The Grim Game

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Houdini film gets new score; entertains with daredevil stunts

Screened at the TCM Classic Film Festival, March 29, 2015
By Mary McCord, Editor, classicfilmwatch.com

    Before the TCM Classic Film Festival began, The Grim Game was on my short list of “must see” films. It is a 1919 silent, starring Harry Houdini in one of his few film roles. After viewing the world premiere screening of the film, which had a new score composed and conducted by Brane Zivkovic, I was pleased to find out that I had categorized the film correctly.
     In The Grim Game, Houdini plays Harvey Hanford, a young newspaper reporter who is framed for murder. As Hanford escapes from the police and goes after the gang of men who framed him, Houdini has the chance to display his skills as an escape artist, illusionist and stunt man.
     The Grim Game showed Houdini in a variety of daredevil situations where he broke out of shackles to break out of prison, escaped from a straightjacket while suspended from a skyscraper and dangled from a rope outside an airplane. While very formulaic and predictable, the film was still very entertaining and a treat since a silent film being accompanied by live music is such a unique movie-going experience today.
     Other than TCM’s special presentation, another reason I wanted to see The Grim Game is that I have a friend whose grandfather met Harry Houdini and designed a poster for his vaudeville magic act in the early part of the 20th century. In those days, stars would come to town to perform in the local vaudeville theaters and they would need a poster to attract an audience. Of course, movie posters were printed during this time, but the cost and time factor of producing a printed poster was prohibitive for live performances that were often scheduled last-minute and had a short run. So, this was good for the local artists, because they were hired to make signs and illustrate posters.
      My friend’s grandfather was very impressed with meeting and working for Houdini and told his grandson stories about this. Later on, he gave his grandson Harry Houdini’s business card. My friend proudly carried this business card in his wallet for many years, only for it to disappear when he was visiting another country. I guess that was to be expected of Houdini's business card.
      The first thing I did when I got to the Festival was to stop by the TCM gift shop to see if there was a DVD of this film. I have always been touched by my friend’s story of losing his grandfather’s Houdini memento and thought he might like a DVD of The Grim Game. I was interested in one for myself, too. I had read that TCM participated in the restoration of the film, so I was hopeful it would be there, but it was not. Later, during the

Harry Houdini on screen
Harry Houdini on screen in The Grim Game. One of his few film roles, he displays his skills as an escape artist, illusionist and stunt man.

introduction before the screening of the film, I found out why.
      Rick Schmidlin, an award-winning film preservationist and silent-film scholar, spoke about the discovery of the film. In April of 2014, he met with Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz, who own The Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA. They discussed a lead for The Grim Game.
      Even though Houdini stopped making movies because he did not find it profitable for him, he was smart enough to keep a copy of the film. His family came into possession of the film when he died of an illness in 1926 and housed it for many years. The story goes that the family couldn’t get insurance on their home because of the nitrate factor of the film so they put The Grim Game up for sale.
      Larry Weeks, a former juggler from Brooklyn, magic enthusiast and Houdini fan, bought the film from the Houdini estate in 1947. He only showed the movie a few times to family, friends and interested magicians in the years that followed, never allowing the film to be restored or shown publicly. There were no other known prints of the film and it had been considered to be a lost film.

     The only remnant from the Paramount film that had survived was a five-minute sequence of the famous mid-air, two- plane collision that was not scripted, but was an actual accident that was caught on film in the Santa Monica, California sky. The pilots of both planes managed to get control of their planes and land safely.
      At The Grim Game’s premiere, Harry Houdini offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could prove the collision had been faked. He also claimed to have been flying one of the planes, but Paramount records show otherwise. All of the shots of Houdini mid-air are clearly studio shots cut into the real aerial footage. While Houdini was a master of magic, he was also a master of self-promotion.
      Very interested in restoring The Grim Game, Schmidlin contacted Charles Tabesh, senior vice president of programming for TCM. Later, he met with Weeks and let him know that TCM was willing to make an offer. After two hours of discussion, Weeks finally agreed. Schmidlin said the initial screening to determine the condition of the film resulted in the discovery that “Nothing was missing.”
     With a real mid-air collision between two airplanes caught on film, Harry Houdini’s daring escapes and Brane Zivkovic’s remarkable new score, nothing was missing.
      I was happy to find out that the TCM network plans the world television debut later this year. Maybe a DVD will be available down the line, afterall.

The Grim Game score
Composer Brane Zivkovic wrote a new score for the screening
of The Grim Game at the TCM Classic Film Festival.

Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
Magicians Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz introduced The Grim Game and displayed a proclamation authorizing Houdini Day
in Scranton, PA, home of the Houdini Museum.

Dorothy Dietrich in straight jacket
Magician Dorothy Dietrich performs Harry Houdini's
famous straight jacket escape on stage before
the screening of The Grim Game.