Taking Another Look at Houdini's Movies
by Chris Philpott, (published in Magic Magazine January 2012).

(Still from Terror Island.)

Houdini's movies are a fascinating but neglected part of his legacy. As I wrote in last month’s issue, now that most of the films are available on Netflix, these films are easier to see than ever and the chance to see him perform and soak up his persona makes a nice complement to reading about him.

The conventional wisdom about these movies is that the stories were just excuses for his escapes and that he was a very weak actor. Now maybe it's because I come at them as a filmmaker rather than a professional magician that I see them a little differently. Story-wise, why is it a problem that the films are excuses for escapes? We don't complain that action movies are just excuses for action scenes. The question is, are they a good excuse? A film like The Dark Knight is. Unfortunately, most of Houdini's movies are not. As for Houdini's acting, yes, it's awful in spots, but most of it is fairly good and there are moments of emotional honesty, power and charisma that hint that maybe, if things had gone a little differently, Houdini might have become a real movie star.

So no, I don't think a terrible actor. A terrible producer, absolutely, but more on that later.

First off, some context. Hollywood has always liked a pre-built star and Houdini was hardly the only non-actor who was already famous when they tried their hands at motion pictures -- there have been scores of singers, dancers, comics and rappers. By the height of the studio system when singing stars like Frank Sinatra were entering films, Hollywood had learned a thing or two about how to harness a star's natural charisma while nurturing their acting talent. But Houdini must surely have been one of the first non-acting stars to try to make the jump to movies and so I guess it’s not surprising he faltered.

Houdini's Hollywood career might have been very different. As early as 1915 he was having meetings with A-list producers and studios such as Universal Pictures, but through a combination of bad luck, infighting and war, these projects never came to fruition. If there were three moments in Houdini's film career that put the kibosh on him becoming a movie star, this was the first. Instead of working with the best filmmakers for his cinematic debut, Houdini ended up with a mid-level producer, B.A. Rolfe, who talked Houdini out of making a feature film and instead use his ideas in a 13-part serial called The Master Mystery (1919). This turned out to be a great idea in the short term (the film made pots of money) but a bad idea in the long run -- it stuck Houdini with unremarkable writers and a weak director, Burton L. King. It also set Houdini on a path of serial-style story-telling, which emphasized thrills over credibility. This was a problem that would come back to haunt him like a ghost at a fake séance.

Watching The Master Mystery today is a bit of a slog -- it's slow, the plot is silly, the famous "first robot in movie history" is sillier and, Houdini's performance is so one-note it makes Kristin Stewart look like Jim Carey. He spends way too much time leaning forward slightly making his "earnest face".

It's kind of surprising to read that the first reviews of his acting ability in this series were quite favorable. I put that down to two things: a testament to how well Houdini had absorbed the acting conventions of the serial (he'd claimed in a letter to Kellar that he'd seen them all -- so let's assume he'd seen at least a couple) and the relatively low-standards of serial acting.

The escapes, however, are terrific and genuinely thrilling. The fact that they work at all on film deserves a second thought. In Tipping the Hat, Harry Anderson writes, "Why would anyone allow themselves to be put into shackles, or a straightjacket, or a Water Torture Cell without a definite way out? When the audience knows what's coming, theatrical tension takes a hike." Certainly a number of biographers have argued that the theatrical effects such as the Water Torture were but a part of Houdini's appeal and likely would never have made him a star without the one thing that gave his escapes street cred: the challenges. Whether it was a challenge by the police, or audience members invited to tie him up or even bring their own handcuffs to performances, the challenges were what made Houdini real.

Obviously that quality cannot be carried into motion pictures, but movies have an ace in the hole that keeps the tension high: an almost limitless power to make us suspend our disbelief. Every year, we see dozens of superheroes face hundreds of battles and we all "know" none of them are going to die, but still we go back and hold our breath and worry. This is why I think Houdini's escapes work well on screen -- of course we know he's going to get out. Except some part of us can't help but wonder... And the escapes really shine when we get to see exactly how he does them: everybody loves to be let in on the secret. Houdini seems to have understood this about escapes on film -- we rarely see him "pull the curtain" to hide how the escapes are accomplished.

The good box office and notices for The Master Mystery were enough to get Houdini a second chance with the Hollywood big boys and his next two films were produced by Jesse Lasky (who founded Paramount studios with Adolf Zukor). The first of these, The Grim Game, I have not seen (apart from a few cool clips, it’s very difficult to see due to rights issues) so let's move onto the film I consider hands down Houdini's best: Terror Island. This was the one time in his career that Houdini had a good director, James Cruze, who went on to direct at least one classic film (The Covered Wagon). The story is a trifle -- Houdini plays a submarine captain who helps save a pretty girl's father from cannibals while racing to beat some bad guys to find a treasure -- but the whole thing moves briskly, clearly and with panache. Terror Island is a film for nine-year-old boys and the nine-year-old boy in me loved it. This is the kind of good, dumb fun that inspired movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Houdini's performance shows a marked improvement over his work in The Master Mystery. I think a lot of the credit here has to go to director James Cruze. Cruze started out as an actor (he played the lead roles in a 1912 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and you can see all kinds of actorly touches in Houdini's performance. For example, contrast Houdini's usual mode of doing dialogue scenes in The Master Mystery: eager face, leaning forward, staring fixedly at the person he is acting with, as if hanging on every word...

