One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley announced that another vaudeville star was going to give feature films a try:
That man of mystery, Harry Houdini, having made up his mind that he can be even more deeply, darkly mysterious through the medium of the celluloids than on stage, is going to give the whole world a chance to guess how he does it. In short, Houdini has just signed up with Famous Players-Lasky to make a six-reel feature… Mr. Lasky promises it will be absolutely unique and unlike anything of the sort ever attempted on the screen.
What’s particularly interesting is that she assumed her readers didn’t know much about him. He had only appeared in Los Angeles once, in September 1907. So she introduced him:
Beginning life as a locksmith, Houdini soon learned to open any lock ever made, and it occurred to him one day to capitalize on his talents. Starting in vaudeville with his handcuff act, he toured the world and has had a record-breaking success in all countries. For the past three years he has been one of the featured performers in the New York Hippodrome.
Most of that was correct, but he’d started out as a tie-cutter, not a locksmith. There are lots of web sites devoted to him, like Wild About Harry, but the short version is he was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary in 1874, and he moved with his family to Wisconsin in 1876. He got interested in conjuring when he read a magician’s biography, and came up with an act with doing card tricks and sleight-of-hand, which he performed with circuses and medicine shows. Then he developed a handcuff act. Calling himself “The Handcuff King,” he got a big break in 1899 when he was hired for the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit. In 1908 started doing other escape acts, freeing himself from chains, ropes, straightjackets and locked, water-filled milk cans.
In 1918 his unusual set of skills were featured a serial called The Master Mystery. He played a detective, and the bad guys inevitably tied him up at the end of an episode so he could escape at the beginning of the next. It must have been a success, because Jesse Lasky hired him to make two features. In the first, The Grim Game, he played a man jailed for a murder he didn’t commit, so he escapes and pursues the real killer who has kidnapped his fiancée. The most exciting scene was unplanned: two biplanes collided while they were filming, yet both pilots managed to land. The film was thought to be lost, but in 2014 the Houdini Museum found it (they tell the story on their web site) and Turner Classic Movies restored it.
Houdini’s other film for Lasky was called Terror Island (1920), then he made two more for his own production company but in 1923 decided film wasn’t profitable enough. He added debunking spiritualists to his magic and escape act, offering $10,000 to any medium that could do something he couldn’t explain. He never had to pay it. He died of peritonitis in 1926.
The most astonishing thing about Houdini is that he’s still famous, when most live performers are quickly forgotten. His act really wasn’t like anybody else’s.
Much more typical is the fate of the act that irritated Kingsley at the Orpheum this week:
If it amuses you to listen to two grown people imitating the vocal amours of back-yard cats and barnyard fowls, you will find Charles and Madeline Dunbar amusing. Otherwise you will find staying at home and playing checkers with grandpa more thrilling.
Most of the rest of the bill was equally disappointing; “with only the thought that you pay but a trifle over 8 cents an act to sustain you through some of the numbers.”
Other people actually liked the Dunbars; they toured with their impersonation act for fifteen years. In 1921 Variety’s critic wrote about their show at the Colonial Theater (Dec. 16, 1921, p.19.):
Charles and Madeline Dunbar resumed after intermission with their now standard “Animalfunology.” The man has the most expressive face of any mimics remembered. It’s a pan that glows and that has a mobile quality of particular aid. His “tom cat talk” is what landed strongest, with Miss Dunbar’s clever aid…The act was a deserved hit.
They kept going until 1932 when Charles Deagan (Dunbar was their stage name) died of heart failure in New York City, just after he made his debut in radio.*
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was A Heart in Pawn staring Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki. Based on Shadows, a play written by Hayakawa, it was a bit like Madame Butterfly but with extra suffering. Aoki plays a young wife who sells herself as a geisha to fund her husband’s medical studies in America. While he’s away, she murders a customer by mistake and goes to prison. In the States, he’s told that she died so he remarries and adopts a girl from Japan. They visit his home country and learn that not only that the girl is his daughter, his first wife isn’t dead. She helpfully solves his problems by drowning herself. Kingsley hated this “happy” ending, but she still thought it was a “tremendous drama” and the production had “faultless physical beauty.” Furthermore:
If anything more were needed to make us believe that Sessue Hayakawa is a genius of versatile and brilliant order, it is furnished here in the fact that Hayakawa not only produced this picture in exquisite fashion from every standpoint of artistry, that he not only enacts the principle role with depth and sincerity not excelled anywhere, but that he wrote that human, absorbing story himself.
It’s a lost film.
“Vaudeville Actor Dies in New York,” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1932; “Charles Deagan,” Variety, July 26, 1932, p.47.