By Tom Interval
It’s the dead of winter. Thousands of gawking spectators flood a bridge spanning the frozen river below. The crowd braves the bone-splitting cold for only one reason: to see a man die.
Of course, they might not admit that, but death is what draws them there. Or at least the possibility of it. But escaping the Reaper under these conditions is nothing new for Harry Houdini, arguably the most renowned magician, escapologist, and showman the world will ever know.
With the crowd’s train-wreck gaze upon him, Houdini is handcuffed and locked into a wooden crate, which is slowly lowered toward a hole in the otherwise ice-covered water. The supporting chain snaps and the mob gasps as the crate plunges into the water and sinks to the bottom of the river.
Within seconds, Houdini deftly sheds the cuffs and escapes the crate but can’t find the opening in the ice when he tries to return to the surface. Running out of air, he frantically searches as the audience above waits. To stay alive, he takes breaths from pockets of air between the ice and the surface of the water.
Concerned, Houdini’s assistants use grappling hooks to fish the crate out of the water, only to discover the magician is not inside. Bess, Houdini’s wife, faints. The audience, assuming the worst, waits no more. Houdini’s assistant stays long after everyone leaves, waiting loyally by the hole for his boss to return.
Later, at the Houdinis’ hotel room, Bess cries as she looks out the window, hoping for good news to arrive. Enter Houdini. Bess runs to the door and smothers him with hugs and kisses. He’s alive! He tells her he found his way out of the water after following the ethereal sound of his mother’s voice, which led him to the opening in the ice. A few seconds later, the phone rings. The caller tells Houdini his mother died. (Twilight Zone music please, maestro.)
And that’s how the story goes, according to Houdini, the 1953 movie starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Unfortunately, there’s one minor problem with the tale: It isn’t true, as is the case with many legends and lore about Houdini.
But knowing a story isn’t true doesn’t stop Hollywood from repeating or embellishing it. And why should it? After all, we’re talking about fiction, right? When creating a biopic, “you don’t necessarily get every single little fact right because that’s not the point of making one of these movies,” says actress Kristen Connolly in a recent Biography.com interview. “Sometimes with storytelling, the truth is in the bigger picture and not in every single little detail.” Kristen, known for her work in House of Cards and The Cabin in the Woods, plays Bess Houdini alongside Adrien Brody in History’s Houdini two-part miniseries, which premiers tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT and continues tomorrow at the same time.
Kristen makes a great argument, but there are exceptions. Case in point: The Houdini biopic premiering tonight will air on the History channel. The operative word here is “History.” Sure, writers and directors have artistic license, but having a show air on a channel called History pretty much implies that at least the smaller details will be historically accurate. That’s definitely not the case with the miniseries, which makes several errors the creators either missed or don’t care about:
- The spelling of Houdini’s real Americanized first name is Ehrich, not Erich.
- The book that inspired young Ehrich to change his name to Houdini is Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, not R. Houdin, Magician.
- Houdini’s mother died in 1913, not 1914.
- Houdini didn’t drink alcohol, let alone get drunk on the bathroom floor and threaten suicide.
- Bess didn’t smoke marijuana.
- Houdini and his chief assistant, Jim Collins, both devised the Water Torture Cell, not just Collins.
- When Houdini traveled with the Welsh Brothers Circus as a young man, he briefly performed as “Projea, the Wild Man of Mexico,” not “The Wild Man from Borneo.”
- It’s highly unlikely Houdini would say “He was nobody” when referring to his late father, Mayer Samuel Weiss (Jeremy Wheeler).
- Some of the magic props used in the series were too modern for the time period.
- Houdini almost certainly did not dislocate his shoulder to escape from straitjackets even though he, himself, claimed to do so.
- Houdini was 5’6″, not 5’8 1/2, as it appeared on his passport in the miniseries.
- There is no evidence to support the claim that Houdini was a spy.
- Houdini might have had one affair in real life (that’s still questionable), but he was definitely not the playboy the miniseries makes him out to be.
- Houdini loved his mother, but he didn’t have an Oedipus complex, which is supposedly an unconscious desire for a parent of the opposite sex and hatred for a parent of the same sex.
- The Grim Game (one of the movies Houdini made), came out in 1919, not 1922. And the related newspaper article with a photo showing the Hollywood sign behind Houdini was an error because the sign wasn’t built until 1923 (and it originally read, “Hollywoodland”).
- The book Houdini wrote about mediums is titled A Magician Among the Spirits (PDF), not Fake Mediums and Their Methods. Apparently the creators of the miniseries got that title from a book Houdini actually did write: Miracle Mongers and Their Methods.
- The fateful punch to Houdini’s abdomen occurred in Montreal, Canada, at McGill University, not in Detroit. And the man who punched him was a McGill student named J. Gordon Whitehead, not retributively by a man who said afterward, “That’s for calling Lady Doyle a fake.”
And the list goes on.
Some of the more significant scenes in the series are either inaccurate or invented, which is to be expected in a fictional portrayal. This is where artistic license comes in.
