The Grim Game (1919, Irvin Willat)

Some of The Grim Game is spent on Harry Houdini’s illusions. The film puts Houdini, playing a reporter, in various tight spots where he has to escape from one thing or another. By the third act of the film, Houdini’s escapes aren’t even the focus–though there is a fantastic mid-air plane sequence. The plot gets in the way.

The film gives the illusion of great complexity. Houdini’s rich uncle (Thomas Jefferson in the film’s only weak performance) is an awful miser and is planning on shutting down Houdini’s newspaper (Houdini’s the star reporter). So Houdini hatches a plan to save the paper. It requires Jefferson to go missing; of course, all the good guys will know where he’s gone.

This development comes after Game spends a lot of time setting up Jefferson, setting up Arthur Hoyt as his doctor, Ann Forrest as his ward (who Houdini romances but who Hoyt wants to marry for her eventual fortune). Most of this setup is a waste of time (especially in the case of Mae Busch as a cabaret star who gets involved). Walter Woods’s script meanders, oblivious to its lack of suspense.

Obviously, things go wrong–way too quickly–and Houdini ends up in jail. Director Willat does all right with the action, but he has no time for anything else. He rushes, almost nervous about giving away too many clues to the eventual mystery. Except, without clues or questions, the mystery resolves lamely.

Hoyt’s excellent, Forrest’s likable (even if she barely has anything to do–it’s not even clear she knows Hoyt is a suitor). Houdini’s confident and thorough. The film never takes itself too seriously, which is swell, except that lack of self-interest hurts once it gets to the “who cares” resolution to the mystery. It needed a better script. And more Houdini escapes.



Directed by Irvin Willat; screenplay by Walter Woods, based on a story by Arthur B. Reeve and John Grey; directors of photography, Frank M. Blount and J.O. Taylor; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Harry Houdini (Harvey Hanford), Ann Forrest (Mary Cameron), Arthur Hoyt (Dr. Harvey Tyson), Augustus Phillips (Clifton Allison), Tully Marshall (Richard Raver), Mae Busch (Ethel Delmead) and Thomas Jefferson (Dudley Cameron).

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