The Grim Game


1h 12m 1919
The Grim Game

Brief Synopsis

Harry Houdini plays a young man who is wrongfully jailed for murder and murder and must escape to save his fiance.

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Adventure
Release Date
Oct 12, 1919
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Famous Players-Lasky Corp.
Distribution Company
Famous Players-Lasky Corp.; Paramount-Artcraft Pictures
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 12m
Sound
Silent
Color
Black and White
Film Length
5 reels

Synopsis

Young newspaper reporter Harvey Hanford is in love with Mary Cameron, the ward of his rich, eccentric Uncle Cameron, who opposes the match. Harvey agrees to a newspaper scheme to plant evidence for a fake murder of his uncle, implicating himself, in order to argue against circumstantial evidence. The uncle is actually killed, however, and Harvey is arrested for the murder. Harvey then has a series of remarkable escapes from handcuffs, chains and a straightjacket, culminating in a mid-air airplane collision. Finally, Harvey is vindicated and reunited with Mary.

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Adventure
Release Date
Oct 12, 1919
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Famous Players-Lasky Corp.
Distribution Company
Famous Players-Lasky Corp.; Paramount-Artcraft Pictures
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 12m
Sound
Silent
Color
Black and White
Film Length
5 reels

Articles

The Grim Game


In this silent film, a young man is wrongfully jailed for murder and must escape in order to save his fiancee.
The Grim Game

The Grim Game

In this silent film, a young man is wrongfully jailed for murder and must escape in order to save his fiancee.

Houdini: The Movie Star - HOUDINI: THE MOVIE STAR - New 3-Disc Set from Kino International


Aeons before Dennis Rodman, The Rock, Evil Knievel and Shaquille O'Neal morphed their semi-genuine athletic-entertainer personas into wholly fantastical movie-movie simulacrum, there was Harry Houdini, the world-famous magician and escape artist, and the most highly paid vaudeville performer in the century's first decades. Then as now, such was the nature of cinematic show business – despite movies' plastic uniqueness, the medium was then and still is seen within its own industry as an extension of vaudeville spectacle. People will, it is presumed, come to see anyone famous, even if they're not actors or even particularly photogenic – basketball players, stuntmen, pop singers, trumpet players, gymnasts, ballet dancers (Rudolph Nureyev!), even ice skaters (Sonja Henie!). This paradigm generally reveals only the film industry's short-minded penchant for money-grubbing and exploitation, and nothing about its aesthetics or achievements as entertainment. But with time the upshots can be seductive, as it is with the new Kino box - Houdini: The Movie Star - that encompasses almost all of the surviving footage from Houdini's short-lived acting career (he quit in 1923, dissatisfied with movies' profitability). Here we have American movies at possibly their least pretentious, their least schooled, and their most pulpishly innocent. Starting with the massive serial The Master Mystery (1919), reduced by decay and loss to about four hours of its original seven or so, Houdini's career as leading man had nothing to do with his charisma or good looks, and everything to do with his reputation in "escapology"; between the features and fragments stacked up here, he escapes from life-or-death imprisonment dozens of times. Houdini's act was apparently so popular that audiences didn't care very much about the difference between seeing him perform an escape live and watching a film, with cuts and short cuts and faked circumstances, etc. True, the films – including Terror Island (1920) and Houdini's last, Haldane of the Secret Service (1923) – revel in the moments when Houdini leaps off a cliff into the sea or climbs a building without any help at all, each in single uninterrupted shots. But in Movieland, as audiences had to know in 1919, absolutely anything could appear to happen, but not really happen at all.

The films' escapes have an extra layer of textual gist to them – in real life, Houdini's performances, whether on a theater stage or hanging upside-down over a city street in a strait-jacket, were merely daring showbiz acts, to sell tickets and/or drum up publicity. They had no independent meaning, separate from the public's rubber-necking affection for them and the money they made Houdini and his backers. But Houdini's movies do cartwheels and handstands fabricating dramatic contexts for these same escapes, so they are unavoidable cornerstones in elaborate plots in which Houdini's characters (always bearing double-H initials) are haplessly embroiled. The films substantiate the escapes as "real" crises and heroisms, thereby allowing Houdini, and his viewers, to daydream together about a pulp world in which Houdini's redoubtale skills would be of real use, to fight real villains and save real lives, instead of being merely pointless public entertainment. Movies being what they are, audiences between 1919 and 1923 went to Houdini's movies for the sheer spectacle of seeing Houdini be Houdini, but they also got lost in a fantasy landscape where Houdini wasn't a magician but an invincible ubermensch, fighting evil.