Like the 1953 Curtis film, History’s biopic recycles the hole-in-the-ice story, which, by the way, Houdini himself made up, even changing the location of the event when retelling the tale to reporters. The version in the miniseries is basically the same as the one in the Curtis film except Brody’s Houdini isn’t locked in a packing crate and lowered into the water; instead, he’s simply cuffed and chained before jumping off the bridge. In both the Curtis and Brody films, Houdini prepares for the stunt by taking baths in ice water.
Another, less significant, scene in the miniseries that borrows from the 1953 film takes place in Harry and Bess’s bedroom on their wedding night. In the Curtis film, Houdini wakes Bess in the middle of the night and asks her to climb into a large wooden box, where she reclines with her head and feet protruding from the ends. Her bewilderment turns to hysteria as he begins to cut her in half with a four-foot handsaw. After the sawing and screaming stop, she asks him if they’ll be doing something like that every night. “Was it so awful?” he asks, to which she replies, “No, but I expected something different on my wedding night.”
The scene blends perfectly with the Curtis film because the entire movie is filled with humorous moments like that. However, in History’s version of the scene, there doesn’t seem to be any purpose for it. It’s similar to the 1953 picture, only without the humor; and the wooden box they use is not the sawing-in-half trick but Metamorphosis, a trademark illusion Houdini performed early in his career, first with his brother Dash (Tom Benedict Knight), then Bess.
Not surprisingly, History’s Houdini is not the first biopic to copy ideas from previous films. The Great Houdini, a 1976 television movie starring Paul Michael Glaser and Sally Struthers, lifts a scene from the 1953 film in which Houdini picks a lock with his toes to escape from a jail cell. Both movies have our hero slip his leg through the bars of the cell to open the lock on an adjacent wall, but the ’53 version artfully incorporates its trademark humor into the scene while the ’76 pic plays it straight. Brody’s Houdini also escapes from jail cells but doesn’t pick the locks with his toes.
These are just a few examples of how Hollywood distorts Houdini history in the name of entertainment. All of those aside, I actually enjoyed both parts of the miniseries overall, even with its imperfections and cliché moments. I do wish its creators were more original. I mean, how many more times do we have to see the iced-river story in a Houdini biopic? There are plenty of daring escapes and close calls that actually did take place in Houdini’s career, and those could enthrall audiences just as effectively. Even so, I’d be lying if I said the series didn’t entertain me.
Part 1, to air tonight, spans Houdini’s life from childhood to about the time he was performing his milk-can escape—around 1908 in real life. I’m not crazy about the jumps back and forth in time, with some of the most important moments in the life of young Ehrich Weiss (Houdini’s Americanized real name) glossed over or completely ignored. For example, besides Dash, where is the rest of Ehrich’s family? He had four brothers, one half brother, and a sister; although, the half brother died in 1885, so him not being in the show might make sense.
Equally annoying were symbolic references to Houdini’s supposed Oedipus complex and the excessive number of shots showing his abdomen being punched, both from the outside and the inside, complete with muscle fibers, body fluids, and all. I get the reasoning behind this imagery, and it might have been more effective had they done it maybe three or four times throughout the series, but each time Houdini challenged a person to punch his washboard abdomen, or when someone said something emotionally hurtful to him: WHAM! PUNCH! (Slimy sounds) PUNCH! FORESHADOW! (The repeated punches foreshadow the supposedly fateful blows Houdini receives a little more than a week before he dies; the punches will forever be linked to his death, regardless of their medical relevance.)
To clarify, not all the CGI internal shots were bothersome. In fact, some of them were fantastic. For example, when challenged to escape from a pair of handcuffs, we see the internal workings of the locking mechanism as Houdini picks it (see the official Houdini sneak peek). Later in the same episode, we see a similar shot of the inside of a safe. In a shot during Part 2 of the series, we’re inside a cannon barrel as the propelled ball shoots toward us just before Houdini tries to escape from the ropes that bind him to the front of the cannon.
Overall, Part 1 is packed with engaging magic and thrilling escape scenes. During the episode, Houdini escapes from two jail cells; presents his famous Water Torture Cell in which he must escape from a water-filled tank while hanging upside-down; catches a bullet between his teeth in a private performance for German Emperor Wilhelm II; gives a parlor performance for Tsar Nicholas II and his family; and escapes from a water-filled milk can.
My favorite scenes include the performances given for Wilhelm and Nicholas, on whom Houdini also spies at the request of US and British intelligence agencies. “One of the strangest illusions I was ever asked to pull off,” says Houdini, “was something called espionage.” And it is an illusion because there’s no evidence to show Houdini was ever a spy. But there was one stand-out spy scene involving an escape from a safe. At the risk of spoiling it, I’ll say no more.
Also during Part 1, we see young Ehrich (Louis Mertens) as an apprentice to Maxwell the Magnificent (more artistic license from the creators); Houdini meets Jim Collins (Evan Jones), his chief assistant and engineer; he presents his mother—who’s dressed in a gown said to have been made for Queen Victoria—at a grand reception in Budapest for all their relatives; and sleeps with a woman (apparently Elizabeth Thompson, a British painter) after fighting with Bess (Hollywood seems to love affair stories). This episode also touched upon Houdini’s Australian flight (he was the first person to make a controlled powered flight in Australia) and revealed several magic and escape secrets throughout. The episode ends with a cliffhanger relating to his jump into the frozen river.
