When I was growing up in West Mifflin and started studying magic, it was impossible not to discover Harry Houdini. His name and photo were in almost every magic book I read. He seemed larger than life — a man who could escape from anything, walk through walls and even make a grown elephant disappear from the center of an arena.
I was fascinated.
It’s now even more amazing to realize that in a time before YouTube, the Internet, television and even radio, Houdini, who lived from 1874 to 1926, reached the masses and became a household name. He did this by convincing the public that there were no confinements that could hold him and, in the process, inspiring them that they might be able to overcome their own challenges, too.
He connected with his audiences. They rooted for him and cheered him on, and they remembered the powerful emotion of optimism he made them feel.
As one of the most fascinating characters of early 20th-century entertainment, Houdini’s life has been covered in several books and movies, most notably the 1953 film starring Tony Curtis, a 1976 movie starring Paul Michael Glaser and a 1998 television movie starring Johnathon Schaech.
The new History miniseries, “Houdini,” starring Academy Award winner Adrien Brody as Harry Houdini and Kristen Connolly as his wife, Bess, shares the story of Houdini from a different perspective than past projects. Based on the novel “Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait” by Bernard C. Meyer, the movie explores how the situations and relationships that Houdini experienced through his life left a lasting impact, both personally and professionally.
Mr. Brody brings his own quality to his portrayal of Houdini. Where Houdini was only 5-foot-6 and muscular, the tall and thin Mr. Brody gives more of an emotional, vulnerable feel to Houdini than what we’ve seen before.
Ms. Connolly captures many of the essential qualities for the role of his wife, in her supportive yet impassioned reactions to Harry’s life and career. There are some embellishments to the story that veer from fact and, unfortunately, as in a lot of movies where illusion is the subject, some “Hollywood magic” was used to accomplish the magic effects (rather than actual illusion performances), such as when the elephant disappears from New York’s Hippodrome Theater.
Even with that in mind, this is an entertaining addition to the Houdini film history. Told through a series of flashbacks, with several twists, turns and cliffhangers, the stages of Houdini’s life are covered over the two-night broadcast.
As the film opens, Houdini is dropped, wrapped in chains, from a tall bridge into an ice-covered river as hundreds of spectators watch from above. This perfectly captures the essence of both Houdini and his story. We’re then taken back to his early days as Erich Weiss, a Hungarian immigrant growing up in Appleton, Wis. He’s driven by the support of his mother, and we watch as he moves from standard magic performances to discovering that overcoming escape challenges on stage produces a much stronger response from his audiences than he ever expected.
It’s interesting to note that as the development of movies and other advances create increasingly more competition for live theater, Houdini has to outdo himself, again and again, to stay on top — from being strapped to the mouth of a loaded cannon as a lit fuse draws near to hanging 20 stories in the air above a crowded street bound in a straitjacket. He was so successful that Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes series, actually believed that Houdini had magical powers.
An intriguing part to this miniseries that hasn’t been explored previously onscreen is Houdini’s suspected involvement as an American spy, using his world travels as a cover to obtain and transfer information. This film also portrays a darker side to his story by depicting a sometimes strained relationship between Harry and Bess, drug and alcohol usage, and Harry’s well-documented, intense fights against spirit mediums later in his career.
To me, one of the truest insights into Houdini’s character is on display when we see that he was not satisfied with just mastering magic. He was also compelled to involve himself in the latest fascinations of society as well. When movies first appeared, he starred in two, both including his escapes.
In the end, it’s actually the unexpected itself that brings a sudden close to Houdini’s story, which is augmented in the film with actual footage from his funeral. Despite his incredibly accomplished life, when watching this, one can’t help but wonder what Houdini might have achieved next had his time not been tragically cut so short.
The effect that Houdini had on the people of the time is probably best summed up in the movie in a conversation he has with his doctor, from his hospital bed, near the end of his life. When Harry tells the doctor he is a fake, the doctor responds, “You thrilled millions. I took my family every time you played Detroit. Is it fake to make people happy, fake to help millions escape their own problems and inspire them? You are the realest person I've ever met.”
One of the biggest dreams of any entertainer is to attain longevity, staying power. Houdini not only did this during his career, but unlike almost all of his contemporaries, nearly 90 years after he left the stage, we are still talking about him, remembering him and fascinated by his accomplishments.
That may be his greatest magical feat of all.
Michael Grandinetti is a Los Angeles-based illusionist, born and raised in Pittsburgh, who performs in stadiums, casinos and theaters around the country. He also can be seen in the television series “Masters of Illusion” 8 p.m. Fridays on The CW.
See also Clay Morgan’s March 2009 essay in the Post-Gazette, “Harry Houdini and Pittsburgh: The Ties That Bind.”