Will Stephenson at The Paris Review:
In 1919, a year after he’d startled America by vanishing a four-thousand-pound elephant named Jenny onstage at the New York Hippodrome, Harry Houdini arrived in Hollywood to make his first feature film. Already, the magician was roughly as famous as any American performer could be in his era. He’d spent years diving handcuffed into ice-cold rivers, locking himself in jail cells, maneuvering his body in and out of sealed crates and prison vans and (once) the belly of a beached whale. He was a living legend, and a world-class egotist: he named his pets after himself; printed his initials on his pajamas, his bathroom tiles, and his cuff links; and signed most of his trick blueprints “H. H., Champion of the World.”
Still, Houdini was always looking for new frontiers, and he believed that Hollywood was the next step. “I think the film profession is the greatest, and that the moving picture is the most wonderful thing in the world,” he told an interviewer. Like the movies themselves, Houdini had emerged from vaudeville, and he understood film’s appeal intuitively. Earlier in the year, to test the waters, he’d starred in a fifteen-part serial, The Master Mystery, featuring a robot with a human brain who could shoot lasers out of his fingertips. (Houdini claimed to have designed the villain himself.) The series was well-received. Billboard deemed it a “cracker-jack production” that “will thunder down the ages to perpetuate the fame of this remarkable genius.” Financially, though, it was a nonstarter; it took Houdini four years in court to recover his earnings.