Rare Houdini films screen with live music
He reigned for decades as the legendary “Handcuff King,” famous for his daring and impossible escapes staged around the world. But Harry Houdini also had a brief career in the movies, starring in a series of silent adventure films that showed off his athletic prowess as his talent for illusion, stunts and escape.
See Houdini back on the big screen with a double feature of two of his surviving films on Saturday, Sept. 16, 7 p.m., at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center. Admission is free, with donations welcome. All proceeds support ongoing restoration of the Town Hall, which dates from 1860.
Saturday’s showing of the rarely screened Houdini films will be accompanied with live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer regarded as one of the nation’s leading silent film musicians.
Houdini made only a handful of movies in the 1910s and 1920s, and much of his film work is lost. But enough of it escaped oblivion to provide a glimpse of the world-renowned escape artist at the peak of his worldwide fame.
In “Terror Island” (1920), Houdini stars as a swashbuckling inventor who steers his high-tech submarine to a forbidden tropical isle to rescue the woman he loves. The film includes underwater sequences designed to show off Houdini’s ability to survive being submerged for long periods of time.
In “The Man From Beyond” (1922), Houdini plays a man frozen 100 years in the Arctic who returns to civilization to reclaim his reincarnated love. Once thawed out, Houdini tries to straighten out the lives of the descendants of his old friends and lost loves. The film includes a daring climax filmed at Niagara Falls.
Although Houdini’s films were well-received, he eventually abandoned his movie career, preferring to concentrate on live performance.
Born Erik Weisz, Houdini was a Hungarian-born, American-Jewish illusionist and stunt performer noted for his sensational escape acts. He first attracted notice in vaudeville in the U.S. and then as “Harry Handcuff Houdini” on a tour of Europe, where he challenged police forces to keep him locked up. Soon he extended his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water and being buried alive.
In 1913, Houdini introduced the Chinese Water Torture Cell, in which he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet full to overflowing with water, holding his breath for more than three minutes. He would go on performing this escape for the rest of his life.
Houdini died prematurely in 1926, at age 52, of peritonitis following a burst appendix.
Although not well known as a film actor, Houdini’s work in motion pictures was not forgotten. In a posthumous ceremony on Oct. 31, 1975, Houdini was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7001 Hollywood Blvd.
Don’t miss your chance to see this marvel on screen, Saturday evening at the Brandon Town Hall. For more information, visit brandontownhall.org.
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