Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Houdini and Chaplin Seance

Charlie Chaplin and Houdini were two of the 20th century’s most iconic figures. The well-known photograph of Houdini and Charlie Chaplin shown above is believed to be taken in 1915 during a visit to the studio by Houdini. Unbeknown to me this wasn’t the only time the two men met. In fact, Chaplin is said to have attended a seance conducted by the great Houdini in the Hollywood hills.

E.J. Fleming reports in the book, Paul Bern: The Life and Famous Death of the MGM Director and Husband of Harlow, that in July, 1921, Houdini was in Los Angeles working on The Soul of Bronze. Houdini enthusiasts will recognize this title as the Georges Le Faure short story Houdini acquired with plans to distribute through the Houdini Picture Corp. Little is known about the film.

Houdini met the silent film star John Gilbert (1899-1936) in 1921 while working and living in Hollywood. Ironically, Gilbert would go on to play a Houdini-like magician/escape artist in The Phantom of Paris (1931). Houdini was living in Laurel Canyon and Gilbert lived as a guest in a mansion nearby on North Kings Road in Beverly Hills. The mansion was actually the home of Carey Wilson and Paul Bern. 

Wilson (1889 –1962) was a Hollywood screenwriter and producer of such films as Ben-Hur (1925) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). He also was one of the thirty-six Hollywood pioneers who founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927. Paul Bern ( 1889 –1932) was a director, screenwriter and producer for MGM.  He famously wed Jean Harlow in 1932, and two months later, he was found dead, the victim of an apparent suicide.

The trio of Bern, Carey and Gilbert were notorious around town for womanizing and hard-drinking. Nevertheless, they were also very inquisitive and educated. One of Paul Bern’s interests was spiritualism and the afterlife. Charlie Chaplin lived down the road from the Kings Road mansion and would often visit. 

Houdini, Gilbert, Chaplin and Bern

Reportedly, Houdini was invited by John Gilbert to come to the home and entertain some guests, including Chaplin, with a pseudo seance in 1921. During the course of the evening a table lifted off the floor, shook and crashed into the wall pinning a terrified Gilbert. Of course, Houdini explained it was all just a trick and explained how it was done.

Perhaps Chaplin and Houdini crossed paths on other occasions. We may never know, but the story of these two men sitting across from one another at a seance table is noteworthy. If only there was a picture of Chaplin and Houdini on that occasion!

By Love Reclaimed: Jean Harlow Returns to Clear Her Husband’s Name - Adrian Finkelstein; Valerie Franich

Hollywood Remembered: An Oral History of Its Golden Age -  Paul Zollo

Paul Bern: The Life and Famous Death of the MGM Director and Husband of Harlow - E.J. Fleming