The Great Houdinis stars Paul Michael Glaser as Houdini. At the time Glaser was a major TV star from Starsky & Hutch and a ‘70s sex symbol. Glaser gives us the most likable Houdini since Tony Curtis. Sally Struthers, also a major TV star from All in the Family, turns in a stellar performance as Bess (more on that later).
Other cast includes Ruth Gordon as Mama Weiss; Bill Bixby as the Reverend Arthur Ford (sans southern accent); the underrated Adrienne Barbeau as Daisy White; Peter Cushing as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Vivian Vance as the fictional maid Minnie (who also narrates the film), and Jack Carter shows up briefly as Theo. Hardeen. Oh, and if you look closely you can spot Houdini expert Patrick Culliton playing Houdini’s assistant Franz Kukol.
While The Great Houdinis took great liberties with the truth -- such has having Bessie miscarriage when Houdini fails to escape plugged handcuffs during a bridge jump -- but it also recreates real-life moments not found in any other Houdini biopic. We see Houdini escape Darby handcuffs in London by giving them a hard rap. Houdini buys Mama a dress worn by Queen Victoria and presents her like a Queen to relatives in Budapest. We get to see the famous Atlantic City seance with Sir Arthur and Lady Conan Doyle, as well as Houdini testifying before the U.S. Congress. We also get a memorable encounter with Margery the Medium (Barbara Rhoades), and get a good recreation of the notorious 1927 Arthur Ford committee seance. The film also makes wonderful use of the song Rosabelle and the significance it held for the Houdinis.
But it’s the characterization of Bess where The Great Houdinis digs deep to reveal the truth. A better picture of Bess was starting to emerge in 1976, thanks to Doug Henning’s relationship with Marie Hinson, but it had not yet been chronicled. But here in The Great Houdinis we get a strong-willed, showbiz savvy Bess, dealing with always being the second most important woman in her husbands life, who develops a taste for alcohol and throws out more than a few curse words along the way. While it’s up for debate how much open tension (if any) existed between Bess and Mama, I think anyone who knew Bessie Houdini would recognize her more in Sally Struthers than in the sunny disposition of Janet Leigh or later Stacy Edwards.
There is a little confusion about the title. While all the advertising, the script, and the novelization shows the film as being called The Great Houdinis, the title that appears on the film itself is The Great Houdini (no “s”). While I can’t say for certain this was the case in ’76, I do know this was the case on the ’77 repeat (which I have taped). All surviving prints show the title without the “s”, hence the film is better known today as just The Great Houdini. (Update: The '77 change is now confirmed.)
The Great Houdinis was released on home video in the UK and in some international territories, but as far as I know it has never appeared in the U.S., which is a great shame. There is a brisk trade in bootlegs of varying quality online. Cosmic Hex, a website the specializes in TV rarities, has a very good transfer available for download in various formats for $3.95.
The Great Houdinis is great indeed.
Click here for a full behind the scenes account of the making of The Great Houdinis.