Houdini began the "Roaring 20s" with a return to the country that had given him his first great success at the turn of the century. But what he didn't realize was this trip would also seed his next great career metamorphosis.
Houdini arrived in Southhampton, England, on January 5. It was his first trip to the UK in six years. The war had kept Houdini at home. Now he was returning as something more than the old Handcuff King. With The Master Mystery playing in UK cinemas, he was a bonafide movie star.
Houdini opened at the Alhambra Theater in Bradford the week of January 12th. Engagements in Birmingham, Finsbury Park, Liverpool, and Swansea followed. His act consisted of showing clips from his films, telling of his many triumphs and adventures, a selection of magic, and the Water Torture Cell. Some critics felt Houdini talked a little too much about himself during his turn. But audiences embraced his return and his tour proved to be a record breaker for the Moss Circuit. To ensure audiences understood this was the real man and not a movie, his billing read: HOUDINI (Himself).
Houdini had a few early mishaps with his Water Torture Cell, which he had not performed in three years. A dry run test of the escape appears to have gone wrong. "Nearly cracked my neck," he recorded in his diary. Then during his first show in Birmingham the glass broke. A reserve pane, which Houdini always carried, was substituted. Two weeks later Houdini injured his right ankle performing the escape. A doctor provided an electrical baking treatment and advised him to layoff work, warning he was in "danger of death" if he did not. Houdini substituted the Milk Can and continued his tour. (Ironically, it was the doctor who died two weeks later.)
On the night of February 8th, Houdini attended a special dinner in his honor presented by The Magicians' Club at the Savoy Hotel in London. If club president Will Goldston thought age and accolades would have mellowed his old friend, he soon discovered otherwise. The dinner was officiated by Charles Raymond, who had crossed Houdini years earlier by doing a Milk Can escape without his permission. Houdini insisted Goldston reprint the programs to change The Great Raymond to E.F. Raymond because "he's not great at all." Also, having recently settled a lawsuit with a mutual associate, Arnold de Biere (who had managed Houdini's Film Developing Corp and sued for salary due), Houdini warned Goldston that if he saw De Biere in the building he would throw him down the stairs.
Houdini also laid down instructions for Goldston as he worked with him on a new book, Magical Rope Ties and Escapes. He asked him to eliminate "Harry" from all his writings. "I would rather be called just Houdini. It sounds better, looks better, and is better."
While in Scotland, Harry and Bess visited the grave of The Great Lafayette (Sigmund Neuberger), who had been tragically killed in a theater fire in 1911. Standing at the grave, Houdini called out to the magician to send him a sign. At that moment, two pots containing flowers the Houdinis had brought toppled over and broke. Houdini concluded that the wind was responsible and not a ghostly hand of his old friend.
But spiritualism, which has seen a resurgence after the war, was very much on Houdini's mind. In Edinburgh he bought out the entire fourth floor of a bookstore that carried a large assortment of books on the subject. He also wrote to Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an outspoken proponent of the movement, sending him a copy of The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin. This kicked off an active correspondence between the men and a promise to meet as soon as possible.
In March, Houdini played Sheffield and Leeds, where he reportedly received "the reception of his life" from an audience made up of children who only knew him from the movies. In Hull he filmed more street scenes, and also did an outdoor underwater diving suit escape. After a week in Nottingham (where he was panned for talking too much about himself), Houdini was back in London presiding over The Magicians' Club Ladies Night at the Bijou Theater. It was then onto Cardiff in Wales where Houdini celebrated his 46th birthday and penned a "sweet" letter to Charmian London in California.
On April 14, Houdini traveled to "Windlesham," the home of Sir Arthur and Lady Conan Doyle in Crowborough. Bess was unable to join him. The men spent the afternoon deep in conversation about Spiritualism. Doyle, who had lost his son in the war, claimed to have had many face to face encounters with his boy. "There is no death," he assured Houdini. Aware of Houdini's skepticism, Doyle said he could arrange sittings with mediums that he knew to be genuine. The following day Doyle saw Houdini's show in Brighton. He then openly questioned the magician why he needed proof of the supernatural when he so clearly possessed such powers himself.
The strange friendship of Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had begun.
Critical reaction to Terror Island was tepid. Reviewers complained the story seemed old fashioned and more akin to a serial than a feature. The studio countered with trade ads emphasizing it was "Not a Serial!" But the serial audience of young boys seemed to be the only ones who embraced this latest Houdini vehicle. Houdini himself rated the movie as "excellent." Although he did complain that the editing had omitted important story details.
Creatively and financially, Terror Island showed a marked decline from Houdini's previous film work, all of which was still available to theater goers at this time. But the novelty of Houdini's filmed escapes appeared to be waining, and his inability to attract the all-important female audience was becoming acute. If Paramount and Lasky were having doubts about Houdini's continued viability as a movie star, they did not appear to discuss it with Houdini at this time. As late as November the studio had announced plans to make "several pictures" with the magician utilizing footage shot during his world tours--footage Houdini was now doggedly gathering
On April 25th, Houdini, Bess, and Julie Karcher attended a séance in London with clairvoyant medium Annie Brittain. Brittain was one of the mediums Doyle had so highly recommended. He considered her "the best." But Houdini was not impressed. "Simply kept talking in general," he recorded in his diary, "All this is ridiculous stuff."
