Harry Houdini’s Increasingly Failed Movie Career

Is there another magician of such renown that he has entire television shows devoted to him near 90 years after his death? Born in Hungary as Eric Weisz in 1874 (his famous stage name was a slight tweaking of the name Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, possibly the most famous magician of the 19th century and the person who codified the familiar stage magician costume still used today), by 1899 Houdini had emigrated to the United States of America and began the career that would make him the most famous stunt magician in the world. For various reasons, though, Houdini himself did not consider that enough. By 1918, he announced he would be abandoning the stage work that had served him so well for decades and start devoting himself to becoming a star of the silver screen.

Technically Houdini’s film debut had been in 1901 when he performed a series of escape tricks for Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini Paris, but 1918 was the year of his first film where he attempted to pretend he was someone other than himself. Starting at the top, he was paid $1,500 a week by Rolfe Photoplays, which at the time was roughly $23,000. Today that might not sound so high for a world famous film star, but since movies were still in their infancy at the time it was effectively unprecedented. To more effectively play to Houdini’s reputation, the heroes he played would invariably end up in some sort of extreme restraints, like a locked case or chains. Functionally it was a gender-inverted version of the silent film trope of the damsel in distress being tied to railroad tracks.  

His first acting job was playing Quentin Locke in the serial The Master Mystery, a rather loopy story about an agent for the Justice Department who takes down a criminal cartel that has in their arsenal both gas weapons and a robot. It did not take long for it to become clear just how unqualified Houdini was for his new career.

Anyone who has seen silent films, particularly movies from before Charlie Chaplin made the transition from shorts to making feature films, knows that screen acting was almost always completely unnaturalistic. Even by the forgiving standards of the age, Houdini was a notably bad actor. He would vacillate between extreme stiffness and overwrought gestures in a manner that drew unintentional laughter. Perhaps with experience he could have eventually learned the technique properly, but of course Harry Houdini was far too famous to be wasted in anything less than a starring role. It certainly didn’t help that Houdini had a somewhat hard default facial expression that would often give him a sinister quality on movie posters. None of this kept his films from being popular with children, but their charms were lost on adults.  

He also had a curious quirk. Although he would always be cast as the lead with a love interest, he could not embrace the actress playing her without becoming ruinously self-conscious. This was because Houdini had insisted, despite the suggestions of numerous members of the crew, that his wife be present during those scenes. Who would have thought that Houdini and Kirk Cameron would have such similar issues?

Even Houdini’s starmaking skills at illusion didn’t avail him very much on the silver screen. We might be used to stories of how early film audiences supposedly thought a train approaching a camera in a film might hit them, or fainting in horror at the sight of the Phantom of the Opera, but audiences were already somewhat savvy to film production tricks by this time. So when Houdini performed his escapes from ropes or straightjackets in movies, audiences knew that an actor could achieve what played the same through props or editing.

Even his much more death-defying stunts were obviously not being performed live for the audience, so they didn’t  have the same thrill because there was no risk of Houdini actually dying – especially not for the stunts that were obviously shot on sets. So even when Houdini did truly dangerous tricks, such as his escape at Niagara Falls, it simply didn’t land as intended. The need to shoehorn in such scenes could also make the movies a touch sillier than intended. For example, in The Master Mystery, Houdini’s undercover agent character finds himself in a straightjacket with absolutely no justification within the story, as if such an occurrence were merely a natural part of the process of investigation. Under the circumstances, it was not to surprising that The Master Mystery was not a hit by the end of its 20 episode run.

Yet as far as his public image would be concerned, The Master Mystery was a smashing success compared to his 1919 foray The Grim Game. The story of the film was that Harvey Hanford went after the gangsters who framed him for murder and kidnapped his fiance. It began an amusing little trademark for characters played by Harry Houdini: All of the subsequent ones would have HH initials. This was decades before that would become a common practice in comic books. But what attracted the most attention regarding Houdini’s second film had nothing to the story or characters.

By far the most notable event of the film’s production and release was when a plane stunt ended in a very real, unplanned collision of two stunt planes. Never one to waste a publicity opportunity, Houdini went to the press with how he’d survived the plane crash in good health and even released posters about the news story. The promotional campaign backfired about as much as it could. Word got out that not only had it been a stunt person who’d suffered a broken arm from the crash instead of Houdini himself, it further came out that Houdini hadn’t even been on set at the time. In the midst of the subsequent uproar and box office failure, the studio could hardly be blamed for canceling Houdini’s expensive contract after his third feature, the misleadingly-titled treasure-hunting adventure Terror Island, also sank at the box office without a bubble.  

