Part Two TONIGHT at 9/8c on HISTORY

Friday, November 23, 2012

Houdini's lost levitation


There's a moment in Paramount's 1953 Houdini biopic when we see Harry (Tony Curtis) doing a classic levitation with Bess (Janet Leigh). The levitation is one of the most iconic tricks in all of magic, so of course the filmmakers wanted to include a shot of Houdini performing the effect. The image even made the poster. Trouble is, there is no record (that I can find) of Houdini ever doing a levitation, so I've always chocked this up to just another fictional embellishment of the film.

But now it looks like the Curtis movie had it right (without knowing it). Turns out Houdini did indeed perform a traditional levitation with Bess early in his career. This fresh revelation comes from the new book, The Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini by Bruce MacNab (see, I told you this book rewrites Houdini history).

Here's the story...

When Harry and Bess set out as part of the Marco Magic Company's tour of the Canadian Maritimes in 1896 (the subject of Bruce's book), one of the headline effects of the show was a levitation. At the time, it was fashionable to tie-in the levitation with the popular novel Trilby by George du Maurier (as Alexander Herrmann had done). Onstage "Marco", aka Edward James Dooley, played the part of Svengali with Bess as his hypnotic subject, Trilby. Bess/Trilby would be laid on a plank across two chairs. On Marco/Svengali's command, the chairs would be removed and Bess with remain suspended in mid air. It's possible Houdini, who doubled as an assistant in the troop, might have operated the complex levitation apparatus behind the scenes.

But when the Marco show failed and folded and Dooley went home to the U.S., Harry and Bess continued the tour with their own act. Many of Marco's props had been confiscated for non-payment of bills, but somehow Houdini was able to salvage a few pieces of equipment, including his own Metamorphosis trunk and the Trilby levitation.

So when The Houdinis performed their act in several Maritime cities, along with handcuff escapes and Metamorphosis, audiences saw "Mysterious Harry" and "Le Petite Bessie" doing a classic Trilby levitation as part of their show. In fact, a review of The Houdinis act at the Moncton Opera House singled out the effect for praise:

"Trilby, or the mystery of Mahomet, in which a human being actually floats in space without any visible means of support, was one of the startling features of last night's evening's performance."

But it looks like the levitation would be unique to Harry and Bessie's Canadian adventure. When they booked passage home abroad the steamship S.S. Yarmouth, they couldn't even afford the price of a ticket for themselves, let alone heavy cargo. The Metamorphosis trunk made the trip, but it appears the Trilby levitation remained behind in Nova Scotia.

(Interestingly, Howard Thurston patented a "Trilby" levitation in 1927, although I expect Thurston was using a completely new and much more complex method.)

So there we have it. Harry Houdini did indeed perform a traditional levitation with Bess, if only for a short time. So now the question remains -- what ever happened to Houdini's levitation apparatus? Also, how awesome would it be if we could find a photo of the young Harry and Bess performing the effect...just like Tony and Janet 57 years later.

Bruce MacNab's The Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini can be purchased on Amazon.com or direct from Goose Lane Editions. For more about the history of the levitation illusion, enjoy this episode of the BBC documentary, History of Magic.



UPDATE: Houdini's Trilby levitation is mentioned on page 1 of Houdini The Key by Patrick Culliton. So it's Patrick -- who also wrote the forward to Bruce's book -- who deserves the credit for first bringing this information to light.

UPDATE 2: Eric Fry reminds me that Houdini put the secret of the Trilby levitation up for sale in his 1898 magic catalog, Magic Made Easy. Price: $1.00

The Original Houdini Scrapbook

UPDATE 3: What to see a photo of Houdini doing a levitation? Here you go.

19 comments:

  1. Good stuff as always....however, I vaguely recall another levitation story tied to Houdini. I could be wrong.....I could be getting my stories confused, I'll check and let you know

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    1. Yea, please look for it and I'll update if necessary. I checked the programs of his Magic Revue and his full evening show and saw nothing that sounded like a levitation, although Christopher in Pictorial Life mentions something about a "German" effect in which a girl "flies around the stage like a moth." So that's a levitation -- but not really a Trilby waist high hoop over the girl type of thing. But I'm hedging with the word "traditional".