Following an engagement in Newcastle–upon-Tyne--where Houdini performed Douglas Fairbanks-like acrobatic stunts on the parapets of Newcastle Castle--Houdini opened at the Palladium in London for a two week engagement that saw him earning $3,750 a week. It was the highest salary ever paid to a single performer at the theater. During his Palladium run, the Houdinis had lunch with the Doyles at the Royal Automobile Club in London. Houdini also attended more seances arranged by the author. But he continued to be disappointed. The celebrated trumpet medium, Mrs. Wriedt, failed to manifest any spirits. "My belief–she was afraid of me," Houdini concluded. He also had two meetings with psychic investigator Dr. W.J. Crawford, who theorized table levitation was caused by ectoplasmic rods. Houdini suspected the man was mad. (Crawford committed suicide later that year.)
The end of May found Houdini at the Pavilion in Glasgow. Playbills announced, "Positively Last Week but one before his Return to California and the Moving Picture World." It was then back to London and a celebratory dinner for the opening of The Magicians' Club's new headquarters. Addressing the gathering, Houdini spoke of how he now planned to devote himself to making movies and writing. Committing to this new vision, he destroyed a collection of magic props he had long held in a London warehouse.
But the old act was still a draw. In Saskatchewan an escape artist calling himself Sergeant Houdini was gathering crowds with jail breaks and a Milk Can escape. The local papers assumed he was Houdini (Himself). "Few, if any, have not heard of this man and his wonderful escapes," wrote the Saskatoon Daily Star. Houdini learned of the imposter and penned a clarifying letter to the paper. The Sergeant countered that he had "no need to play on the name of the master" and would "stage his program for the approval of all on the merits of the act." He soon vanished from history.
Houdini wrote to Doyle the next day, "Well, we had success at the seance last night, but I am not prepared to say that they were supernormal." What Houdini didn't share was that he could clearly see Eva C. employed a sleight of hand technique similar to the one he used in his own Needles trick.
On June 19, the Los Angeles Times announced Houdini would attempt a Transatlantic Flight from Paris to New York. The source of their story was "no less authority than Houdini himself." His flight plan was laid out in detail, but the closest Houdini came to such an exploit was when he and Bess traveled by airplane to Paris the following month (Houdini filmed their arrival). Houdini had no bookings in the city. Instead he spent his time filming more street scenes at scenic landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, and Montmartre. He also reportedly sat with some French mediums. Then, on July 6, the Houdinis set sail for New York aboard the RMS Imperator. It would be the last ocean crossing of Houdini's life. Ironically, it was the first in which he didn't get seasick.
Arriving in New York, the Houdinis found themselves delayed at Ellis Island due to a typhoid scare. A widely circulated wire story also claimed Houdini was stymied in attempts to unlock one of his steamer trunks for custom officials and a locksmith had to be called. The next day Houdini visited his mother's grave with Hardeen, then went to his New Jersey film lab, likely to begin work on developing the voluminous footage he had shot abroad.
The Film Developing Corporation (FDC) was becoming an albatross around Houdini's neck. So far he had sunk $100,000 of his own money into the company with no profit to show for it. "If only I had invested my money in production, we would at least have some pictures to peddle," he confessed to Harry Kellar, who was a major stock holder. But Kellar had lost all confidence in the enterprise. Not wanting to add to his friend's financial woes, he sold his stock in the company to Houdini's sister Gladys for $1.
It is the question of intercommunication that has claimed my attention, and with this in view I attended over 100 seances with the best known mediums of England and France during my recent trip abroad, at the same time devoting most of my spare moments to conferences with persons prominently identified with the subject, but the result has left me further than ever from a belief in the genuineness of the manifestations.
The same day the Variety piece appeared, Houdini's long time secretary John Sargent died at age 68. Bess's niece, Julia Sawyer (Sauer), took over secretarial duties. Oscar Teale would assist with his literary endeavors, which included books tentatively titled Miracle Mongers Past and Present and Paper Prestidigitation, both of which had been purchased by Dutton along with the U.S. rights to Magical Rope Ties and Escapes. Houdini also added a full time librarian, Alfred Becks, to his 278 staff.
But what about the movies? Despite press and promises, no more projects with Lasky materialized, and Houdini would never again make a movie in Hollywood. So who "broke up" with who? No official split was ever reported in the press (at least not that I've ever been able to find), but it seems feasible that, after the lackluster Terror Island, the studio decided to cut their losses. This must have proven both a shock and humiliation for Houdini. It also cast him adrift in that his plans, so boldly expressed at The Magicians Club in London, were dependent on a continued movie career.
In late October Houdini decided his next move. He still had his European film footage and a film lab at his disposal, so he began to seek capital investment for a new production company he proposed calling The Houdini Mystery Corporation. In true Houdini fashion, he would do it himself.
Apart from my usual sources, I'm extra indebted to Derek Tait's The Great Houdini His British Tours and William Kalush's The Secret Life of Houdini for helping me nail down some of the events of this year.