Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Heart Is Quicker Than The Eye – the unmade Houdini biopic of 1976


It's not generally known that when Melville Shavelson was preparing his 1976 TV biopic The Great Houdinis for ABC, a rival Houdini movie was in the works at NBC called The Heart Is Quicker Than The Eye. Produced by Paramount and Playboy Productions, the aim was to air the film in October to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Houdini's death. Of course, this was also the proposed air date for the ABC film.

When asked about the coincidence of two Houdini projects, Edward L. Rissien, executive VP of Playboy Productions said, "There are many instances where a personality lends itself to two different treatments. We are proceeding as announced for NBC."

Patrick Culliton, who worked as a technical advisor on the NBC project, says two names producer Bill McCutchen mentioned for the role of Houdini were Robert Blake and Charles Bronson. Bronson was a big movie star so that was probably wishful thinking. But Robert Blake was a real possibility and a good choice. Blake was the star of the hit TV show Baretta at this time. Actress Joan Hackett was mentioned as a possible Bess. While no casting was finalized, production was announced to begin March 15, 1976.

A copy of the screenplay by Jean Holloway resides at the The William H. Larsen Sr. Memorial Library at The Magic Castle. What's most striking is how close this script follows the Harold Kellock book, Houdini His Life Story. It's almost as though Holloway had the book opened in front of her and transcribed it beat for beat. But this means The Heart is Quicker Than The Eye would have been the most accurate of all the Houdini biopics. Hardeen, Martin Beck, Margery, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle all feature in the film. And while Houdini does break his ankle in the Water Torture Cell, he does not die in it. In fact, his death is for the first time depicted accurately.

But somehow all this doesn't make for a better movie. The script is plodding, repetitive, and strangely dull. "I suffered through a treatment and three drafts of Jean Holloway's script as a research man," says Patrick. "I hated them all."

One original aspect Holloway introduces is the suggestion that Bess possesses true powers of extra sensory perception that she does not fully understand. But she is able to foretell events and successfully warn her husband off danger (when he'll listen). This is pretty interesting and I love the irony that Bess is the Houdini with the true powers. But it isn't developed far beyond the first act, and Bess's role in the film is largely to be a worried wife.

A fun detail is when Houdini is examined by a doctor for a burst blood vessel in his kidney (a regular source of pain for him in this script as it was in real life). The doctor's name is Larsen. Is this a nod to the famous Larsen magic family of Magic Castle fame? Could they have even considered having Bill Larsen Jr. play the role? Remember Bill was in Houdini (1953) as the S.A.M. head chopping magician, so this would have been a fun nod to this first Houdini biopic.

So what happened to The Heart Is Quicker Than The Eye? Despite Playboy's assurance that they were moving ahead, it appears the announcement of The Great Houdinis was enough to give the network cold feet. Says Patrick, "At that time, a decision to go with our Houdini movie took NBC a year, the decision for ABC to go with Mel Shavelson's project seemed to have been made in a week. Bill McCutchen was trying to save his project, but, it was over. We'd been scooped."

Patrick went on to work on The Great Houdinis, and even appears in the film as Franz Kukol.

The novelization for The Great Houdinis says it is a co-production with Playboy, so it's possible some kind of agreement was worked out between the networks and production companies. Whatever the case, The Heart Is Quicker Than The Eye was shelved and ABC's The Great Houdinis was the sole Houdini film to take to the airways that anniversary year.

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7 comments:

  1. Very interesting. Small correction, though; Hackett (who was one of my favorites) was anything but British, having been born in East Harlem.

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    1. Thank you Dave. Not sure where I got that? Fixed.

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  2. My favorite movie tough guy was Charles Bronson...but as "Houdini"? - no way that would work.

    In 1976, Bronson was 54 years old, and the world's No. 1 box office film star...riding high from his enormously successful 1974 vigilante film, "Death Wish". In 1976, no way his salary demands could have been met.

    Although, he had the physical physique to play "Houdini", he was too "old" by this time...and regarding his looks (face), even Bronson admitted "I look like a rock quarry, that someone has dynamited".

    ABC got Paul Michael Glaser...and that was a perfect choice.

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    1. I love Charles Bronson too. But definitely a pie in the sky idea. But Robert Blake was very much equivalent career-wise to Paul Michale Glaser, so I can see that one being a real possibility. But then we'd have to honor Robert Blake as we do our other Houdinis. Dodged that bullet!

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  3. Joan Hackett would have been a marvelous Bess, I'm sure (even with the script's limitations on the character). Another "what might have been".

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    1. I just took a look at Joan Hackett's bio on imdb.com, and it mentions that she was a firm believer in the paranormal, even going so far as to persuade the director of a film she was working on to bring in a "clairvoyant aura reader" to give the entire crew extrasensory readings! Though it could be a coincidence, it certainly sounds like Holloway was writing this facet of Bess in the hopes she would be cast in the role, or perhaps to entice her to play it. In any case, I agree with you - what an intriguing dimension for a Bess portrayal.

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    2. Interesting about Hackett's beliefs! I wonder if that was at play here.

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