of Houdini the tyro screenwriter, or a scene was lost when The Man From Beyond was cut down from seven reels to six for general release.

Production began in late March with Houdini traveling to Lake Placid, New York, to shoot the opening scenes set in the Arctic. The weak staging suggests this may have been done before director Burton King came onboard, likely in a race to capture the footage before the end of winter. Camera work was handled by six different operators, including Irvin Ruby and Frank Zucker. Bess did her husband's hair and makeup and was always on set for touch ups.


In May the sixteen person crew arrived in Niagara Falls to shoot the movie's climatic action. Interviewed at the Prospect Hotel, Houdini protested a rumor that he was there to perform a stunt on the falls. Not only had police threatened to arrest him if he went into the rapids himself, but he made it clear to the reporter that he considered himself above such displays. "I am accounted now an artist," said Houdini, his pants muddy and hair standing aloft from the morning's shoot. "I am receiving a salary of $200,000 a year for acting in moving pictures dramas and directing their filming. No more do I slip loose from manacles and chains for the delectation of crowded houses. That is the past."

On May 5 Houdini and the crew strung canoes with dummies out into the rapids above the American falls. Intentionally or not, both canoes with their cargo eventually went over the edge. Ironically, that same day saw the funeral of Annie Edson Taylor, a school teacher who at age 63 became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live to tell about it. This did not go unnoticed by the Niagara Gazette, who pointed out that genuine daredevil Annie was buried using funds from friends while a movie faking stunts with mannequins "will probably make thousands of dollars for its producers." For Houdini the worst part of the article may have been that it failed to mention his name.

Two days later Houdini was in the rapids himself. But it was not Niagara. Instead Houdini shot his scenes at the Winchell Smith dam on the Farmington river in Farmington, Connecticut. While never in danger of being swept over the mighty Niagara, the rapids were still violent and a safety line tethered the former escape king to the shore. During the two day shoot the crew stayed at the historic Elm Tree Inn. It's possible Houdini may have also filmed in the rapids of the Hudson. Like The Grim Game plane crash, the fact that Houdini hadn't actually battled the rapids of the Niagara itself would remain a well-kept secret.

Other location work found Houdini fighting the villainous Dr. Trent atop a bluff called "High Tom's" in New Jersey's Palisades Interstate Park. Looming 400 feet above the Hudson River, the scene was shot using well concealed safety lines. The sprawling 60,000 square foot Pembroke estate in Glen Cove, Long Island, doubled as the mansion of Prof. Crawford Strange. The exterior of the former City Prison of New York, commonly called The Tombs, also makes a brief appearance.

A scene that would have featured Howard Hillary climbing down the side of a warehouse using window shutters to traverse the building was shot using a double. This may have been stunt man Bob Rose, whom IMDb credits as having worked on the film. In a 1934 interview, Rose claimed to have been mentored by Houdini. "Do every stunt scientifically," Houdini instructed the young stunt man. But the footage was never used as safety lines and the stand-in are clearly discernible. The stunt was later re-staged on a stationary wall and shot from a greater distance.

Interior scenes were filmed at the Tilford Cinema Studios on West 44th Street in Manhattan. It's likely here was constructed the impressive Arctic ship wreck set where Hillary is chopped free from the ice. Houdini had long puzzled over how to accomplish an escape from a block of ice on stage. At least now he could capture the visual. He also had a home projection system set up inside 278 where he could review the footage being processed by his New Jersey film lab. In late May he revealed the film's final title, The Man From Beyond.

As all consuming as filming was, Houdini still found time to preside over the 17th Annual Society of American Magicians dinner at the Hotel McAlpin in New York. There he was presented with a silver loving cup by Bernard Ernst and some 300 members. Houdini may have stepped away from performing himself, but the Golden Age of Magic was continuing at a pace. During the dinner Horace Goldin presented his new "Vivisection" illusion, soon to become all the rage as "Sawing a Woman in Half." Harry Blackstone, whom Houdini introduced as a "comer", performed card magic and an escape. Hardeen emceed the show. Ever the collector, Houdini was impressed by Goldin's book of magic patents, and made arrangements to have one compiled for himself.

Houdini was also continuing his correspondence with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, discussing and debating the merits of mediums both past and present. Their friendship was deepening, even if they rarely agreed on the true source of any given phenomena. Always Doyle closed his letters with a plea for his friend to take care when doing his hazardous stunts. Houdini would return his affections by having his Man From Beyond hero reading Doyle's seminal work, The New Revelations, at the end of the movie.

