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Friday, November 12, 2010

Young Harry Houdini (1987)

On March 15, 1987, the Walt Disney Company aired Young Harry Houdini as part of their recently relaunched “Disney Sunday Movie” on ABC. The two-hour made for TV film starred Wil Wheaton and Jose Ferrer and was introduced by the relatively new Disney CEO, Michael Eisner (along with a special performance by “Mickey The Great”).

Young Harry Houdini tells the story of the “lost years” of Ehrich Weiss. It is actually rooted in fact. The young Houdini did run away from home in 1886 and little is known about his adventures on the road. Screenwriters James Cruickshank and Jim Orr (who also directed) fill in the gaps with a colorful story in which Ehrich finds a mentor in traveling show carney Dr. Tybalt Grimaldi (Jose Ferrer), a love interest in the pretty Calpernia (Kerri Green), and experiences true mysticism via an indian medicine man (J. Reuben Silverbird).

"Getting this role was like a dream come true for me, " said the young star Wil Wheaton who performed card and coin magic at the time. "I've idolized, you could almost say worshipped, Houdini all my life!"

The film begins with the adult Houdini (played by Jeffrey DuMunn who also played the magician in the film version of Ragtime) performing the Water Torture Cell in England. It’s a pretty good recreation of the USD with a fairly authentic looking cell, although the conclusion owes more to Doug Henning’s interpretation than Houdini (Henning is credited as technical advisor on the film). Later in his dressing room, Houdini relates the story of his runaway days to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Roy Dotrice). “It is the most fantastic story you will ever hear,” says Houdini.

Flashback to Appleton, Wisconsin in 1886 where we meet “Ehrich Prince of the Air” honing his performance skills while also apprenticing to a local locksmith. An encounter with “The Great Merlin” leads to Ehrich losing his locksmith job, and after a dressing down by his stern father, Ehrich runs away to prove himself as a magician.

Here the story travels into wholly fictional territory, nevertheless it still has nods to established Houdini lore. Ehrich hopes the wrong box car and ends up in Kanas City, as did the real Ehrich Weiss. There is a clever variation on the “convict in cuffs” story when Ehrich frees a fellow traveler from handcuffs. When Ehrich first sees Dr. Grimaldi, he is performing a (Disney-friendly) version of Paligenesia, the effect associated with Ehrich’s real-life influence, Dr. Lynn.

The second half of the film gets a little lost in sometimes bizarre “chosen one” mythology, but along the way we get to see Ehrich reading The Memories of Robert-Houdin and perform his first packing crate escape. And the movie does have a satisfying twist that I won’t reveal.

One point of interest is where exactly Young Harry Houdini was shot. Much of the action is set on what appears to be a studio western backlot. This could be the Warner Bros. or 20th Century Fox western sets, which existed in 1987, but are now long gone.

As far as I know, Young Harry Houdini aired only once. The new Disney Sunday Night movie would go the way of the old and cease broadcast by 1989.

Young Harry Houdini did find it’s way onto videocassette in Great Britain, but it has never been released on any home entertainment format in the U.S. That’s a shame because Young Harry Houdini is a well-made, entertaining family film that deserves to brought up from the Disney vaults.

The real young Harry Houdini

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  1. I vividly remember watching this when it aired. I was ten years old, and totally into all things magic. It left quite a lasting impression on me, and I still have the vhs tape of it somewhere...taped the night it aired... got to find it and watch it again. If I remember correctly, Billy McComb has a small part in it as well, as a touring magician who supposedly influenced the young Ehrich Weiss. Really wish I could own this on DVD.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Ash -- my first! When I saw this I was at a far less impressionable age, I'm afraid, but I did tape it and thank goodness as this is now a hard one to find (and I got that great opening with Eisner). Yeah, I think Billy McComb is in it. Is he "Merlin"? Now I'll have to have another look. Thanks for the comment and for visiting my new blog.

  3. It's Wil Wheaton. One "L"

  4. Any possible chance this DVD or VHS is out there somewhere for purchase? I would love to own it. Have you heard of it? I have it on Google alerts and been searching for years.

    1. A VHS was released in the UK back in the day. I see it on eBay from time to time. I wish they would release it on DVD.

  5. Like most movies based on Houdini's life, I thought this film was terribly disappointing. Not a lot is known about Houdini's boyhood, but it is known that he ran away to join the circus at one point. Why didn't they base the film on that?

    Okay, it was probably due to budgetary constraints. Still, it seems they could have based the film around Houdini's circus adventures while still keeping within budget.

    As it was, "Young Harry Houdini" devolved into a rather dull and slow moving western, mainly because Disney had access to an old studio western backlot.

    1. Very true about the western backlot.

      Almost noting is known about Houdini's runaway days except that he stayed for a time with the Flitcrofts. Not sure it's ever been proven that he ran away to join the circus or ever performed in a circus during these days. That's one of the other fictions ascribed to these missing years.



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