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Silent but scary Houdini movie to be shown at Catalina film festival

Silent but scary Houdini movie to be shown at Catalina film festival
Harry Houdini rescues actress Lila Lee in this illustration of "Terror Island." (Catalina Island Museum)

Scare yourself silly Saturday, when the Catalina Island Silent Film Festival screens the 1920 movie "Terror Island," featuring escape artist Harry Houdini.

The silent adventure movie, filmed on Santa Catalina, was a starring vehicle for the illusionist, who is also the subject of the Catalina Island Museum's new exhibition, "Houdini: Terror on the Magic Isle," running through Oct. 7.

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The film festival has been held annually for 31 years and is one of the world's longest-running celebrations of silent movies. It will take place in the historic 1929 Avalon Casino Theatre and feature live music accompanying the movie; magic acts, including Houdini's famous straitjacket escape (performance for museum members only); and an auction with original artwork.

The Houdini exhibition, at the museum itself, focuses on the making of producer Jesse L. Lasky's silent film thriller and Houdini's years as a Hollywood star.

Julie Perlin Lee, executive director of the museum, said research for the exhibit involved bringing Houdini experts to Catalina to retrace the steps of the film and its crew. Although the museum was able to answer many questions about the making of the film, "there is still much that remains a mystery," Lee said.

The exhibition includes film artifacts from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and several private Houdini collectors.

Legendary escape artist Harry Houdini is shown in chains in this photo circa 1899.
Legendary escape artist Harry Houdini is shown in chains in this photo circa 1899. (Associated Press)

Among the highlights are the original script of the movie, studio documents, original movie stills and a handwritten letter by Harry Houdini mentioning the film that was written on stationery from the Hotel St. Catherine, the premiere Catalina Island hotel when the film was made.

There are also newspaper articles recounting an episode in which Houdini tried a real-life rescue of a wayward ship in Avalon Bay. As the cameras rolled, Houdini swam into the sea but was washed into the rocky shore. The film of Houdini's failed attempt mysteriously went missing.

The plot of "Terror Island" focuses on submarine inventor Harry Harper (played by Houdini), who becomes entangled in the search and rescue of both a sunken treasure and the father (Fred Turner) of the woman he loves (Lila Lee).

The film's action peaks on a "South Sea Island" where the locals are preparing their captives for a cannibalistic feast.

Houdini spent much time training for the film's stunts, most of which took place underwater. He escapes from a box that has been nailed shut, releases Lee from a safe, fights off a villainous diver and releases himself from a bamboo frame from which he hangs by his neck.

Two of the film reels of "Terror Island" are considered missing or lost. The exhibition reconstructs the missing film segments with photos accompanied by corresponding lines from the script.

The missing segments include two of Houdini's great escapes in the film: one in which he frees himself from locks and chains in a burning room and a second in which he breaks out of a wooden box that has been dropped to the bottom of the sea. Houdini performed all of the escapes in the film himself.

Info: Silent Film Festival, 1-4 p.m. Saturday. Tickets $25 for museum members, $28 for non-members and $10 for children ages 3-15.

"Houdini: Terror on the Magic Isle" exhibit, daily through Oct. 7, free for museum members, non-members $17 for adults, $15 for seniors, military and students. Children 15 and under are free daily with a paid adult admission.

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