It could only happen in Hollywood – a 5'5" Jewish kid from Hungary becomes, by virtue of his own bravado and double-jointed-ness, a kind of aboriginal superhero. In the years leading up to 1919, Douglas Fairbanks was honing his vibrant brand of nervy physical jouissance, but the Sax Rohmer-influenced mix in the Houdini movies of evil conspiracies, relentless stunt-man peril and outrageous invention (The Master Mystery features cinema's first, and probably most hilarious, robot) formed the template for scores of action-adventure serials to come, through to the decades leading up to television, and then including Alfred Hitchcock's most popular wrong-man thrillers, countless psychotronic TV shows, and the Indiana Jones movies – as well as the uncountable imitators of all of the above. This is the ground floor in a vast cultural enterprise, a bottomless geyser of silly all-American thrill-making. (The exception may be 1922's The Man from Beyond, which recounts how a man, frozen on an Arctic shipwreck for a century, is thawed and awakens to obsessions about the woman he left behind. Produced by Houdini's own company, it awaits a remake.)

For all of the reality-fantasy slippage sensed in the films' use of Houdini's persona, he was far from an inadequate leading man. Acting in serials was not rocket science, but by virtue of his small frame's athletic confidence and quicksilver reflexes Houdini was as hypnotic a physical presence as Fairbanks or Buster Keaton, whether it be writhing out of chains or matter-of-factly grabbing and lifting up bigger men over his head with one motion. Never does the lizard-eyed Houdini seem awkward or out of place or anything less than commanding, even given his bizarre schoolboy haircut and effulgence of mascara.

But perhaps the final and decisive allure of the DVD set, presenting in toto a fascinating episode in American cinema history most of us knew absolutely nothing about, comes down to its breathless, blissful aura of old-fashioned odeon naivete. Like many forgotten and unhailed silent films, Houdini's evoke a lovely, child-like revisitation to a ghostly past we'd long since ceased to remember as significant. The movies' stylistic, thematic and narrative material becomes secondary to the weight of history – film history as well as cultural history. You could learn acres about the American sensibility just after the Great War from these films, but in the meantime watching them is like an itch-free morphine dream from which you don't long to wake.

For more information about Houdini: The Movie Star, visit Kino International. To order Houdini: The Movie Star, go to TCM Shopping.

by Michael Atkinson

Houdini: The Movie Star - HOUDINI: THE MOVIE STAR - New 3-Disc Set from Kino International