Houdini wrapped production on The Man From Beyond by mid July. The movie had taken seventeen weeks to complete. While it lacked the polish of a Hollywood production, the well-edited climax on Niagara Falls was undeniably thrilling. Houdini immediately reached out to Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount Pictures, offering to screen it for him at his home as he had The Grim Game. Houdini assured him he had "a competitive picture to Way Down East" and "a great, big financial success." It's unclear if the screening ever took place, but Paramount would pass on distribution.

Undeterred, Houdini launched into production on his second feature, Haldane of the Secret Service, that same week. Once again written by Houdini, the story follows Department of Justice agent Heath Haldane (HH) on the trail of counterfeiters and a powerful Chinese gangster named Mr. Yu (an alternate title was The Mysterious Mr. Yu). Houdini would use some of the reported 10,000 feet of film he had shot in Great Britain and France the year before, making Haldane a globe trotting espionage tale showcasing authentic locations. If The Man From Beyond had anticipated Austin Powers, then Haldane feels like a James Bond movie, right down to its omnipresent Chinese supervillain hold up in a mountain monastery. While less personal than his first film, Houdini, ever the good son, worked in a subplot about Haldane avenging the murder of his father, "Silent Sanders".

Shooting began in Brooklyn Heights on the evening of July 21. The scene featured Houdini and his new co-star Gladys Leslie fighting off an attack by villains in the street. Unlike the novice Jane Connolly, the 24-year-old Leslie was an established actress dubbed the "Girl With A Million Dollar Smile." The night shoot required the use of powerful arc lights that drew a large crowd of onlookers, some abandoning their dinners at the nearby Hotel Bossert to watch the action from the roof. There were those in the crowd who believed Leslie was Mary Pickford and called out to the actress by name. Burton King was once again in the directors chair, trying, unsuccessfully, to keep the bystanders from appearing in his setups. [I'll have more about this shoot in a forthcoming post.]


In August Houdini filmed scenes on New York's docks and aboard the United States Mail Steamship SS America. The ship was famous for having warned the Titanic of icebergs on the night of April 14, 1912 (a warning that went ignored). In a stunt that looks genuinely dangerous, Houdini is dragged alongside the moving vessel. The larger Cunard liner RMS Aquitania was used for long shots. In the finished film the ship became the fictional Cavania, possibly because Houdini ran afoul of the U.S. Shipping Board for filming without permission.

Houdini again utilized the Tilford studios in Manhattan to shoot interiors. A frequent visitor to the set was his 4-year-old niece, Marie. Houdini even considered giving his favorite niece a cameo, shooting a scene in which Marie plays with a puppy while he and Gladys Leslie look on fondly. But it never made the final cut. Houdini also used the monastery set to film a standalone "challenge" escape that saw him tied to a table top by monks, some of whom were played by his assistants.

In September Houdini and his crew traveled to Valatie, New York, to shoot the one and only escape in the movie; a spectacular release from a spinning water wheel. The crew constructed the wheel and flume at Beaver Falls, site of a former cotton mill on Kinderhook Creek. Houdini did the escape himself, although a dummy was substituted for the shot in which the spinning wheel breaks free. Today remains of the wheel can still be spotted amid the rushing waters and a historic plaque marks the site of Houdini's visit to Valatie. Houdini wrapped Haldane of the Secret Service after filming additional exterior scenes in nearby Chatham.

That same month Houdini performed a suspended straitjacket escape during the New York Police Department's Field Day at the Gravesend Racetrack in Brooklyn. The exhibition was noted as being "positively his only personal performance before the public in twelve months." That appearance twelve months previous had been at the 1920 NYPD Field Day.

With two features in the can, Houdini turned his attention to what could be his next production. Yar, The Primeval Man is the story of a caveman set in prehistoric times. In Yar Houdini seems to be digging deeper into is own psyche than ever before. While the notion that he's the smartest and strongest of all the cavemen was never far below his surface, the more revealing aspect may be the power struggle between Yar, his elderly mother (named War), and the tribal outsider, Aie. At one point Yar can't decide which woman's kiss he desires more after dressing them both in the same furs. But in the end, Yar sets his mother aside--he literally picks her up and sets her aside--to join Aie in private sexual domesticity. How different from the similar Bahl Yahn the Strong Man, written by Houdini in 1907, which concludes with Bahl blissfully tilling the fields with his mother strapped to his back for the rest of his life. But with its abundance of prehistoric animals and massive climatic cataclysm, Yar The Primeval Man was both too ambitious and too silly to be made into a film. Instead, Houdini printed his 12-page synopsis as a booklet that he gave out to friends.

