April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
Harry Houdini, the American magician and escape artist who became famous in the first quarter of this century, spent a great deal of his time exposing frauds. He insisted that all his own marvellous tricks were just that, accomplished entirely without supernatural assistance; he also exposed numerous “spiritualists” whose claims to otherworldly connections were hoaxes of one kind or another. Over the years he built up a tremendous reputation for uncompromising honesty. Yet Houdini was above all a showman—and at least once in his career the impulse to take credit for a great stunt overcame the impulse to tell the truth.
It was the fall of 1919, and Houdini was touring the country promoting his latest motion picture, The Grim Game , a superthriller featuring a daredevil attempt to transfer from one airplane to another—and the totally unexpected air collision that ensued. As part of the promotion Houdini (or his press agent) issued a release describing his feelings during the filming of this incident: “I was 3,000 feet up in an airplane circling above another machine. The plan was for me to drop from my plane into the cockpit of the other by means of a rope. I was dangling from the rope-end ready for the leap. Suddenly the two planes crashed together, the propellers locked, and we started plunging downward toward the earth—and Eternity. I was helpless—but strangely unafraid. A lifetime passed in an instant. The crash will come. I shall be gone. But it is not all. There is another life. There must be! was the comforting thought in my head. But fate ruled otherwise. By a miracle the planes were righted into a half-glide, and though they were smashed into splinters by their terrific impact with the ground, I was miraculously unhurt.”
This gives a reasonably accurate impression of the event, as the movie frames reproduced opposite suggest—except for one crucial point. The man swinging from the rope in mortal danger was not Harry Houdini, but an ex-Air Service flier, Robert E. Kennedy.
Irvin Willat, the director of the film, who is still alive and living in Hollywood, explained not long ago how it all happened. The script did call for Houdini, the star, to make the death-defying leap, and he was perfectly willing to try it. Willat, however, had made other arrangements.
“I simply wouldn’t allow Houdini to attempt it,” Willat said. “No director ever risks the success of a picture by allowing his star to perform a potentially lethal stunt. Houdini thought he was going to do it. But he was a very intelligent man and gave me no argument when I told him he wasn’t.”
The man who volunteered to do the stunt in Houdini’s place, Robert Kennedy, was one of a group of World War i fliers who were amusing themselves by working in the movies. Christopher V. Pickup was to fly the drop plane, while David E. Thompson, somewhat confusingly, flew the pickup plane. Al Wilson, later to gain fame as a barnstormer and movie stunt flier, piloted the camera plane, with Willat himself in the rear cockpit, doubling as a cameraman.
The planes used were Curtiss Canucks, Canadian versions of the famed Jenny, the World War i training plane. They were rented from producer-director Cecil B. De Mille, who owned and operated two of the three airports in Los Angeles at the time.
Everything proceeded according to plan as the planes rendezvoused 2,200 feet above Santa Monica Beach on May 31, 1919. Below, thousands of bathers watched with interest. Kennedy had confidently climbed over the side of the cockpit of the upper plane and was making his way carefully down the knotted rope when a sudden gust of wind tossed the two planes together.
There was a sound of splintering wood and tearing fabric as the lower plane veered up into the one Kennedy was suspended from. Both planes went into a dive as the lower plane’s propeller began to chew into the wing of the upper plane.
Luckily for Kennedy, air resistance had pushed his body away from the point of impact. But he was most uncomfortably close. “I hauled my legs up when the propeller of the other plane moved toward me,” he remembers. “Then I just shut my eyes and held on tight.” He doesn’t recall any ruminations about the afterlife.
All this time Willat, who knew a good action scene when he saw one, was cranking away steadily from the third plane. He caught the entire collision and the start of what looked like a fatal crash as the two Canucks spun earthward with Kennedy flying at the end of the rope like the tail on a doomed kite.
By an extraordinary piece of luck the two planes separated about 1,200 feet above the ground, and both pilots somehow managed to glide to crash landings. Kennedy, still dangling at the end of the rope with his eyes closed, was slapped roughly into the earth of a newly plowed bean field. Apparently the angle and the speed were not too severe, for he was able to cling to the rope for a considerable distance although dragged along the ground. Except for bruises and scratches, he got up intact. Thompson’s plane flipped over, but he, too, was basically unhurt. Soon other members of the movie crew came driving up, and everybody posed happily for pictures. Everybody, that is, except Houdini, who was busy elsewhere.
Willat saw to it that the movie script was rewritten to take in the collision, and The Grim Game was finished accordingly. It was a box-office success in 1919, and Houdini made a point of offering a thousand dollars to “anyone who can prove the aeroplane crash in the movie is not genuine!” Nobody ever collected the thousand, although it has sometimes occurred to Robert Kennedy, who now lives in Anaheim, that maybe he was entitled to it.