Aeons before Dennis Rodman, The Rock, Evil Knievel and Shaquille O'Neal morphed their semi-genuine athletic-entertainer personas into wholly fantastical movie-movie simulacrum, there was Harry Houdini, the world-famous magician and escape artist, and the most highly paid vaudeville performer in the century's first decades. Then as now, such was the nature of cinematic show business – despite movies' plastic uniqueness, the medium was then and still is seen within its own industry as an extension of vaudeville spectacle. People will, it is presumed, come to see anyone famous, even if they're not actors or even particularly photogenic – basketball players, stuntmen, pop singers, trumpet players, gymnasts, ballet dancers (Rudolph Nureyev!), even ice skaters (Sonja Henie!). This paradigm generally reveals only the film industry's short-minded penchant for money-grubbing and exploitation, and nothing about its aesthetics or achievements as entertainment. But with time the upshots can be seductive, as it is with the new Kino box - Houdini: The Movie Star - that encompasses almost all of the surviving footage from Houdini's short-lived acting career (he quit in 1923, dissatisfied with movies' profitability). Here we have American movies at possibly their least pretentious, their least schooled, and their most pulpishly innocent. Starting with the massive serial The Master Mystery (1919), reduced by decay and loss to about four hours of its original seven or so, Houdini's career as leading man had nothing to do with his charisma or good looks, and everything to do with his reputation in "escapology"; between the features and fragments stacked up here, he escapes from life-or-death imprisonment dozens of times. Houdini's act was apparently so popular that audiences didn't care very much about the difference between seeing him perform an escape live and watching a film, with cuts and short cuts and faked circumstances, etc. True, the films – including Terror Island (1920) and Houdini's last, Haldane of the Secret Service (1923) – revel in the moments when Houdini leaps off a cliff into the sea or climbs a building without any help at all, each in single uninterrupted shots. But in Movieland, as audiences had to know in 1919, absolutely anything could appear to happen, but not really happen at all. The films' escapes have an extra layer of textual gist to them – in real life, Houdini's performances, whether on a theater stage or hanging upside-down over a city street in a strait-jacket, were merely daring showbiz acts, to sell tickets and/or drum up publicity. They had no independent meaning, separate from the public's rubber-necking affection for them and the money they made Houdini and his backers. But Houdini's movies do cartwheels and handstands fabricating dramatic contexts for these same escapes, so they are unavoidable cornerstones in elaborate plots in which Houdini's characters (always bearing double-H initials) are haplessly embroiled. The films substantiate the escapes as "real" crises and heroisms, thereby allowing Houdini, and his viewers, to daydream together about a pulp world in which Houdini's redoubtale skills would be of real use, to fight real villains and save real lives, instead of being merely pointless public entertainment. Movies being what they are, audiences between 1919 and 1923 went to Houdini's movies for the sheer spectacle of seeing Houdini be Houdini, but they also got lost in a fantasy landscape where Houdini wasn't a magician but an invincible ubermensch, fighting evil. It could only happen in Hollywood – a 5'5" Jewish kid from Hungary becomes, by virtue of his own bravado and double-jointed-ness, a kind of aboriginal superhero. In the years leading up to 1919, Douglas Fairbanks was honing his vibrant brand of nervy physical jouissance, but the Sax Rohmer-influenced mix in the Houdini movies of evil conspiracies, relentless stunt-man peril and outrageous invention (The Master Mystery features cinema's first, and probably most hilarious, robot) formed the template for scores of action-adventure serials to come, through to the decades leading up to television, and then including Alfred Hitchcock's most popular wrong-man thrillers, countless psychotronic TV shows, and the Indiana Jones movies – as well as the uncountable imitators of all of the above. This is the ground floor in a vast cultural enterprise, a bottomless geyser of silly all-American thrill-making. (The exception may be 1922's The Man from Beyond, which recounts how a man, frozen on an Arctic shipwreck for a century, is thawed and awakens to obsessions about the woman he left behind. Produced by Houdini's own company, it awaits a remake.) For all of the reality-fantasy slippage sensed in the films' use of Houdini's persona, he was far from an inadequate leading man. Acting in serials was not rocket science, but by virtue of his small frame's athletic confidence and quicksilver reflexes Houdini was as hypnotic a physical presence as Fairbanks or Buster Keaton, whether it be writhing out of chains or matter-of-factly grabbing and lifting up bigger men over his head with one motion. Never does the lizard-eyed Houdini seem awkward or out of place or anything less than commanding, even given his bizarre schoolboy haircut and effulgence of mascara. But perhaps the final and decisive allure of the DVD set, presenting in toto a fascinating episode in American cinema history most of us knew absolutely nothing about, comes down to its breathless, blissful aura of old-fashioned odeon naivete. Like many forgotten and unhailed silent films, Houdini's evoke a lovely, child-like revisitation to a ghostly past we'd long since ceased to remember as significant. The movies' stylistic, thematic and narrative material becomes secondary to the weight of history – film history as well as cultural history. You could learn acres about the American sensibility just after the Great War from these films, but in the meantime watching them is like an itch-free morphine dream from which you don't long to wake. For more information about Houdini: The Movie Star, visit Kino International. To order Houdini: The Movie Star, go to TCM Shopping. by Michael Atkinson

Quotes

Trivia

The mid-air collision was accidental; the story was revised to incorporate it.

Notes

Scripts in Paramount studio records disagree with contemporary reviewers in giving the character names of Mary Wentworth instead of Mary Cameron, David Allison instead of Clifton Allison, and Nick Raver instead of Richard Raver. Publicity for the film centered on an accidental plane crash that was recorded on film and necessitated a change of endings. Jane Wolf is probably the same as the actress Jane Wolfe.