Classic Hollywood

Once thought lost, Harry Houdini's 'Grim Game' film reappears

It's the kind of magical reappearance that Houdini himself would have appreciated.

For years, the only remaining footage of Harry Houdini's 1919 silent adventure thriller "The Grim Game" was a five-minute excerpt of an actual mid-air collision involving some spectacular derring-do from the legendary magician and escape artist.

But thanks to the efforts of film preservationist Rick Schmidlin, the complete "The Grim Game" was found last year in the Brooklyn apartment of Larry Weeks, a 95-year-old retired juggler and Houdini fanatic. Weeks, who died late last year, had acquired the only known copy of the film from the Houdini estate in 1947.

The new restoration of "The Grim Game" is having its world premiere at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival at the Egyptian Theatre on Sunday evening. Composer Brane Zivkovic will be conducting a live performance of his new score.

Given the continuing interest in the life and magical feats of Houdini, it's not surprising that the screening of this "lost" film is generating great excitement.

"Houdini enthusiasts are flying out from all over the United States," noted Schmidlin.

The film itself is a gem, according to Schmidlin who saw an early private screening of it in New York.

"You feel him a little stilted there, but when you see the action, he plays it like James Bond," said Schmidlin, who produced and supervised the restoration in association with NYU's preservation and conservation department. Metropolis Post in New York City did the digital restoration.

Though he's been dead since 1926, Houdini still casts a magical spell. In September, Oscar-winner Adrien Brody starred in a two-part History Channel miniseries about Houdini. And it was reported last week that Fox has picked up a 10-part supernatural crime drama series, "Houdini and Doyle," revolving around the friendship between the illusionist and "Sherlock Holmes" novelist Arthur Conan Doyle.

"Grim Game" casts Houdini as young Harvey Hanford who is framed for murder. Escaping the police, he goes after the men who set him up. "Grim Game," which was directed by well-known filmmaker Irvin Willat, also features many of his well-known illusions and stunts, including his death-defying escapes.

The rediscovery of "The Grim Game" began last April when Schmidlin was having dinner with Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz, owners of the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pa. They told him about the film and that Weeks supposedly had the only known copy. He had screened it a few times over the decades for small groups of enthusiasts and "never wanted to sell it."

Schmidlin quickly contacted Charles Tabesh, senior vice president of programming for TCM, whom he has known for several years to see whether the cable network would be interested in obtaining the film.

"I said there is a possibility I may have found the lost Houdini film 'The Grim Game,' " Schmidlin said.

"I wasn't overly familiar with it, so when he called, I did some research into it," said Tabesh. "It was one of those films everyone assumed was lost."

As soon as TCM got on board, "what I wanted to do was premiere it at this year's festival," Tabesh said. "A lot of the timeline was with that in mind."

"Grim Game," Tabesh said, would be a perfect way for TCM to showcase Houdini's brief but vivid career in movies. Houdini was already a legend for his live performances when he started making movies. Besides "Grim Game," Houdini starred in the 1919 serial "The Master Mystery," as well as 1920's "Terror Island," 1922's "The Man From Beyond" and 1923's "Haldane of the Secret Service."

After getting the green light on the project from TCM, Schmidlin found himself walking up five flights of stairs to Weeks' Brooklyn apartment, where he had lived since 1946. Weeks brought out two film cans he thought were "The Grim Game." Schmidlin had to unreel the print by hand to see whether he could identity anything.

When he recognized the plane crash, said Schmidlin, "I offered him an amount that Charlie and I had discussed." Weeks agreed to the terms.

The film was deposited and stored at the on-site vault at the New York University's preservation and conservation department. Last June, TCM arranged for a private car to bring the ailing Weeks and his nurse to be there when the film was projected and inspected.

At the TCM screening on Sunday at the Egyptian, the film will be introduced by Schmidlin and the Houdini Museum's Dietrich and Brookz. As for future plans for "The Grim Game," the film will be screening next month at the Wisconsin Film Festival, and TCM will air it later in the year.

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2015 TCM Classic Film Festival: 'The Grim Game'

Where: Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 8:15 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $20


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