After shooting a 15-part serial The Master Mystery, world famous magician and escape artist Harry Houdini made his feature film debut in 1919 with The Grim Game, screening at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s special A Day of Silents held at the Castro Theater this December 5.
Billed as a stirring story of love, mystery, and dare-devil adventure, The Grim Game was scripted to maximize opportunities for Houdini to escape from various traps and shackles on screen.
As discussed in my previous post, Buster Keaton dedicated his most famous short film Cops (1922) to Houdini, while crediting Houdini in his autobiography for giving Keaton his first name. Remarkably (could it be just a coincidence?) Keaton staged three scenes from Cops at places where Houdini had filmed previously. See Houdini – Keaton – The Grim Game – Cops.
While The Grim Game is noteworthy in part for a real-life plane crash caught on film (no one was hurt, see my prior post), Houdini’s roof-top escape from a straight-jacket (above) may be the most thrilling moment in the picture. The stunt was preceded by his escape from what appears to be the interior of the Los Angeles County Jail. (I’ve never seen images inside the jail, but since they filmed exterior scenes beside the jail (below), and Houdini commonly performed escapes at real jails, it’s reasonable to assume they filmed inside the jail too – a fine example of how cinema often preserves history in real life. The jail interior (upper right) also looks too elaborate to be merely a set). At left, this view (John Cox) shows Houdini hanging from a studio jail set for a different stunt.
chased onto the roof, Houdini is re-captured and trussed in a straight-jacket, his ankles tied with rope. Breaking free again, Houdini falls over the edge of the roof, suspended upside down, but escapes the jacket and his captors before the rope breaks.
This sequence was filmed on the roof of the now lost Harbour Apartments at 612 St. Paul Street. While the image quality could be better, during the scene I immediately spotted two landmarks nearly aligned with each other, the squat ‘chocolate drop’ dome tower of the extant Hotel Trinity and Auditorium at 851 S. Grand (left, LAPL), and the distinctive twin steeples, now lost, of St. Joseph’s Church at 1200 S. Los Angeles Street (LAPL). By reversing my orientation, and tracing a path NW from the church through the auditorium, I ended up with a narrow range of candidate apartment houses, and quickly spotted the Harbour Apartments in a panoramic photo – USC Digital Library, while also identifying other landmarks (A-D) appearing in the film.
While the filming of Houdini’s straight-jacket escape was not likely publicized to avoid crowds of onlookers during the shoot, Houdini staged a similar stunt (where else to maximize publicity?) at the front offices of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner newspaper at Broadway and 11th as shown below. At left, Harold Lloyd raced past these offices during his frantic dash to the altar in Girl Shy (1924). John Cox reports in his amazing Houdini site that Harry performed his downtown straight-jacket escape below on April 5, 1923. You can read more about it at John’s story HERE.
The film’s restorer Rick Schmidlin will introduce The Grim Game at The San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s A Day of Silents this coming December 5 at 3:00 p.m. at the Castro Theater, to be accompanied on the piano by Donald Sosin.
The Trinity Hotel appears during Charlie Chaplin’s The Bank (1915) and in Harold Lloyd’s 1919 shorts Bumping Into Broadway and High and Dizzy. You can read about them filming at the Trinity HERE.
For a more complete account about The Grim Game, check out Mary Mallory’s post on the Daily Mirror blogsite.
Looking north up Grand at two surviving buildings visible during The Grime Game, the Trinity Hotel at left, and the Hotel Stillwell.