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  2. Great stuff - really interesting. I can't wait to get my hands on this book (I do believe it is in the mail).

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    1. The book has turned out to be a tricky one to get. I've even seen some on Amazon Marketplace selling it for $80+.

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  3. The levitation patented by Thurston was actually Servais Le Roy's "Asrah", where a woman floats in the air and then disappears. Thurston's patented it with an idea of Harry Jansen - Danté - the use of the "wedged" table that is now standard fare.

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    1. Ah, interesting, thanks. The levitation really has a rich history. That's why I included the doc. But then there's the whole hidden history of the methods. Fun stuff.

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  4. Not to get too technical, but isn't the Trilby Illusion a suspension? Since there was a suspension in the film already;they may have edited it out because it was similar.

    Either Boston or Dunninger most likely knew that Houdini performed the illusion. The pair suggested other Houdini illusions/escapes that were written into the movie, that were either later rewritten or edited out of the movie. Houdini strapped to a cannon comes to mind.

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    1. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think when we say "Trilby levitation" today we are talking about a suspension method, but back then they were just talking about the "story" of the trick -- a hypnotized floating "Trilby" -- because it wasn't a suspension back then, was it? Bruce includes an ad for A. Herrmann that advertistes his "Trilby levitation". I'd never seen that before.

      The strapped to the canon was in the Curtis movie (or script) at some point? That I didn't know.

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    2. And the levitation (that pic) is still in the movie. It's part of his European success montage. (Curtis actually bumps the apparatus, always bothered me.)

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  5. I think it was Stanyon that said Trilby was a suspension. I would have to look at the movie again to see if Janet rises or is suspended to make a call.

    Yes, the cannon stunt and some others were in the script. Also an alternative ending was considered. Houdini dies in that one too.

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    1. Cool. I've actually never seen a script for this film, although I haven't examined its file at the Academy library. Maybe it's time I did that. :)

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  6. I mentioned that Houdini and Bessie performed a levitation and may have even included a quote about it from someplace on the first page Houdini--the Key which finally saw the light of day on 10-30-2010.
    John, I know you read the book, but, did you read the forward?
    Bruce's book is full of material that nobody has covered. The other books sail through this critical time in Houdini's life in a few pages.

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    1. I'll be darned, Patrick. You sure do say that in Houdini--The Key. In fact, you quote the same Moncton review that I quoted above. I'm so sorry I didn't remember that. It just didn't stick with me the way it did after reading Bruce's book because he makes so much of the Trilby levitation and how Houdini came to perform it.

      I did indeed read your forward to Bruce's book. It's great.

      BTW, am I still the only person who has this book?

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    2. Ah ha! It's in Patrick's book! I new I read something about a levitation and Houdini!

      Sadly, I don't have the new MacNab book, YET.

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  7. Still waiting for Bruce to send my copies too.

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  8. Fascinating! That year 1896 was quite interesting - does anyone have anything on Houdini's crossing paths with William Jennings Bryan that autumn? Bryan was also crisscrossing the country in the nation's first "whistle-stop" campaign for the Presidency. He drew big crowds - could Marco have been far behind?

    Re Trilby: recently read that book and cannot find any levitations therein. Lots of hypnotizing, of course.

    Re: Bruce's book. Amazon keeps messaging me that it's not available yet.

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  9. The book is out and available in Canada because Bruce is doing a book tour -- I think there's a stop today, in fact. In the article I have a link to the publisher where you can order direct. Don't know why it's taking so long on Amazon.

    Nothing on Bryan in the book that I can recall. But there was an election for the Canadian Prime Minister that year and there's some stuff about that.

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  10. Also see Houdini's catalog of magic reproduced in Gibson's "The Original Houdini Scrapbook," page 87. Look at item 53 in the catalog.

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