In 1919, a year after he’d startled America by vanishing a four-thousand-pound elephant named Jenny onstage at the New York Hippodrome, Harry Houdini arrived in Hollywood to make his first feature film. Already, the magician was roughly as famous as any American performer could be in his era. He’d spent years diving handcuffed into ice-cold rivers, locking himself in jail cells, maneuvering his body in and out of sealed crates and prison vans and (once) the belly of a beached whale. He was a living legend, and a world-class egotist: he named his pets after himself; printed his initials on his pajamas, his bathroom tiles, and his cuff links; and signed most of his trick blueprints “H. H., Champion of the World.”
Still, Houdini was always looking for new frontiers, and he believed that Hollywood was the next step. “I think the film profession is the greatest, and that the moving picture is the most wonderful thing in the world,” he told an interviewer. Like the movies themselves, Houdini had emerged from vaudeville, and he understood film’s appeal intuitively. Earlier in the year, to test the waters, he’d starred in a fifteen-part serial, The Master Mystery, featuring a robot with a human brain who could shoot lasers out of his fingertips. (Houdini claimed to have designed the villain himself.) The series was well-received. Billboard deemed it a “cracker-jack production” that “will thunder down the ages to perpetuate the fame of this remarkable genius.” Financially, though, it was a nonstarter; it took Houdini four years in court to recover his earnings.
To really make an impression, he knew he’d need to participate in the studio system, to make a feature-length blockbuster, rather than a small-time independent production. He signed on with Famous Players-Lasky, the home of Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino, and in April 1919 he relocated to Los Angeles with his wife, Bess. Working out of the studio’s office complex on the corner of Sunset and Vine, the magician plotted his masterpiece, which was to be titled The Grim Game. The fliers and advertisements that soon started papering theater lobbies and appearing in newspapers around the country promised a culmination of his stage show’s peaks:
SEE him dive between the wheels of a speeding motor-truck and foil his pursuers!
SEE him climb the side of a prison and crawl for a rope to the end of a flagpole swaying far from earth!
SEE him on the brink of a gorge, fight a terrifying battle with his foes!
SEE him leap from the roof of a skyscraper and release himself from a straitjacket while hanging head downward on a rope
SEE him risk his life in a deadly bear-trap and set himself free!
Some of the posters also advertised “the only aeroplane collision in mid-air ever photographed,” which may well have been true. During the filming of The Grim Game, two planes that were supposed to cross paths accidentally smashed into one another, wrecking their wings and fuselages and forcing them into spiraling crash landings. The terrified cameraman kept rolling, and the resulting footage was judged too exciting not to incorporate into the finished film. Hollywood could easily fake a plane crash, but why bother when you’ve been presented with a real one?
The release of The Grim Game lived up to Houdini’s outsize expectations. The New York Tribune raved that the film was “entirely different from any picture we have seen, and it seems to us a smashing success in every sense of the word.” According to the New York Times, “the familiar feats, with which he has entertained audiences for so many years, were more baffling than ever.” The Society of American Magicians dubbed it “one of the most sensational boosts for magic that America probably has ever known.” Houdini had stepped onto the Hollywood stage with a resounding success, the greatest existing cinematic record of one of the world’s most beloved entertainers.
Which makes the ultimate fate of The Grim Game all the more puzzling. As the years wore on, the film was screened less and less, until it wasn’t screened at all, until at some point—nobody can pinpoint when exactly—it couldn’t even be accounted for. The film had disappeared. Like a prop in one of Houdini’s magic acts, it was very clearly there, and then it wasn’t. A 2008 archival DVD box set of Houdini movies included all but The Grim Game, which was represented only by a five-minute fragment: the only aeroplane collision in mid-air ever photographed.
When we refer to silent films, we are referring to films that, for the most part, no longer exist: phantom works of art, which we can only imagine or piece together from surviving stills, reviews, or short fragments discovered in dusty attics. The Library of Congress suggests that roughly 75 percent of American silent films are irretrievable; Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation places the number even higher, at 90 percent. Filmed on extremely volatile nitrate stock, the movies often literally went up in flames, occasionally claiming human lives in the process. The notorious 1926 cinema fire in Dromcollogher, Ireland, killed forty-eight people before the flames were extinguished, and the Glen Cinema explosion in 1929 was one of the worst disasters in the history of Scotland, resulting in the deaths of sixty-nine children. Closer to home, a vault fire in 1937 wiped out most of the Fox Film Corporation’s pre-1932 output in a single night and killed a thirteen-year-old boy.
