Today is the birthday of Harry Houdini (for my full article on this seminal variety performer go here).
One lesser known fact about the Great Escape Artist is that between the years 1919 and 1923 he got his feet wet (often literally) as a movie actor (and writer, director and producer). He launched the Houdini Picture Company, which allowed him to craft action adventure pictures in which to star, jumping into harrowing, hair-raising predicaments from which to extricate himself as the hero.
In The Master Mystery (1919) he plays agent Quentin Locke, who must investigate a crime syndicate run by an automaton. The poster above tells you most of what you need to know about The Grim Game (1919), in which he plays a man who is jailed for a crime he did not commit, and so he escapes, escapes, and escapes again. And also flies stunts in bi-planes!
Terror Island was a feature released by Paramount, directed by none other than James Cruze, and featuring stars like Eugene Pallette. In this one he must travel to the South Seas to rescue a man being held captive by cannibals.
In The Man From Beyond (1922) he played an unfrozen 100 year old man from the past.
In Haldane of the Secret Service (1923) he has to stop a gang of counterfeiters using all the tricks at his command!
While an excellent stunt man, Houdini wasn’t much of a thespian, which may be why these pictures lost money. His company folded. He passed away only three years later, though, so we’ll never know if he ever would have returned to the flickers given the right inducement. At all events, it’s nice to have the record that remains.
For more on silent film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.