The opening scene in Part 2 of Houdini quickly resolves the cliffhanger from Part 1. This episode, noticeably shorter than the first, spends most of the time on Houdini’s crusade against fraudulent spiritualists of the day, but not before a few notable scenes featuring an upside-down straitjacket escape, Jenny the vanishing elephant at the New York Hippodrome, and the onstage performance of walking through a brick wall. During the latter trick, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (David Calder) and his wife Lady Doyle (Linda Marlowe) are in the audience. After Houdini’s show, the Doyles go backstage to introduce themselves to Harry and Bess, and they all become quick friends, despite the fact Sir Arthur believes Houdini has supernatural abilities.
After another fight with Bess, Houdini sleeps with yet another woman, this one who saw him perform the upside-down straitjacket escape earlier. Harry and Bess kiss and make up, but not too long after that, Houdini gets a wire telling him his mother, Cecilia Weiss (Eszter Ónodi), died (this was inaccurately represented as taking place in 1914; as written above, his mother died in 1913).
As most Houdini biopics do, this one implies that the death of Cecilia drives him to expose false spirit mediums. However, Houdini had an ongoing interest in spiritualism throughout his life, which is even illustrated in this episode with a flashback of Harry and Bess in their Vaudeville days performing a spiritualist-themed act in which Bess supposedly channels the spirit of a woman who had been murdered.
Nonetheless, it’s true that the death of his mother plays at least a small role in his crusade against spiritualism. He tries to contact her spirit many times during seances, each time becoming more and more discouraged. During this phase of his life, he exposes the methods of several mediums, sometimes attending seances in disguise, then whisking away his costume as he says, “I am The Great Houdini!” One of his biggest disappoints occurred after Lady Doyle’s failed attempt to contact his late mother through the process of automatic writing.
Perhaps fueled by these disappointments, or by the fact that fraudulent mediums preyed upon vulnerable people who lost loved ones in World War I, Houdini targeted Mina Crandon, a.k.a., Margery (Megan Dodds), a Boston medium whom he exposed during a seance. After the seance, Margery, wearing nothing but a fur coat, propositioned Houdini while in his hotel room, hoping to convince him not to write his expose for Scientific American. Surprisingly (at least in the context of this show), he declined.
The final scenes of Part 2 include the events leading up to Houdini’s death—everything from breaking his ankle in Detroit to the supposed ill-fated punch leading to peritonitis and thus his untimely death. During a scene in the hospital just before his death, something happens I can only call creepy, for lack of a better term. I won’t describe it here, but it relates to Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait, the book upon which the miniseries is supposedly based (and written by the father of Nicholas Meyer, the writer of the History series). I write “supposedly” because there are elements in the series that mirror those in another biography, The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero.
As I wrote earlier, I enjoyed watching both parts of Houdini, despite some of its shortcomings. It might not be your favorite television series of all time, but it’s worth watching at least once, and if you’re a Houdini enthusiast like me, then you’ll definitely want to buy the DVD for your collection (no, Lionsgate/A+E did not ask or pay me to say that).
As for the acting, Adrien Brody and Kristen Connolly do a great job in bringing Harry and Bess to life in their own ways. The rest of the cast also is impressive, and the photography and set design are well done.
My only complaint, besides the inaccuracies listed earlier, is that the contemporary dialogue and industrial-rock music seem to be out of place for the period in which the film takes place. It’s somewhat distracting at times, especially when some characters use terms and phrases not coined until well after Houdini dies. Examples include “Enquiring minds want to know” (1980s), “escape artist” (1940-1945), “pissed” (1940s, in the context of being angry), and shtick (1955-1960). And it wasn’t just the terms themselves but the actual manner in which most of the actors spoke.
One of the strongest points about the Houdini miniseries is that it breaks new ground in terms of covering topics about Houdini’s career that are previously unexplored in any biopic. That alone should inspire Houdiniphiles to watch with sincere interest. And if you don’t consider yourself a Houdini or magic fan, I still recommend watching it because there are plenty of suspenseful escape scenes and interesting story lines. But please—please—keep in mind that it’s not a documentary. If you want to know actual facts abut Houdini, I highly recommend reading Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, by Kenneth Silverman.
Lionsgate/A+E Studios Co-Production
Harry Houdini: Adrien Brody
Bess Houdini: Kristen Connolly
Jim Collins: Evan Jones
Music: John Debney
Editing: Sabrina Plisco, ACE and David Beatty
Production Design: Patrizia Von Brandenstein
Director of Photography: Karl Walter Lindenlaub, ASC, buk
Co-Producer: David Minkowski
Producer: Ildiko Kemeny
Executive Producer: Andras Hamori
Executive Producer: Gerald W. Abrams
Writer: Nicholas Meyer
Director: Uli Edel
Executives in Charge of Production: Dirk Hoogstra and Julian P. Hobbs
Based on the book Houdini: A Mind in Chains: a Psychoanalytic Portrait, by Bernard C. Meyer, M.D.