This film stars Harry Houdini in the first of his five movies, and Robert Osbourne says the consensus is that it is his best. It was shown twice on TCM on October 18, 2015, at 8 p.m. and 11:45 p.m. Eastern. Robert Osborne’s introduction is basically quoted here, but with additional information provided at the end of the film itself. The film was thought to have been lost permanently, but a pair of Houdini historians, Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz, who own the Houdini Museum in Scranton, were aware that another Houdini expert, Larry Weeks, had acquired a print of The Grim Game from Houdini’s widow in 1947. Mr. Weeks took particular care of that rare print for years (he had it transferred from 35 mm nitrate to 16 mm safety film), screening it only a handful of times for small groups of select friends and magicians. In 2014 Dietrich and Brookz decided it was high time for Weeks to share his treasure so more people could see it. They introduced Weeks to film preservationist Rick Schmidlin, who in turn contacted TCM to ask if they would help with the restoration. And the film had its world television premiere with this showing.
The first credit card reads: Jesse L. Lasky presents – Houdini – in The Grim Game – by Arthur B. Reeve and John W. Grey – A Paramount-Artcraft Picture.
And the second card reads: Adapted for the Screen by Walter Woods – Directed by Irvin V. Willat.
Dudley Cameron, eccentric millionaire-miser (played by an actor named Thomas Jefferson), has retired from the world behind high walls and barred gates (but only the front gate is guarded, and the dude has a gun). There is only one other servant, a maid named Hannah (played by Jane Wolf), who is disgusted with having to play so many roles in this woefully understaffed household. Cameron has a nephew, Harvey Hanford (Houdini), who is not a welcome visitor. Cameron prefers the company of his ward and heiress, Mary Wentworth (played by Ann Forrest), who cares for him in his crotchety old age. Houdini’s first trick as Harvey is to get through the barred side gate (on camera) in order to tell Mary that his first story with the newspaper “The Daily Call” will appear in next Sunday’s magazine section. Of course they are in love. His second trick is opening a locked box without the key, also on camera. Cameron had given Mary the box and key and told her to unlock it because he couldn’t make the key work (neither could Mary). When Cameron catches the two together he calls Harvey a spendthrift, announces he has other plans for Mary (uh oh!), and closes with “Now get out!” He goes inside and rings for Hannah and when the guard answers, Cameron yells at him to go away.
Next we meet three gentlemen sitting together at the Paloma Club. They are all close to Cameron. First, Harvey’s employer at the Call, David Allison (played by Augustus Phillips), who owes a lot of money to Cameron, money with which he has built the newspaper. Next, Dr. Tyson, a famous alienist and Cameron’s doctor (played by Arthur Hoyt), and last, Nick Raver (played by Tully Marshall), Cameron’s lawyer, who is described on a title card as a man “who seems to prosper without other clients.” As they talk we learn that Cameron has refused more money to Allison for the paper, which is on its last legs. Raver reveals that the money in Cameron’s safe alone would be enough to buy the paper twice. And Dr. Tyson says, “I’ll bet he’s broke and doesn’t know it. You’ve been his attorney long enough!” And Raver then reveals that according to Cameron’s will Mary is the sole heir and is to marry Dr. Tyson after the old man dies “maybe from an overdose – or a necessary operation.”
So the stage is already set for murder when in close order, Cameron writes Allison threatening to foreclose on the paper, Cameron tells Raver that he has been allowing him to forge Cameron’s name until he had enough evidence (“Now I’ve got you where I want you!”), and he proceeds to blackmail Raver. Only Tyson is trustworthy to Cameron; he tells Tyson that Mary inherits “conditionally. She must not marry while I live. I want her to marry you. That is another condition in the will.”
One morning Cameron is so abusive that Hannah loudly quits. The guard was in the kitchen for his breakfast, so he tries to take over serving, but Cameron fires him. He then tells Mary, “I’ve discharged the servants. That’ll mean a little extra work for you.” What a prince! Add Mary to the list of suspects!
Houdini does quite a few escapes and tricks in the movie: with his hands up, he produces a revolver from his sleeve, he escapes from handcuffs on camera, he gets out of shackles twice, once hanging upside down from the top of a building, and he transfers from one biplane to another in mid-air. Then the planes collide and crash. Robert Osbourne said that the plane crash finale was so amazing that Houdini appeared at some screenings to offer $1,000 to anyone who could prove that the crash wasn’t real. That collision was real, and a real accident, but since the planes were at 4000 feet the pilots were able to regain control and land safely. But…. that means that the crash itself was staged, doesn’t it? At any rate the plane crash into a town square looks great and is startling even today.
There’s also a lot in the movie about the unreliability of circumstantial evidence and how it should be questioned rather than accepted blindly, so the film has a social message on top of all the excitement. And it should be noted that the woman Jackie Gleason used to call “the ever-popular Mae Bush” has a nice supporting role as an adventurous type who is starring in the show at the Paloma Club.
Now for a negative note: the original music, composed by Brane Zivkovic, consists mostly of two basic melodies, the lighter of which would be more suited to a Buster Keaton rural comedy. And surprisingly there are stretches of the film where there is no music at all, making this the first partially unscored silent movie I have ever seen.