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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Alan Davies brings us Houdini in 2014


What I love about Houdini documentaries is not so much what they can tell me about Houdini (they tend to only skim the surface), but that they capture the world of Houdini at the time they are made. This is certainly the case with The Magic of Houdini with Alan Davies, which aired on ITV in the UK on Easter Sunday.

The hour long documentary, produced for ITV by What Larks!, was extremely well-done. It did not tell Houdini's story in the familiar form of most docs. It was more of an essay by Davies, a popular UK comedian and magic buff, who traveled to several Houdini locations in the UK and U.S. Davies emphasized Houdini's drive, physicality, and daring, and really captured Houdini's appeal and superstardom in an exciting and even sexy way. Considering Davies reputation (and some of the pre-promotional material), I was expecting something more comedic and maybe a bit mocking. But this is one of the most reverential Houdini documentaries ever made.

But, as I said, what I love most about docs is how they capture the Houdini world and personalities of the time, and Davies does a great job showing us Houdini in 2014. It's a world that will be familiar to readers of this blog.

Host Alan Davies at Mrs. Leffler's boarding house in New York.

Davies first travels to New York City where he visits Mrs. Leffler's (or Loeffler) boarding house on East 79th Street (remarkably unchanged); Coney Island, which Davies credits as the source of Ehrich's fascination with show business (hmmm); and the Houdini Museum of New York, where he chats with owner and Houdini collector, Roger Dreyer. Roger has some fun challenging Davies to escape from a pair of Bean Giant handcuffs, even after he gives him the key (just as Houdini would do with rival Handcuff Kings).

Following Houdini to Europe, Davies visits the recently renovated Hippodrome Casino in London, site of Houdini's famous 1904 Mirror Challenge. While Master Locksmith Mick Hanzlik doesn't appear on screen, his beautiful replica Mirror Handcuffs do, and it was interesting to see the cuffs fully opened (Davies "escapes" from them).

With Houdini collector Kevin Connolly.

A real treat was the appearance of Houdini collector Kevin Connolly -- who has his own amazing website, Houdini Himself -- which I believe is Kevin's first on-camera appearance. Kevin shared with Davies his collection of letters that suggest Houdini was considering a monkey gland transplant operation late in life. This certainly captured the imagination of Davies who, again, seemed especially interested in the physical Houdini.

Another very special appearance was by Richard Sherry and Dayle Krall and their amazing Water Torture Cell replica. Dayle even performs the escape on camera. I especially like how Dayle was able to provide first-hand insight into the escape. She talks about the pain of being raised by the ankles, how hard it is to capture a final breath when hanging upside down, and how the water pressure is noticeably increased when one reaches the bottom of the cell. She even says she's broken bloods vessels in her eyes while doing the escape (one wonders how many times this happened to Houdini).

Dayle Krall in the Water Torture Cell.

For most, the highlight of the show will be Davies' visit to David Copperfield's private museum in Las Vegas. It's noted that Copperfield "now owns over two-thirds of all surviving Houdini artifacts." Here we get a good look at Copperfield's beautifully displayed Houdini collection, and he even plays his Houdini voice recording for Davies. The hardcore will recognize it as the alternate, unedited version that isn't available online. But I think my favorite part of the Las Vegas segment was when Davies observed that Vegas is the Coney Island of its time, and that "all the showman and magicians and illusionists here today, they know they are standing on the shoulders of a tiny Hungarian."

Davies ends his journey at a staged Official Houdini Séance with several familiar faces in attendance, including 93-year-old Larry Weeks, a lifelong Houdini fan and collector (he owns the only copy of The Grim Game). Larry talks about how he saw Houdini when he was 4-years-old. It's a moving moment as Larry expresses his feelings about Houdini emotionally and beautifully, and I think I have to agree with Alan Davies that Larry was "the star of the show."

Larry Weeks.

Of course, a few errors crept in, as can be expected. Davies refers to Bess as Bess Raymond (her stage name) instead of Rahner. He says "Heffler" instead of Leffler. He says Houdini arrived in London in 1904 (it was 1900). Ruth Brandon says Houdini "never had any education, he never went to school," which is wrong. Houdini went to school in Appleton, possibly as far as the 4th grade. Ken Silverman quotes Houdini's famous bridge jump diary entry as "Mom saw me do it" instead of "Ma saw me jump" (a quibble, I know). Davies calls Jacques Boudini, "Bondini" -- but it was a treat to have this obscure challenge mentioned at all. Davies also says Houdini was punched by one of the two fans who came backstage to see him. It was, of course, a later third visitor who delivered the punch.