As best I can tell, most prints of The Grim Game might have been lost in an “explosion of unknown origin” in the vault of the Famous Players-Lasky shipping room in Kansas City, Missouri, one fall night in the twenties. For many years, it was understood that the Houdini family had held onto a copy, which they’d screen for neighborhood kids, but even this print soon went missing.
Until one day a couple of years ago, when a film preservationist named Rick Schmidlin—a silent-era specialist who’d launched his career as an assistant producer on David Cronenberg’s The Fly—visited his mother in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and ducked out to meet local magicians Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz for dinner. Dietrich and Brookz asked if Schmidlin was interested in old films. Schmidlin is something like the Robert Evans or the Rick Rubin of film preservation: He worked on the restorations of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, Tod Browning’s London After Midnight. He produced the restoration of The Dickson Experimental Sound Film, the earliest proto-film ever known to have featured live-recorded sound. He was interested.
Dietrich and Brookz told him about a ninety-five-year-old Brooklyn man named Larry Weeks, whom they knew through the Houdini collectors community, in which he occupied an exalted status. Weeks had been a professional juggler for most of his career. His crowning achievement had been appearing in the Broadway and Hollywood versions of Irving Berlin’s show This Is the Army, in 1943, in which he played a GI on kitchen patrol who juggles potatoes and executes a rifle drill with a mop. After the war, he toured the world with the show, before coming home to the vaudeville circuit.
Among the magic community, Weeks was recognized as a kind of pioneer—some argue he originated the “apple juggle,” in which the performer takes a bite out of the apple at each pass—but his stage career had largely plateaued by the end of the 1950s. He played nightclubs and dour restaurants. He started a series of successful magic conferences in New York City, the Big Apple Conventions. He became a booking agent. At one point, he was one of the largest bookers of children’s entertainers in Brooklyn. He also dealt in magic memorabilia.
To the rest of the world, The Grim Game may as well never have existed. But Dietrich and Brookz and a few others in the Houdini orbit knew—and had known for many years—that Weeks owned a print of The Grim Game and had been in possession of it since at least the 1940s. He occasionally screened it for friends at parties. “We didn’t realize at first that it was the only copy in the world,” Dietrich told me, when I called her one afternoon. “I don’t even think he realized it. But people around us in the magic fraternity began seeking out this movie—both inside and outside of magic, they began to consider it totally gone, except for a couple of clips. But yet, we’d seen it! You’d read the old books about film history and they’d say, It’s gone, it’s destroyed. But we knew it wasn’t. We even tried to buy it from him twice, but he changed his mind both times!”
This last point is a matter of contention. In addition to their touring magic acts (Dietrich, for instance, has been called “the first lady of magic” and claims to be one of the only female magicians ever to have completed the onstage bullet-catch routine), Dietrich and Brookz are the proprietors of the Houdini Museum in Scranton. They knew the significance of Weeks’s Grim Game print and wanted it for their collection. His indecision frustrated them. “Larry called himself Houdini’s biggest fan,” Dietrich said, “and here he’s hiding his biggest movie!”
Brookz began to wonder about the legitimacy of Weeks’s origin story. How could this juggler in Brooklyn have ended up with the last remaining print of Houdini’s most accomplished work? Weeks claimed to have pestered the Houdini estate for the film throughout the late forties. The flammability of nitrate stock was by then a widely recognized danger, and the estate was forced by insurance safety inspectors to divest itself of any nitrate prints in its possession. Given the warning, Houdini’s heirs thought they may as well give the film to this obsessed kid who’d been bugging them about it anyway. “But nobody really knows the true story,” Brookz said. “Every time Larry told the story, it was different.”
