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."
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.
- Houdini's NYC boyhood home today
- First look inside the new Houdini Museum of New York
- Guest Blog: The Replica Mirror Cuffs
- Houdini vs. Boudini: The forgotten challenge
- Sherry and Krall reveal working Water Torture Cell replica
- Was Houdini considering a monkey gland transplant operation?
- Hear 30 seconds of the alternate Houdini voice recording
- ITV announces The Magic of Houdini with Alan Davies