Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Days of Thrills and Harry Houdini

While the big boys were slugging it out in last week's Potter & Potter auction, spending thousands on some important Houdini lots (and some that didn't seem that important), I was happy to snap this up on eBay for a $15 Buy It Now. No, it's not rare, and you might not even understand exactly what this is. But I've always wanted one of these "Houdini dangles from a cliff!" lobby cards from Days of Thrills and Laughter because I've long considered this movie an important part of Houdini's amazing afterlife. But I'll get to that.


Released by 20th Century Fox on May 5, 1961, Days of Thrills and Laughter was a feature length documentary made up of extended clips from silent movies. It was the third such film from producer Robert Youngson after The Golden Age of Comedy and When Comedy Was King. The original New York Times review of the movie at the Sixty-eighth Street Playhouse states:

Since he is concerned not only with comedy but also with thrills, Mr. Youngson has included bits by Douglas Fairbanks ("Wild and Woolly") and some mad material from the likes of such serial experts as Pearl White ("The Perils of Pauline," etc), Ruth Roland, Warner Oland, Boris Karloff and, believe it or not, Harry Houdini, rescuing a somewhat foggy damsel from taking the distressing drop over Niagara Falls.

The Houdini segment runs about 5 minutes and shows more than just the Niagara Falls rescue from The Man From Beyond. We also see the entire cliff fight (as shown on the lobby card, although obviously not in color) and the coat rack escape from The Master Mystery. But what will be of most interest to Houdini buffs is rare behind the scenes footage of Houdini and Bess visiting producer Al Christie at Universal Studios in 1915. It's a remarkable piece of film that I don't believe has appeared anywhere else. All the Houdini footage is excellent quality and is credited as coming from the Larry Weeks collection.


I consider Days of Thrills and Laughter important because it was the first such documentary to establish Houdini and his film work as "essential nostalgia" from this era. Along with television clip shows like Fractured Flickers, these went a long way in flagging to a new generation what was worth remembering. They also anticipated the cable biographies of the 1990s and beyond. So it's interesting that Houdini film career, generally considered a failure, affords him a place beside cinema giants like Fairbanks and Chaplin in this early work. Houdini always said he was making his movies for "future generations." So maybe not such a failure after all?

Days of Thrills and Laughter was released on DVD in 2010 and can still purchased at Amazon.com. But it can also be streamed for free via Amazon's Prime Video.

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11 comments:

  1. Someone commented on Facebook that "the film clip in this movie started me on my Houdini obsession as a child." Legacy indeed. :)

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  2. Great stuff John! Look at the way Houdini is dressed in the Al Christie Universal Studios photo and the grey hair at the temples. That's the exact same look when he posed in that photo with Charlie Chaplin. Christie wasn't the only Hollywood big shot HH saw in that visit.

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    1. Yep, the Chaplin pic and well as the shots of the Houdinis at Inceville were all taken around this same time. They seems to have made a tour of the studios.

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  3. Had no idea this was on Amazon Prime! I'll be checking it out for sure. Even though most of HH's films were far from great, there is something about his film career that is just intriguing. The films being made for future generations sounds about right! :)

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    1. I didn't realize that myself until I did this post. I went to double check if the DVD was still available and...hey! Worth firing up for the Al Christie footage to be sure. But I'd be interested in what you think of the quality of TMFB footage.

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  4. "Houdini dangles from a cliff" ....and those who knew him had no worries at all! :)

    Wonder how many more years until we get to see his movies in colour. ONE DAY!

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    1. Forgot to add that I love that bit of studio footage. When he pulls his ear to lead himself out of the circle of girls. He always seemed so friendly and sweet, especially with Bess beside him. Woulda loved to have heard the conversation there.

      His appearance here is probably my favourite. I always thought he looked much cooler when he looked older. And while I'm partial to 1924-1925, it's more depressing knowing he didn't have much time left by then. So several years back was just as good (even though he had a tendency to look much younger than he was at times).

      -rambling-

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    2. Yes, I love the ear pull moment as well. :) It's such a great piece of film. I show this in my talks on Houdini in Hollywood.

      I do agree he got cooler looking as he got older, and this is for me is my favorite Houdini. I love his long hair all grey at the temples and that crazy suit he always wore (I'll have more to say about the suit in a future post). Perfect Harry!

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    3. I can't even imagine his dress style if it weren't for his mom and Bess looking out for him. You could certainly tell when they let their guard down or weren't nearby to keep him neat and tidy, haha! But that (to me) was just part of his charm. Makes me imagine him late at night in his study with those piles of books (something you'd see on an episode of Hoarders with someone going on about safety and "you're gonna end up buried under all these books!" ....and of course Harry taking that as an idea for a challenge/stunt) .... where was I? So easy to trail off when talking about him, lol! Oh yeah, late at night with all his books, hair a mess, shirt half untucked. Looking like some sort of mad professor or something, hehe! Bess constantly having to remind him to eat and sleep.

      I know he'd hate me for saying it, but I also like when he looks up to people (in the literal sense), like in the studio footage. The idea of him being shorter than so many people but you just know he's one of those "good things come in small packages" things. His personality and talent was so strong that it made up for any lack of height.

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  5. You can see Bess standing just out of camera range when the Christie Girls play ring around the Rosie with Harry. HH must have felt a bit uncomfortable, hence the ear pull out of that circle. I wondered about her whereabouts in that Christie photo of HH surrounded by those girls. It turns out Bess was right there out of camera range.

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  6. I've seen ephemera from this film on Ebay for years, but I never bothered to check it out. I'm so glad you did! Now I must get a copy of the film. Thanks!

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