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American Experience: Houdini (DVD Review)

3 Oct, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 DVD
Not rated.
Narrated by Mandy Patinkin.

Harry Houdini and his gamin-type wife (Bess) didn’t look anything like Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh — who played them in 1953’s Technicolor Houdini, which is still a mildly appealing screen foray into fabrication. But certainly you knew that or assumed it. What you may not know is that the legendary magician and escapologist (a word I like) was also plagued with self doubts; held grudges (especially against professional rivals); quickly tired what he did for a living; debunked spiritualists almost as a second profession; had a death fixation and was haunted by his own mortality; was kind of a mama’s boy (both in the warm and borderline pathological sense); and — now, here’s a good one — was the first person to fly an airplane in Australia.

Produced a little more than a decade ago, this American Masters presentation is a good example of how one keeps a documentary moving when there isn’t a bottomless pool of existent real-life footage — though, yes, there is some, including from Houdini’s unsuccessful attempt to break into movies, when (says one observer) he only had maybe three basic acting expressions. We also see quite a number of preserved newspaper headlines that indicate the degree to which this major theatrical attraction rated prominently placed news stories. Whatever the era, you’re likely to get good ink (or at least what now substitutes for ink) when you hang yourself upside down over Times Square.

The family of Hungarian immigrant Houdini (born Erik Weiss) settled for a while in Appleton, WI, and you figure that any town that nurtured the formative years of Joseph McCarthy, Greta Van Susteren, former Yankees shortstop/NBC announcer Tony Kubek, Crumb/Ghost World director Terry Zwigoff and history’s greatest escape artist must have had some interesting stuff in the water supply. But the future Harry’s father lost his job as a rabbi because he was considered “too old world,” and the family ended up in New York City, where his son took up a line of work that definitely wasn’t that, which helped him break out of the labor pack.

The new Harry started at the bottom, which is where he met his future wife, a fellow performer (not exactly the way she’s portrayed in the Janet Leigh rendering). It’s reasonable to assume that Houdini’s coming status as a “handcuff king” might have made him appeal to a certain kind of rowdy adulteress, but his marriage was a apparently a happy one despite that looming presence of mom. His only apparent affair came with friend Jack London’s widow (which the documentary says kind of left him bummed out), but this was fairly late in life after he’d spent a fairly long career in strait jackets or breaking out of jails with the law’s permission or extricating himself from milk cans (with water inside) and promoting himself with expert ballyhoo.

Houdini kept himself in superb physical shape with exercise and diet, but his was a calling that took a physical toll above and beyond the appendicitis (and then burst appendix) that engendered the peritonitis that killed him. Contributing to his finish (at 52) was a very bizarre incident involving a college student, who was likely haunted by what happened for the rest of his life (we’ll let this be a surprise, but it didn’t happen to Tony Curtis). One of those interviewed says that he has actually had young folks ask him whether Harry Houdini was a real person or a fictional character (along the lines, say, of Sherlock Holmes). Talk about an especially rarefied level of fame or even immortality.

Those interviewed include that modern-day carrier of the passed illusionist torch David Copperfield — also the late caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who, because he lived to 99, could actually say that he saw Houdini (and even chatted him up in the dressing room). There’s E.L. Doctorow as well, whose novel Ragtime featured Houdini as a key character. And the narrator here is Mandy Patinkin, a key actor in Milos Forman’s underrated 1981 movie of the same. I don’t know if this Doctorow-Patinkin link was a coincidence or intentional, but it contributes to a mood both congenial and symmetrical.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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