Really, it's a neophyte actor's idea of how to be intense. Contrast with this scene from Terror Island:

First off, it's just a better image (Burton King had a bad habit of framing shots too wide and leaving too much air above the actor's heads), but more to the point, we can see Houdini using an actor's trick known as "the independent activity": some physical task that to do that has nothing to do with the scene, in this case as simple as playing with a pen. Notice how relaxed he is, how much more natural, how much more in control over his opponent, the wonderful Eugene Palette (who'd go on to become one of the great character actors). When Houdini explodes into violence at the end of the scene, it is that much more effective.

Cruze is constantly breaking up Houdini's earnest stare with independent activities. Every time he is alone with a woman, he seems to be doing something else, or else they get interrupted by everything from warriors with spears to a little kid -- the effect is sometimes nothing more than a hint of a smile on Houdini's face, but that can make a lot of difference as to how a scene plays.

One thing Cruze realized was that Houdini was a man of action -- he's at his most watchable when he moves. Houdini didn't turn action into poetry, the way so many great action stars from Douglas Fairbanks to James Cagney to Jackie Chan have done. His actions were full of grunts and grimaces. He was certainly athletic, with a hint of the acrobat, but not much of the dancer. His action sequences were more remarkable for their ingenuity and determination than their grace.

The great action stars all, in some way, transcend the conventions of the genre with their personalities. Douglas Fairbanks, the greatest action star of Houdini's age, always seemed to be having way too much fun, and it's impossible to watch his films without being infected with his joy. But Houdini was never really able to transcend straight-up genre acting. Here and there you can see flashes that he might have gotten there. For example, one of my favorite moments in Terror Island is a little throwaway bit in which Houdini walks in and finds a cat at his place at the table and he breaks out laughing.

The moment has such a charming, unrehearsed quality that you can almost imagine Cruze staging it as a surprise (the scene begins when Houdini walks through the door). However it came about, it was a lovely touch, and Houdini played the scene out in a relaxed, likeable and realistic way.

But now we come to the second event that thwarted Houdini's goal of film stardom: Terror Island, in spite of its charms, was a box-office flop. Why? It's hard to say why a film failed last weekend, let alone 90 years ago, but I'll throw out a couple guesses. Moving Picture World thought the title was "gruesome" and the plot improbabilities were "thrust down the [audience's] throat" (perhaps this is where the ghost of the serial comes back to haunt Houdini). To modern audiences this might seem like a bizarre complaint considering how ridiculous so much of The Master Mystery is, but I suspect audiences then were as attuned to the differences between serial and feature as we are to sitcom and movie, and if a movie was suddenly to use a sitcom convention like a laugh track, today's audiences would no doubt rebel. Houdini himself expressed his admiration for the film in his diaries, but once the film flopped he started blaming the studio's cut. Ah, the more things change...

In any event, Lasky did not renew his contract and Houdini decided to start his own production company. On the surface of it, this seemed like a smart move: Houdini's pal Charlie Chaplin had done the same thing with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith in forming United Artists about a year earlier. The one big difference was that they knew the film business intimately, and Houdini never really did. This was to become the third tragic moment in Houdini's attempt to become a movie star.

The first film Houdini produced was The Man From Beyond, in which Houdini plays a man who has been frozen in the Arctic ice for 100 years who returns to civilization to find his lost love. The film is fascinating in that it catches Houdini at the moment in his life when his interest in spiritualism was intense but before he had become a full-fledged medium-debunker (Arthur Conan Doyle gave the film two ectoplasm-covered thumbs up).

But despite being interesting, the film is just terrible -- this is where Houdini the producer sealed the fate of Houdini the star. Apparently he concocted the scenario himself and then, instead of hiring a real writer to turn his ideas into an actual story, he hired an inexperienced writer (and, I suspect, a yes-man). The muddled, melodramatic story is too often told with boring scenes of two people talking intercut with wordy inter-titles. There are bad guys talking about doing bad things (instead of just doing them) and, worse, pretentious-sounding discussions of spiritualist themes. Here, for example, are some of the opening inter-titles: "Tis said, 'The greatest work of God is man'-- but just as carefully devised to fit our hopes is man's conception of a life beyond the grave. This story starts where Dogma clashes with the promptings of a higher sense and leads to something which--because it is new--we think is mysterious." And just to drive the importance of this movie home, it begins with a close shot of "The Holy Bible" and ends with a passionate defense of reincarnation (theological consistency is not exactly its strong suit).

There is just one escape and while it's not bad in itself, the director seemed determined to drain all the life out of it. Here is how he stages the scene where Houdini is dragged to an asylum, wrapped in wet sheets and tied to a cot (see if you can guess from this still which director Houdini hired):

Let's see... Visually dull... Framed too wide... Loads of air over their heads... Hmmm...

I'll give you another hint: Burton L. King!