His juggling accomplishments aside, Weeks was a polarizing figure on the magic scene. “Some people liked him and some people didn’t; he was notorious,” Brookz said. Teller, of Penn & Teller, once described Weeks as “a wiry, goateed leprechaun with a beret and a wicked grin.” Another magician I spoke to, Jon Oliver—a Houdini fan so committed that he sleeps in Houdini’s former bed—was less diplomatic in his judgment. “He was a thief,” he said of Weeks. “Larry Weeks was somebody who people on both sides of the Houdini family thought was creepy.” Nor does Oliver believe Weeks should be praised for holding onto The Grim Game. “The family would’ve taken care of it. They had money. They could’ve handled the restoration and it would’ve probably been in better condition. So to say Larry has done this wonderful thing by keeping it to himself all these years … ”
One rainy night, in 2014, Rick Schmidlin arrived at Weeks’s fifth-floor apartment in East Flatbush. Weeks had asked him to come alone. He had invited Schmidlin on the basis of his connection with Turner Classic Movies, which is affiliated with Warner Brothers—one of the great Hollywood studios, which reminded Weeks of his golden days dancing for Irving Berlin. Schmidlin entered a darkened apartment that resembled a kind of show-business mausoleum. (“Larry was absolutely a hoarder,” Dietrich told me.) One of his proudest possessions had been a pair of little miniature handcuffs that Houdini had designed for his dog, Charlie, who would escape from them like his master. But the handcuffs, at some point, had gone missing under mysterious circumstances. This was a betrayal Weeks would never forget.
Schmidlin and Weeks talked for two hours before discussing The Grim Game. Curiously to Schmidlin, Weeks spoke at length about the film that had terrified him most as a kid, The Cat and the Canary, from 1939, about a woman in line to inherit the estate of a millionaire as long as she retains her sanity. By the end of the night, Weeks and Schmidlin had agreed to meet again, and in this next meeting, a contract was struck. The print was procured from Weeks’s closet and shocked Schmidlin for its modesty: after all that, it was only a few reels of film, labeled haphazardly with a piece of masking tape that read, PROBABLY THE GRIM GAME. Weeks’s friends say the last time they spoke to him after he’d agreed to sell his prized possession, he claimed, The next time you will see me I will be in a box.
In a 1960 issue of the magic journal Abracadabra, Weeks had taken out an ad calling on his peers to contribute to a restoration fund. “As a custodian of 50,000 feet of 35mm film of Harry Houdini,” he pleaded, “I have to report that this old film, from 1900 to 1926, is rapidly deteriorating. When it is finally destroyed the only existing actual movies of the great magician will be gone forever.” He claims he’d already put up two thousand dollars of his own trying to preserve the film, to delay its decomposition. Noting that The Grim Game’s nitrate stock was dying, Weeks had paid to strike a new 16mm safety print and negative. These were the versions Schmidlin was able to restore, with the help of specialists at NYU and TCM.
The instant availability of films today through streaming services belies the status of most predigital movies: prints are decreasingly distributed, preservation is undervalued, and the most prominent streaming services offer selections as arbitrary and limited as a gas-station DVD rack. “At this point in its evolution,” Dave Kehr once wrote for the New York Times, “streaming video can still feel like your neighborhood VHS rental shop, circa 1985.”
I don’t know how Weeks got his copy of The Grim Game, but it may not matter. “If he hadn’t done this, the film would’ve been lost forever,” Schmidlin told me. “Most every project I’ve worked on was exciting in some way. But how often do you find an important, lost, or even just rumored film, in a fifth-floor apartment owned by a ninety-five-year-old juggler? A hundred percent intact? To be able to go up there on a rainy day in Brooklyn and find this film, which most people doubted existed at all? That experience alone was one of the most exciting I’ve ever had.”
“And he knew he’d done the right thing,” Schmidlin added. “He got the best paycheck he probably ever got in a single year, which made him very happy.” Weeks’s happiness was brief. As he’d predicted, he died only a few months later, before the film could be restored or screened for the public. His funeral was held on the anniversary of Houdini’s last performance, and he was buried in Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, just a few hundred yards from Houdini’s grave. According to Weeks’s friends, he’d had the plot reserved for years.