Meanwhile, Houdini was still financing the never profitable Film Developing Corporation. To cover mounting expenses Houdini created a real estate holding company, The Weehawken Street Corporation, through which he purchased the building housing his film lab and rented it back to himself. Then there were the lawsuits. A former manager, Arnold de Biere, sued the company for $2,600 in unpaid salary. Rival Powers Film Products filed a $3000 lawsuit that claimed the FDC was a foreign owned corporation. The charge was false, but it caused deals to collapse and some customers to withhold payments, one for $8000. Running the business was taking its toll on Hardeen who underwent surgery for ulcers. Houdini revealed the depths of his worries in a letter to Harry Keller on October 10th, confessing: "It will be a Godsend for all of us if we get away from it in a legitimate manner."

Possibly envisioning a less expensive way to meet his four film quota, in October Houdini purchased two cans of films at an auction of unclaimed goods at the U.S. Customs Service's Seizure Room. Inside was an Italian made 1919 movie, Il mistero di Oriris, and the other a 1917 french film, L’ame du bronze. Houdini copyrighted the movies as The Mystery of the Jewell and The Soul of Bronze and formed yet another company, the Mystery Pictures Corporation, to release them with new English intertitles. It's unclear if either movie ever saw release, but today The Soul of Bronze sometimes mistakenly appears on Houdini's own filmography.

What is clear is in the fall of 1921 Houdini was facing the realities of being an independent producer. He had sunk his own money into two films and had yet to secure distribution for either. And while he had confidence in The Man From Beyond, even he must have seen that Haldane of the Secret Service was a weak offering. Miracle Mongers and Their Methods had gone into subsequent printings and Houdini was prepping his second book for Dutton, now tentatively titled Paper Tricks. But books were not going to pay his bills. There was only one sure-fire way he could do that.

On December 9, Variety reported that Houdini had struck a $25,000 deal with Keith's vaudeville for a 10 week tour commencing Christmas week in Boston. Houdini swung back into action, literally, with a suspended straitjacket escape from the Boston Post building on December 22. On stage at Keith's, where he had once escaped from the belly of a sea-monster, he shared the bill with Santa Claus who opened each show by handing out gifts to the children. On his second night "several hundred" members of the Magicians Club of Boston attended the show, cheering Houdini as he escaped from his Water Torture Cell. After the show they gathered for a celebration backstage. Houdini even found time to publish a new short story, "The Magician's Christmas Eve", in The Vaudeville News.

However, when he found himself in a stalled Boston elevated train, Houdini decided to attempt a movie hero style escape and jumped from the train. But there was no stuntman or safety line to help sell this "gag", and on landing he slipped on the ice and injured his hip.

Back to 1920 | All Years | Continue to 1922

I'm indebted to Sean Doran of The Mysteriarch for uncovering High Tom's cliff, Pembroke estate, and The Tombs shooting locations from The Man From Beyond. Likewise to Joe Notaro of Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence who uncovered the true location of Houdini's rapids swim.

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8 comments:

  1. Wow, what a way to kick off 2021. Bravo, my friend!

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    1. Thanks man! I was excited to be able to include your Man From Beyond rapids discovery, so thank you. :)

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  2. Hear, hear, Joe! Bravo! I always learn new things about HH in John's New Year deep dives. When he mentions the Austin Powers similarity to the reincarnated girlfriend, I was stunned not to have noticed the similarity to Man Fromom Beyond.

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    1. Woody Allen's "Sleeper" is maybe an even better example, but I figured people were more familiar with Austin Powers these days. The frozen man idea has appeared in many films. Was The Man From Beyond the first? I think it may be.

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    2. "Sleeper" is a hilarious classic. Who can forget the "orgasmitron" device and Allen's reluctance to let it go? I also think Beyond may have been the first to use the suspended animation idea into the future. It was also used for the Captain America superhero character where he goes into a deep frozen hibernation after WWII. What was the source for the Boston elevated train jump? According to Silverman HH slipped and fell on ice on two occasions.

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    3. Captain America, of course.

      The source of the ice slip was Silverman. His source was a January 11, 1922 Boston newspaper, but it must have happened this last week in December '21 as HH was in NYC by January. The second ice slip was in NYC at the end of 1925 or early '26, I believe.

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  3. John, this is really splendid! Truly a great start to the New Year. Beyond your usual meticulous research, your writing just gets better and better. Thanks so much for sharing this!

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    1. Thank you, Tom. I really appreciate you saying that. This one might be a little too long for online, but I approached it more like a book chapter, which is where my mind is going these days. I didn't leave anything out. I do think think this has the most new information of any of these deep dives. The events of 1921 barely gets a mention in most bios.

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