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A Disappeared Houdini Film Escapes from Obscurity

On the set of 'The Grim Game' (1919). L to R: magician Harry Kellar, Harry Houdini, & director Irvin Willat (Paramount/Arthur Moses Collection, via Wikimedia)
On the set of ‘The Grim Game’ (1919). L to R: magician Harry Kellar, Harry Houdini, & director Irvin Willat (Paramount/Arthur Moses Collection, via Wikimedia)

The great escape artist Harry Houdini starred in five silent films in the early 20th century, but one considered among his best was long considered lost. Next month, The Grim Game (1919) will have its world premiere, the restored film finally screening to the public after a resurrection from four decades of obscurity.

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) announced the quiet restoration of the film with support from the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation and Conservation Department at New York University Libraries in a release last month. Its long-awaited return will be at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival, March 26 to 29 in Hollywood. A live score composed and conducted by Brane Živković will accompany the 71-minute film, with plans for a screening on television later this year. The last known public showing of the Houdini film directed by Irvin Willat was in 1974. Like his other screen epics, the plot mainly centers around Houdini escaping from various confinements to show off his most celebrated skills, here playing a man named Harvey Hanford, framed for murder. Only five minutes of the film were previously known to survive, featuring its most notorious scene where a real crash between two airplanes was worked into the story.

Inspecting 'The Grim Game' in NYU's film preservation lab (courtesy Kimberley Tarr)
Inspecting ‘The Grim Game’ film in NYU’s film preservation lab (photograph by Kimberley Tarr) (click to enlarge)

Film preservationist Rick Schmidlin secured the 35mm nitrate print for TCM last year after meeting with 95-year-old retired juggler and Brooklyn resident Larry Weeks, who in 1947 obtained this only surviving complete copy of 5 1/2 reels with two negatives. As Schmidlin told the Washington Square News, an independent NYU student paper, they were lucky to meet with Weeks before he died in September, as “had the film not been procured, it would have been lost to the world forever.”

“The restoration project was concerned with not only making the film widely available to the public, but ensuring that it will be safeguarded for future generations,” Kimberly Tarr, head of the NYU media preservation unit, told Hyperallergic. Collaborating with lab supervisor Benjamin Moskowitz under the supervision of Schmidlin, Tarr worked on this safeguarding and preservation of the film.

“This was somewhat of a unique project in that we were called upon to lend our expertise to help facilitate the film’s inspection, storage, and advise on the technical specifications on the restoration,” Tarr explained. She noted that they’ve worked on everything from preserving films of the Communist Party USA to Riot Grrrl videos, but no matter the subject their “charge is to ensure that researchers will have access to these materials in the years and decades to come.”

She added that they’re currently working on a New York City premiere, the longtime home and final resting place of Houdini. “This is the type of dream project that first lured me into the field of film preservation,” she said. “It’s not every day that a lost film from 1919 is found, let alone one starring a man whose name has become synonymous with magic.”

Inspecting 'The Grim Game' in NYU's film preservation lab (courtesy Kimberley Tarr)
Inspecting ‘The Grim Game’ in NYU’s film preservation lab (photograph by Kimberley Tarr)
Inspecting 'The Grim Game' in NYU's film preservation lab (courtesy Kimberley Tarr)
Inspecting ‘The Grim Game’ in NYU’s film preservation lab (photograph by Kimberley Tarr)

The Grim Game starring Harry Houdini will have its world premiere at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival, March 26–29 in Hollywood, California. 

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