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Houdini's Movie Career

Harry Houdini HaldaneA Scene From Haldane and the Secret Service

Houdini made his first movie for the French movie company, Pathé in 1901. Titled Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris, it was used to showcase Houdini's famous escapes, including his straitjacket escape. Houdini returned to film in 1916 when he served as a special-effects consultant on the Pathé thriller, The Mysteries of Myra. While his magic career soared, Houdini signed a contract with B.F. Rolfe of Octagon Films, in 1918, to star in a movie serial called The Master Mystery. Harry signed on to portray Quentin Locke, an undercover artist for the Justice Department, who uses his expertise as an escape artist to solve crimes. During this serial, Houdini’s character would be buried alive, tied to the bottom of an elevator shaft, suspended over boiling acid and strapped to an electric chair. The film was a success and Harry made his first Hollywood feature film, The Grim Game, in 1919. While filming an aerial stunt for The Grim Game, two biplanes collided in mid-air with a stuntman doubling as Houdini dangling by a rope from one of the planes. Publicity promoted this "caught on film" moment, claiming it was Houdini himself dangling from the plane.

His second film, Terror Island, was made soon after the first. Harry became confident in his movie making abilities and he formed Houdini Picture Corporation where he wrote, produced and starred in movies such as The Man From Beyond and Haldane of the Secret Service. He also started up his own film laboratory business called The Film Development Corporation using a new process for developing motion picture film. Houdini’s brother, Hardeen, left his own career as a magician and escape artist to run the company. Neither Houdini's acting career nor FDC found success, and he gave up on the movie business in 1923, noting "the profits are too meager.” However, years later, Houdini did receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

By 2007, only The Man From Beyond had been commercially released on DVD with incomplete versions of The Master Mystery and Terror Island released by private collectors on VHS. Complete 35 mm prints of Haldane of the Secret Service and The Grim Game exist only in private collections. In April 2008, Kino International released a DVD box set of Houdini's surviving silent movies and five minutes of The Grim Game. The set also includes newsreel footage of Houdini's escapes from 1907 to 1923.

©2013 The Great Harry Houdini
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