Thursday, September 15, 2022

The Grim Game on stage?

Back in April I did a post called Houdini the playwright? In it, I shared a blurb from a 1924 newspaper saying Houdini was writing a stage play. Today we have another piece of that puzzle. But it's one that makes the picture even more perplexing!

Yesterday Thomas Ewing of Haversat & Ewing Galleries sent me a newspaper clipping from the June 11, 1924 New York Morning Telegraph headlined: "Houdini Breaks into Playwrighting." The impressive half page spread by Merle Sumner is padded out with tales of Houdini's career, but it also provides details about his new play, including a plot summary! Hold on to your handcuffs. Here's an excerpt:

"In my play," said the illusionist, "I am going to see that the conventional newspaper reporter of the stage with the Phoebe Snow traditions is permanently embalmed. There is a reporter in my play, but he will not carry a shiny new notebook nor a sharp pencil. His overcoat may have a few creases as if he had been sitting on it all night playing poker. He will make notes on his cuffs, perhaps, but none on paper."

Circumstantial evidence which sends an innocent man to prison for murder is to be the crux of the Houdini offering. The newspaper man allows himself to be charged with a fake murder. He even helps to plant the bones and the evidence. Then when he is padlocked in a strong cell the news comes that the man he is supposed to have murdered has really been found dead at the bottom of the well. Surprised as well as worried––naturally––the journalist plans his own escape and defense. And succeeds.

Yes, this is the exact plot of Houdini's 1919 film The Grim Game. So are we to believe Houdini intended to adapt the movie as a play? Could he even do this? Unlike his Houdini Picture Corporation productions, Houdini did not own The Grim Game nor did he write the screenplay. The movie was produced by Famous Players Lasky with the story by Arthur B. Reeve & John W. Grey and a script by Walter Woods. 

However, Houdini always claimed that he came up with the stories for all his films, so maybe he felt he had some ownership. And if he really intended to break into the theater, why not do so with an adaption of his best film.

It's also possible all this is publicity seeking malarky. This idea of "Houdini the playwright" certainly drew headlines. This article is a great example. So maybe Houdini was just reaching for a good plot to share with this reporter. But this seems reckless. Certainly someone would notice. Of course, this seems to have slipped past Houdini biographers for some 98 years, so...

Now that we know more about this 1924 mystery play, it's more confusing than ever. But that's what makes all this fun! Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. And if you're perplexed by Houdini's "Phoebe Snow" reference, check this out.

BONUS: You can read and download the full Morning Telegraph article as a Scholar member of my Patreon.


  1. It would have never made it far. Hollywood would have pulled out the cuffs to stop him, or sue for a percentage of the earnings. A play also needs investors to get off the ground. After the HPC mess and other investment losses, I don't think HH was gunna lay more money on the table outside of the magic business. In the end he wisely invested his money in props, and other items for his 3 in 1. It was time to play it safe and invest in himself.

  2. B E L I E V E. At the insistence of Houdini, Master Mystery was produced before the book, Terror Island film script was adapted to a story paper format later, and why not The Grim Game adapted to a play. 1924 was a busy year for Houdini the author.

    1. I think of Houdini's Xmas card for 1924. The illustration of him in his office where you can see a note that reads: "My busy year." It certainly was!

    2. Now just a minute, wasn't HH traveling around on his fraud spiritualism lecture tour around this time?

    3. Indeed he was. That's one of the things that made the year so busy. Those tours must have been grueling. One night stands coast to coast.