Back in 2010 I went wild for the new book Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century by Matthew Solomon. This excellent book contained several revelations about Houdini's film work, foremost of which was the discovery that something called Houdini Defeats Hackenschmidt was shown during Houdini’s March 1906 engagement at Keith’s Theater in Boston. This is significant as it pre-dates his 1907 Rochester bridge jump footage, which Houdini claimed to be his first appearance on film. Also, the idea of film of Houdini and the famous Russian wrestler George Hackenschmidt, a.k.a. "the Russian Lion", was incredibly intriguing. Unfortunately, Solomon was unable to provide any further details.
For ten years I've searched in vain for more information on Houdini Defeats Hackenschmidt. I've also searched for confirmation of the Boston screening. Solomon's source was a single notation in an unpublished managers report for the week of March 26, 1906, housed in the Keith/Albee Collection at the University of Iowa Library. Houdini's Boston engagements were very well covered in the newspapers, but I've never been able to find a single mention of any film in any notice for that or any other week.
Doubts began to set in. Was it even a film? Could it have just been a lantern slide? Or maybe it was a parody that had nothing to do with the real Houdini or Hackenschmidt? As the years wore on, evidence for Houdini Defeats Hackenschmidt became as nonexistent as evidence of Houdini's "spy work" (ahem). I began to suspect that it never existed, at least not as we imagined. I even cut it from my recent talks on Houdini in cinema.
But all that changed yesterday when I made one of those accidental discoveries that researchers live for!
On March 22, 1905, the Burnley Express reviewed a variety show at the Empire Music Hall in Burnley, England. This was not a show featuring Houdini, who was performing in Paris at this time. The headliner was "Herr Fritz, Illusionist and conjurer," who delighted the audience with tricks that included "the flying lamp" and "catching of gold fish in the audience."
But at the very end of the review is this bombshell:
The performance is closed by the Empire Biograph, by which are reproduced "An office boy's revenge" and Houdini extricating himself from manacles placed on him by Hackenschmidt, who appears to enjoy the fun immensely.
There can be no doubt that this is the same film that played in Boston, here playing a year earlier in England. This confirms that it existed, that it was indeed a film, and, most excitingly, it featured Houdini doing an escape at the hands of challenger George Hackenschmidt. Wow!
This also tells us the footage is older than first thought. But how much older? The companion film on the bill, "An Office Boy's Revenge", is from 1903 (it actually has an IMDb page), so the "Empire Biograph" was not exhibiting new films. It's unclear when Houdini first came to know Hackenschmidt, but there are reports of them together in London in 1904. This means Houdini could be in his 20s in this footage. Again, wow!
So it's time to once again get excited about Houdini Defeats Hackenschmidt. This is currently the earliest known film footage of Houdini (and likely of George Hackenschmidt). Maybe within the next ten years we can uncover a photo or the film itself. That would be the biggest "wow" of all!
UPDATE: Looks like this post has made news in Burnley!