Mere Man Battles Nature – 300 feet of film is missing


Catalina Rescue from Tao p153 photoWhile filming a moving picture [Terror Island] on Catalina Island in California, he took part in a real-life nautical drama.  A small vessel had been disabled and was in immediate danger of capsizing or smashing into the rocks off Sugar Loaf Point. [The Witch of Lime Street]

Catalina Rescue from Tao p153 snippet 1

In response to the crew’s distress calls, Houdini quickly secured himself to a line and dove into the turbulent waters.  Shielding himself from the surf with a life preserver extended in front of him, he propelled himself with froglike strokes toward the stranded men – who, as if so directed, were waving and yelling for help.  While onshore a crowd in front of the Hotel St. Catherine cheered the star’s effort to save them. [The Witch of Lime Street]

Catalina Rescue from Tao p153 snippet 2

The scene did not unfold as it would have in one of his melodramas.  Exhausted, Houdini was cut on the rocks and battered almost unconscious.  He had to be saved by deep-sea divers.  It took a motor launch nearly forty-five minutes to cut through the waves and reach the party.  Even so, he wondered to himself if he could have pulled off the feat when he was younger. [The Witch of Lime Street]

Catalina Rescue from Tao p153 snippet 3

300 feet of film at 20 fps (75 feet a minute) is 4 minutes of footage.

Where is this footage now?


  • The newspaper photo and snippets are from the November 29th, 1919 Los Angeles Newspaper article reproduced by Patrick Culliton in The Tao of Houdini on page 153.
  • The italicized passages are from page 35 and 36 of The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher.


4 thoughts on “Mere Man Battles Nature – 300 feet of film is missing

  1. Wow! Houdini’s failed rescue attempt was filmed? From that photo the surf looks really choppy. What was he thinking?

    • In 1960, an eye-witness (the sitting judge in Avalon) described it to Pat Culliton just as the article does. John Wendell was the island newsboy when he and Houdini became acquainted during the filming of Terror Island.

  2. Not something HH would have wanted shown in the newsreels of the day in movie theaters. He may have requested that the footage be destroyed given that it couldn’t be used as a scene in Terror Island.

    • Good point. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time he wanted to destroy something he didn’t want seen (e.g., six photo spread in the Sunday N.Y. World that may have revealed how he made an elephant vanish, photos of himself with German soldiers).

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