This much-sought-after 1919 film — a complete print of which only recently was brought to TCM for restoration — features the escape artist and legendary illusionist in one of his few starring roles. The film was discovered and the restoration was produced and restored by film preservationist Rick Schmidlin, whose credits include such restorations as The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894/95), Greed (1924), London After Midnight (1927), Touch Of Evil (1958) and Elvis: That’s The Way It Is – Special Edition (1970).
In The Grim Game, Houdini plays Harvey Hanford, a young man who is framed for murder. As Hanford escapes from the police and goes after the gang of men who framed him, the movie offers numerous opportunities for Houdini to display his own skills as an escape artist, illusionist and stuntman. Among the most remarkable sequences is a mid-air collision between two airplanes that was a real accident caught on film and used in the story.
The only known copy of the complete film was held by Larry Weeks, a 95-year-old retired juggler who lived in Brooklyn. Weeks had obtained the film from the Houdini estate in 1947, had only shown it a few times and never had been willing to sell it. Schmidlin got in touch with Weeks and visited him to assess the condition of the film. Weeks showed him the two film cans that contained The Grim Game. Schmidlin explained that TCM was willing to make an offer, and after two hours of discussion, Weeks finally agreed.
Schmidlin arranged to have NYU provide storage in its on-site vault. At NYU, an examination of the film revealed the total movie was 5 1/2 reels, not the five reels that always had been reported. They also had two reels of negative film.
“Harry Houdini is an compelling cultural icon, but most people don’t know about his movie career,” said Charles Tabesh, SVP Programming at TCM. “He made several films, but The Grim Game was his first feature, considered his best. It’s fascinating to see Houdini as an actor. … It’s really fun to watch [the film] that even the most hardcore fans haven’t had a chance to see.”
During the world-premiere screening in Hollywood, composer Brane Zivkovic will conduct a live performance of his new score for the film. Additionally, The Grim Game will make its world TV debut on TCM later in the year.