The Sierra Madre Playhouse has built a reputation over the past 40 years for producing both classic and quirky plays and musical shows with a small-town charm that’s unique to the Los Angeles area theater scene. But before it became the home of colorfully concocted live events, it was a movie theater from 1924 until the early 1970s.
On Friday, it will be a movie house once again when it screens an extremely rare and fascinating film, the long-lost feature film “The Grim Game,” one of only five movies starring the legendary magician-escape artist Harry Houdini. Packed with action and stunts, and featuring actual footage of an accidental crash between two biplanes that occurred during filming, the film had nearly been lost forever before the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable network bought and restored it in 2015 — and then only aired it once.
“‘Grim’ was made in 1919 and was the best film of the five Houdini did,” explains John Cox, an expert on Houdini who will introduce the film. “Many silent movies have disappeared and this one was on the way out, with only one known print that was privately owned and was a really poor 16mm version showing signs of real damage.
“The Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania formed a coalition with TCM to buy it back and restore just months before the print’s owner died,” Cox adds. “I’m going to be introducing the movie and talking about Houdini and the movies he made. It’s been restored and is in great shape, but it’s never been on DVD and streaming, so it’s one great movie you can’t watch at home. The only way to see it is at the playhouse.”
The 71-minute “Grim” is an adventure film about a young man who is unjustly jailed for a murder he did not commit and then has to use his amazing powers of escape to get free and pursue the actual killers, who hold his fiancée captive. The silent film will feature a live music score by prominent silent film accompanist Michael Mortilla and violinist Nicole Garcia, with Mortilla also giving a short talk on the importance of music in silent films.
Cox runs the popular wildabouthoudini.com website and is considered the preeminent scholar on the famed escape artist’s life. He became intrigued by Houdini when he saw the 1953 biopic “Houdini” airing on TV in the 1970s at age 10, and “went on a quest to find out as much about Houdini as I possibly could.”
Since then, he has parlayed his expertise into not only running his daily-updated site, but serving as a consultant on numerous film and TV projects about the magician. He claims that he finds something new nearly every day that he applies to an upcoming book on Houdini, and believes there is more fresh information to be found about him than if he were running a blog on Lady Gaga.
“The five movies that Houdini made were an example of a Hollywood experiment that didn’t work out,” says Cox. “But ‘The Grim Game’ is the most entertaining of all of them, and the biplane crash has to be seen to be believed.
“As written, Houdini was supposed to swing on a rope from one plane to another,” he continues. “That was the plan, but the two planes collided in mid-air with a stuntman hanging on a rope between them. They crash landed, so they rewrote the movie to incorporate it. It became a huge part of the film’s hype, that it was the only movie to feature a real-life plane crash.”
“The Grim Game” screens at 8 p.m. Friday at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Tickets are $25. Call (626) 355-4318 or visit sierramadreplayhouse.org.