Daily Archives: September 8, 2014

Magic Monday ~ History Channel’s Houdini


I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature.  I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

A year ago, I had a Saturday Cinema post about various screen incarnations of Harry Houdini. Last Monday and Tuesday, the History Channel broadcasted their mini-series and I figured I’d give it my Cinematic Houdini treatment and a general review.

Houdini 2014.jpg

“Houdini 2014”
Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Houdini (2014)
Adrien Brody – 6’1″

  • What it’s got: Houdini as a kid growing up in the small town of Appleton, WI (except it wasn’t a small town), including his brother Theo. Royal performances for everyone in Europe, including Rasputin. Bess threatening to leave due to the dangerous tricks; Harry having affairs, including little bit of bondage for the 50 Shades set, a biting comment from Bess about marrying a Jew. Most of the signature tricks, including disappearing an elephant (except that’s not how it was done at all).  Engineer Jim Collins (except Jim Collins wasn’t an American). A nod to Houdini’s film career. The Halloween curse. The gut punch.
  • What it’s missing: Houdini’s other siblings–it was a big family. “Mundane” jobs before becoming a performer. Martin Beck. Needles. The Scotland Yard challenge. Houdini’s interaction with other magicians. Houdini and Hardeen (his brother Theo) working together to keep imitators to a minimum. The Houdinis inability to have children.

The History Channel’s Houdini includes quite a few things that haven’t been seen in a Houdini biopic, but gets so many things very wrong. John Cox at Wild About Harry has a two part post of fact-checking (night one, night two) that goes in-depth about inaccuracies. The general reaction to the mini-series has been mixed within the realm of Houdini-philes. On one hand, there’s a level of disappointment and even rage at what the History Channel is portraying as truth. On the other, most are also happy that Houdini is getting some play in a nice, medium-to-big-budget manner. The movie is nice looking, though the writing is somewhat flat and I don’t think Adrien Brody quite has the angry-short-man ego to pull off Houdini.

I’m not a fan of Houdini, but when reading about  turn-of-the-20th-century magic, he is inescapable. There is also a certain amount of embellishment that occurs when magicians set down their biographies. I’ve seen several comments along the lines of, “This is schlock, wouldn’t Houdini love it?” I think he would definitely love what a Salon writer is calling the Houdini-Industrial Complex. What bugged *me* about this biopic is something that bugs me in general about what writers (and maybe especially screenwriters) sometimes decide to dramatize. This movie goes for low-hanging fictional fruit.

The biggest example in Houdini is the portrayal of Houdini’s wife, Bess. By all accounts, Bess was supportive of her husband’s career. But the easy dramatic beat is: Bess is upset by Harry doing dangerous escapes, but Harry *needs* to do dangerous tricks. Conflict ensues. To me, there are at least two other angles. A.) Bess didn’t act in the cliched way you’d expect from a wife and didn’t have a problem with Harry doing dangerous things. Or, B.) The tricks really weren’t dangerous. Do we deep down think that Houdini risked his life so often, or that maybe he was, you know, a professional magician who created the illusion of peril? That’s harder to write.

There’s plenty of drama in Houdini’s life. He grew up in poverty and was determined not to live so as an adult (but didn’t blame his father for those humble beginnings). He was an organizing *and* divisive force in the magic community. He had his own motion picture company, which became a bit of a thorn in his side. Like most magicians of the era, he faced having to make the change from vaudeville to a bigger stage–something he did quite well. (Until the elephant scene in Houdini, I hadn’t realized how much I was looking forward to seeing the trick in some fashion. With visions of the enormous New York Hippodrome in my head, I was disappointed that the TV version involved a circus ring and some silliness with gauze on poles.)

Houdini is far from being my favorite magician and Houdini is far from being my favorite movie about him.


What Am I Reading?

I’ll be working on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, at least until a late-week trip to Omaha. I’ll probably only take my Kindle with and both of the former are physical copies. I don’t know what I’ll read ebook-wise. It seems too early to read the two ARCs I have planned for R.I.P.. I had a slow start with Kavalier & Clay, but it turned into compulsive reading over the weekend. For Deal Me In, I have a second Janet Berliner story, which I’m not really looking forward to.

What Am I Writing?

On the cusp of 15,000 words on In Need of Luck. Eric’s been working hard on PHYSICa, so I’ve been on my own a bit more than previously. He gave the first 14K a read-through last week. So far, so good, aside from one or two things that will get rewritten.