Still, Houdini had long been skeptical that his career as a magician would bring him a lasting legacy, and even before his misguided film career this belief had led him to some curious life choices. For example he’d previously said that he believed his pioneering 1910 flight across Australia would be what immortalized him, even though it turned out that someone else had already pulled that off in 1909. So the world’s most accomplished magician was hardly going to let short-sighted film studios decide whether or not he got to be an immortalized film star! It also helped that while audience attendance might have been high, just knowing that Houdini was a movie star at all was making him so in-demand that he could get as much as $3,000 a week for live performances.

So it was that in 1922 he began the Houdini Picture Corporation and a film printing lab. At his own expense, he produced and released The Man from Beyond, which also saw Houdini attempting some screenwriting as well. It is probably the best remembered of his films today if only for its bizarre storytelling choices. That is, bizarre even by the standards of films that were primarily designed as vehicles for excuses for the hero to get locked in a box or bound in dangerous situations.

In it, Houdini plays a man who, in 1820, gets frozen in an arctic expedition and then thawed out as a result of an expedition a century later, and performs a series of rescues and escapes because one of the two explorers that thawed him out ends up framing him for murder. As film critic Scott Ashlin pointed out, the fact that protagonist Howard Hillary is a man a century out of his time mostly plays no part in Houdini’s version of Encino Man. There’s no culture shock, and no relevant information that he knew in the 19th century that comes into play in his 20th century exploits. Nothing as satisfying as that. The only role it plays is that Howard Hillary convinces his love interest Felice Norcross that she is his lost love, Felice Strange, reincarnated. Houdini was surely aware how that might not play very well with God-fearing audiences, for within the movie itself Howard Hillary’s dogma about reincarnation gets him committed to an asylum.

In an ending that would certainly never fly today, even in our more spiritually permissive age, the audience is meant to be happy that she is fully possessed by the spirit of Howard Hillary’s lost love. Admittedly, there was a spiritualist fad in the wake of World War I, what with all the people who’d lost loved ones wanting some form of solace, but Houdini’s ending clearly went much too far even for most in that crowd.

The Man from Beyond flopped in the same way Houdini’s major studio work had, but it certainly acquired one prominent fan: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Houdini and Doyle famously had a falling out over whether or not Houdini’s stage powers were authentic magic, but in this particular case, Houdini was so desperate to get Doyle’s approval that he included a close up on the cover of Doyle’s spiritualist pamphlet The New Revelation while Howard Hillary is showing it to Felice in an effort to convince her of his reincarnation theory. It worked like a charm, and Doyle wrote a rapturous blurb, but audiences still didn’t fall for it. Imagine if Chris Angel or David Copperfield had included a shot of Stephen King’s The Stand in their nationally released vanity film to get a positive tweet from the target of their pandering.

Still exhibiting the sort of hardheaded determination that so often makes people who achieve greatness in one profession look like fools in others, in 1923 Houdini financed yet another film project, this time also taking over as director. This one was Haldane of the Secret Service, a story about the son of a detective hunting down the criminals that murdered his father. Along the way he learns that the leader of his gang of adversaries is the father of his love interest, which at least shows a level of story ambition completely lacking in his previous films. As far direction is concerned, all that need be said was that Houdini didn’t even intend to direct the film, he simply needed to fill in for Burton King.

Critics, beginning to see Houdini less as an entertainer than as an egregious egotist who refused to see the writing on the wall, became more and more savage towards his films as his career went on. Variety said of newly emergent Houdini fatigue, “Perhaps the renowned Houdini is fading,” before complaining that his final movie only featured one escape scene and that for the rest of the film the audience had to content themselves with the sight of the magician as he would “waltz around in a tuxedo and dress suit.” This did not seem to escape Houdini’s attention, for when he wrote messages to his friends telling them of new productions or upcoming premieres, he began putting in self-deprecating asides about his ego.

Still, it’s unclear whether or not Houdini would have taken the hint after the failure of Haldane of the Secret Service, although by that point he had spent so much money trying to keep his film career going that he was indebted to his friends and business partners. By 1926, Houdini passed away from abdominal problems, which legend says was the result of a playful punch to the stomach. If he had stuck to his movie-making guns in the next year or so, he might have been able to try his hand at failing as an actor in a sound film in the wake of the success of The Jazz Singer. In terms of posterity, it’s definitely for the best that he allowed his film work to be completely overshadowed by his world class tricks.

Dustin Adam Koski are also the authors of the urban occult horror novel Not Meant to Know.

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