A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Grim Game (Irvin Willat, 1919)

Harry Houdini escapes from all sorts of things in this film: handcuffs, shackles, a straitjacket, a bear trap, and even a plane crash. But the one thing he can't escape from is the movie's incredibly snarled plot. Houdini plays Harvey Hanford (apt alliteration's artful aid), a reporter for a newspaper that's on the verge of going out of business unless its owner (Augustus Phillips) can get the money he needs from a skinflint backer (Thomas Jefferson). So Hanford cooks up a plot to have the old miser, who just happens to have a lovely ward (Ann Forrest) with whom Hanford is smitten, taken off to a retreat by a showgirl (Mae Busch) posing as a nurse. Then Hanford will plant traces suggesting that the old man has been murdered for his money -- traces that incriminate Hanford. The reason for all this is a little screwy: Hanford has been working on a story about people unjustly convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence, though what that has to do with getting the backer to pony up isn't clear. What Hanford doesn't reckon with is the fact that the newspaper owner and his cronies, a lawyer (Tully Marshall) and a doctor (Arthur Hoyt), have their own reasons for wanting the old man dead, so when he's found murdered, Hanford becomes the prime suspect. Got that? The whole thing is an excuse to show off Houdini's stunts, but he was not a very interesting film actor. Whatever charisma he had on stage was lost in close-ups, revealing him as a balding middle-aged man with an overbite that reminds me of a Simpsons character. The film was long thought to be lost, but it had been carefully preserved by a collector, and the restored version, in remarkably good shape, was shown publicly for the first time in 96 years this past March. The movie's highlight, other than seeing the actual Houdini at work, is some remarkable aerial photography and stunt work that resulted in an accidental mid-air plane collision being caught on film. The planes managed to land safely: The crash shown in the movie is staged.