Houdini was one of the earliest stars to appear on film!
The movie industry was in its infancy when pioneer filmmaker Charles Pathé approached Houdini and asked if he would be the subject of a 10-minute experimental film in 1901. Houdini's first picture, Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris (Wonderful Adventures of the Famous Houdini in Paris) featured Houdini performing several of his famous escapes, including a jailbreak and a straitjacketescape.
For the next 15 years, Houdini was busy with his stage career. He did not return to film until 1916 when he served as special-effects consultant for the Pathé thriller, The Mysteries of Myra. That same year, he was under contract to star as Captain Nemo in a silent version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but the project was shelved before any footage was shot.
In 1918, Houdini starred in a 15-part serial, The Master Mystery, released in January 1919 to coincide with the publication of the novel of the same name. Though poor financial management caused the film production company (B.A. Rolfe Productions) to go out of business, The Master Mystery was a box-office smash. Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (Paramount Pictures) was quick to sign the movie star Houdini to a two-picture contract.
The first picture, The Grim Game (1919) featured a thrilling arial segment that fit right in with Houdini's daring nature and love of avation. During filming, two of the planes had a mid-air collision, leaving Houdini's stunt double dangling precariously from a rope stretched between the two planes. The studio took advantage of the near-disaster by implying that it was actually escape king Houdini who rescued himself from real-life danger.
Terror Island (1920) was the second, and last, film that Houdini made for Famous Players-Lasky. He had been bitten by the film bug, and wanted to have more creative control.
Starting his own film production company was the answer. Houdini's stage shows were still quite profitable, so he made a tour of Britain, and set up the Houdini Picture Corporation in the spring of 1921. With his own money and some investment by friends, the company got off to a healthy start with a $500,000 capitalization. Over the next two years, Houdini starred in two more films, The Man From Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923).
In addition to making movies, the Houdini Picture Corporation was also experimenting with a new process for developing raw film. Houdini's brother, Hardeen, ran that division of the company (the Film Development Corporation), and the promise of success was so enticing that even the great magician Harry Kellar was an eager investor. The process turned out to be too expensive to market, and too unstable, however.
The excitement of being the star, the producer, the stuntman, and the creative force for the film company soon turned into a chore. Houdini did not have the patience or technical savvy for success in the film business. His stage personality simply did not translate to the big screen. In 1923, he suddenly closed the company, complaining that the profits were "too meager". Ironically, when Houdini got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, it was for his work in Motion Pictures rather than for his success in live theater!
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