Unfortunately, the documentary crew didn't make it as far as the West Coast (the production company told me this was originally part of the plan, but the budget wouldn't allow it), because there's certainly a world of Houdini to capture out here. But maybe next time.

All in all, The Magic of Houdini with Alan Davies is a worthy and welcome addition to the collection of Houdini documentaries, and a beautiful time capsule of Houdini in 2014. Here's hoping the show airs here in the U.S. or it becomes available on DVD soon.

In the Copperfield Collection.

Special thanks to the helpful Houdini fan who was able to provide me with a copy of this doc for review.

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29 comments:

  1. Brilliant review and comments. Perfect summary. Well done.

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  2. I'm glad you were able to view this documentary, John. I'm going to stand in line here and take a number and wait...

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    1. I'd think HISTORY might like to snap this up and air it in the U.S. during the run-up to their Houdini miniseries.

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  3. That was a great review. I definitely liked they way it was presented.

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    1. Thanks Kevin. Enjoyed your segment. I'm noticing a sudden surge in searches for "Houdini + monkey." :)

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  4. There were a few inaccuracies but on the whole a very good documentary for general public consumption. I was pleased Alan Davies was quite serious as he can be rather silly at times but he clearly felt passionate about his interest in Houdini.

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    1. Yeah, I was thinking it was going to be more comedic, but it's clear Alan is "one of us."

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  5. Great to see Larry looking well. One of the last of the old timers.
    D&D

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    1. I didn't know Larry had actually seen Houdini. That's very special.

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  6. Has Weeks ever explained why he won't allow a showing of The Grim Game? Do we know whether it has been copied into a digital form for preservation?

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    1. Afraid I don't know the answer to either question, but I'm sure it has been protected.

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  7. So, Larry was the star of the show. Good. No other person has done a greater disservice to Houdini. His miserly hoarding of "the Grim Game" is a punch in the eye to the heritage of our early films which are dying as I write this. I have been told it is Houdini's best film work. I don't know. But, everyone should have been given a chance to see this film. It is film history, American history. Lousy way to handle something that was given to him by Bessie's family. Terrible!

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    1. Yeah, I share your strong feelings about The Grim Game and I really wish it was the movie we had to represent Houdini's film work, but Larry melted my heart in this. He's spent his life loving Houdini.

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  8. Hmm, is this the first time Dayle did an escape on TV? I'm really glad Davies acknowledged those two's efforts!

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    1. They didn't really show the whole escape. Sorry if I made it sound like they did. They showed her locked and lowered and the curtain pulled forward. But we never saw her emerge. Maybe she's still in there?

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    2. Still the fact a TV actor and comedian actually knows she's exists is a plus! It's not any other channel like History Channel contacted those two about anything Houdini or even do a demonstration.

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  9. The Grim Game was being shopped around last year by a third party. A prospective buyer called me a couple of times about it, but I never was informed how it worked out.

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    1. Very interesting. I wonder if it ended up in a storage warehouse?

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    2. Really??? That is interesting. Was it Larry's print, or is there another?

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    3. Wow, this is news. I wonder if it sold?

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  10. Not knowing where to put this ......I fould an old article on the internet. No new news but i thought interesting....On Oct. 22, 1926, Joselyn Gordon Whitehead, described as an ex-boxer pursuing either medical or divinity studies at Canada`s McGill University, approached Houdini in his dressing room at the old Princess Theater in Montreal, ostensibly to return a borrowed book. Samuel J. Smilovitz, then a McGill student writing a story about Houdini for the student newspaper, was one of the two other persons in the room.

    ``Whitehead asked Houdini `What do you think of the miracles of the Bible?``` Smilovitz, now an 80-year-old Montreal lawyer, said in a recent interview. ``Houdini said, `I don`t want to discuss them.` Then Houdini looked at him and said, `Suppose I was around in those days and performed my stunts then?```

    Smilovitz said Whitehead then asked Houdini if it was true the magician could take a blow to his stomach because of his superior conditioning.

    ``Houdini gave permission,`` Smilovitz said, and Whitehead hit him--not once, as promised, but ``three or four times, real vicious blows.``

    Smilovitz and the other person present, another McGill student, pulled Whitehead away from Houdini. ``Whitehead didn`t seem at all repentent,``

    Smilovitz said, adding that he didn`t know what motivated the attack.

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    1. Thanks. A better place for this comment would be on this post.

      I can move it there if you like?

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  11. Smilovitz and the other person present, another McGill student, pulled Whitehead away from Houdini. ``Whitehead didn`t seem at all repentent,``

    This article appeared in 1986 within a Chicago newspaper. Has it been known that Whitehead did not express any apology to Houdini after the attack?.......

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  12. "the Copperfield Collection"... you gotta go, and report back!

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