Seriously? Houdini, dude, why? Perhaps it was because since Houdini was such a self-made man who (arguably) never had a collaborator who was an equal to him, that he felt sure he could succeed on his own without the strong guiding hand of a good director. The saddest part is we see Houdini striving to be better, to push himself and his art out of the serial ghetto, to tell a story that was important to him, and to expand his range as an actor. I'll give him his due: sometimes he pulls it off and there are moments in this where you can see him working with real, powerful emotions. But Burton King is not an actor's director and the screenwriter doesn't know how to set up a nice moment of drama. So we get a lot of inter-titles telling us, in effect, that Houdini is sad and then we cut to long, static shots of him emoting...

Worse, we get scenes where the filmmakers favor outlandish actions over what could have been real, powerful human emotions. Shortly after explorers find Houdini frozen in a block of ice they decide to strip him down. They say it's to get him out of his wet clothes, which seems sensible, though their subsequent decision to dress him in nothing but a loincloth (in the Arctic, in winter) is perhaps, ill-advised. Maybe someone thought it made Houdini look like Christ on the cross and that brought out the religious themes. Or maybe Houdini was just looking for any old excuse to show off his bod. In any event, before you can say "Victorian melodrama," Harry is running around on the polar ice cap raving in his man-diaper as he's chased by the explorers. Houdini's acting here -- at once emotionally vague and dramatically over-the-top -- is not something I suspect he put on his reel.

The movie's big action set piece, Houdini rescuing a woman from Niagara Falls, is quite good, but suffers from two things: the first is that it just isn't as good as a similar rescue from a river and waterfall in Griffith's Way Down East made two years earlier. The other is a criticism Variety made about The Grim Game: "It has a very serious fault in editorial construction... Houdini's stunts do not seem more unusual than those given the screen by serial stars such as Antonio Moreno and Charles Hutchinson... Houdini's films are rousing entertainment, as long as he is plying his trade." In other words, any old actor can rescue a girl from the brink of a waterfall, but only Houdini can stage an escape and that's what audiences want to see.

The Man From Beyond ended up being over-budget, poorly-reviewed and a box-office disappointment (in spite of aggressive promo such as reviving his elephant vanish and three separate touring troupes). Houdini's second movie as a producer (and his first as a director) Haldane of the Secret Service was even more maligned and flopped. And so Houdini folded his production company and his movie career came to an end.

Reflecting on Houdini's films, I am left with two final thoughts -- they concern sex and magic.

Sex, first (you’re welcome). Generally, I couldn't care less about the intimacies of famous people, but I find Houdini's sexual psychology fascinating and fairly central to his character. Those revealing pictures of Houdini draped in chains and a loin cloth so small it would fit in on a beach in Rio, his frequent, over-the-top declarations of love to his bland little Bess, his intense devotion to his mother, his childlessness, his near-refusal to kiss his leading ladies on-screen (though he is alleged to have affairs with several of them) -- the whole thing makes him seem like a riddle wrapped in the chains of mystery nailed inside an enigma and tossed into the Hudson. I'm not sure the definitive work has every been written on the subject but I have a feeling that when it is, these films will play a central role. As Bernard Meyer wrote, these movies, "are for the most part obvious self-portraits which, while not qualifying as great art, often provide a revealing and often surprising glimpse into the darker corners of his character."

Certainly, Houdini wasn't the only star to put himself opposite chaste, child-like, idealized heroines -- in that sense, Houdini's women are not so different than Chaplin's. But there's a big difference in the way these women play off their leading men: Chaplin's tramp has as much of the child about him as his heroines. He is not overtly sexual: his body is hidden in ill-fitting clothes and his every movement, from walking down the street to avoiding a punch, is elevated to a kind of dance. Chaplin is as much a poeticized projection as any of his heroines and so they generally mesh perfectly.

But Houdini is very different onscreen -- he is not boyish, he is a man. His every movement is thick and strong -- he's intensely physical. He is often stripped down to near nakedness. Houdini's persona is intricately connected to his body. And yet his women are virtually without bodies -- hidden, masked, curveless, idealized, childlike. With the exception of Terror Island Houdini's gaze at his leading ladies seems less like a man looking at a woman than like a dog worshiping his master. In the end, whatever it says about Houdini's psyche, it made for mediocre cinema because there was just no chemistry.

And finally, magic. One of the things that struck me about these films by the most famous of all magicians was how little magic there was in them. The first great magician of the silver screen, Georges Méliès, wanted to stuff his movies with tricks and create a world of illusion in film. As cinema's second great magician, Houdini's only real magical moment was a trick shot in The Man From Beyond in which a spirit (really someone under a sheet) is superimposed floating down into his body as he is frozen in the block of ice, that recalls spirit photographs popular at this time more than the more whimsical Melies' images. It would be up to Orson Welles, the third great cinema-magician, to find new ways to dazzle us with magical images.

(Houdini in a great escape from Terror Island).

References: The Secret Life of Harry Houdini, William Kalush and Larry Sloman, The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini by Ruth Brandon, Houdini, AMind in Chains by Bernard C. Meyer and the Wild About Harry blog by John Cox.

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