Sunday, March 29, 2009

Secret Life sale grabs headlines

The sale of Kalush and Sloman's The Secret Life of Houdini to Summit Entertainment has grabbed headlines across the web and print media. Nowhere was the story given flashier coverage than in Friday’s print edition of The Hollywood Reporter (right) which scooped the news in a great front page spread. Houdini would be loving this!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

"Fragment of an unknown Houdini poster"

Here’s an intriguing item currently up for auction as part of Potter & Potter’s Magic Collection of Jay Marshall, Part III to be held on April 26.

Lot 178. Houdini, Harry. Color lithographed poster fragment on page from ledger of Portland Theater, Maine, July 8, 1908, signed and inscribed. Lithograph fragment of a young Houdini in handcuffs signed and dated on the top of the ledger sheet, with part of the signature tied to the poster. The inscription reads "Houdini, The Handcuff King." Although this item reposed in Jay Marshall's collection for years and carries the inscription "fragment of unknown Houdini poster with signature" in the intervening years, one copy of the complete poster has been discovered. Estimate $600 - $1,200

UPDATE: Below is the complete poster.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Hugh Jackman said to be rehearsing 'Harry Houdini'

Even though he hasn’t been officially announced in the role, actor Hugh Jackman is reported to be in New York rehearsing the forthcoming Broadway musical, Harry Houdini. (This appears to be a new title. Until now, it was referred to as Houdini: An Original Musical.)

A source said: "Hugh is taking his role very seriously! He's even studying how to perform Houdini's magic acts. Hugh has been receiving tips and help from great magicians such as Criss Angel and Ricky Jay."

Jackman will have to recreate the same tricks live on stage eight times a week once the production opens in New York in spring 2010.

Scott Sanders and David Rockwell will produce Harry Houdini, which features a book by best-selling author Kurt Andersen and music by Danny Elfman. Tony Award winner Jack O'Brien is attached to direct.

Summit set to turn Houdini into an action hero

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Summit Entertainment has unlocked The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero, picking up feature film rights to the biography by William Kalush and Larry Sloman.

The comprehensive tome, published in 2006 by Atria Books, has become known for insinuating that Harry Houdini acted as a spy for Britain and was asked to be an adviser to Czar Nicholas II's court in prerevolutionary Russia. The book also portrays the master escape artist and magician as a debunker of con artists who pretended to be spiritualists, leading to the controversial theory that Houdini's death was caused by the spiritualist movement as payback.

The studio, which is looking for writers to adapt the book, does not aim to make a biopic but rather an action thriller featuring a character who is part Indiana Jones and part Sherlock Holmes. Summit hopes to cash in on worldwide recognition of Houdini's name while potentially launching a franchise.

Houdini has long entranced Hollywood, with projects having been set up at studios including Columbia, Universal and Walden and such boldface names as Robert Zemeckis, Paul Verhoeven, Ang Lee and Tom Cruise keen on exploring various aspects of his character, from the lovelorn magician to the adventurer.

Despite the interest, few projects have made it to the screen. Among the best known is Houdini, a 1953 biopic starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. The most recent was Death Defying Acts, a 2008 release starring Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

LINK: Harry Houdini and Pittsburgh, the ties that bind

Check out this terrific article by Clay Morgan in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette about Houdini’s exploits in that city. Click the headline to to read.

UPDATE: This article claims that Houdini made a second leap from the Seventh Street bridge on March 13, 1908. The author appears to have gotten this from The Secret Life of Houdini, but I've yet to find any evidence of this escape. Also, Houdini was still performing in Detroit on this day. He didn't open in Pittsburgh until March 16. So I suspect the below photo is of his earlier May 22, 1907 jump.

For more on Houdini's Pittsburgh plunges, check out Joe Notaro's Did Houdini ever perform an overboard box escape in Pittsburgh? at HHCE. 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Death Defying Acts Blockbuster Exclusive DVD

Blockbuster is offering an “Exclusive” Death Defying Acts DVD that contains “Bonus Footage”. The footage referred to is a short documentary entitled, Houdini: The Man Behind The Magic, featuring the stars and filmmakers discussing the real Houdini.

While it’s true this documentary isn’t on the standard DVD release, know that this Blockbuster version does not contain The Making of Death Defying Acts documentary found on the standard release, so it’s not really all that “bonus” after all, just different.

Death Defying Acts stars Guy Pearce as Houdini and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a Scottish psychic.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Revealing Bess photo from 1929

Click to enlarge
This photo, recently offered for auction on eBay, shows a convalescing Bessie Houdini in January 1929 during the time of the infamous Arthur Ford seances.

Now, I love Bessie. I wish there was a book written just about her. And while I realize this isn’t the most flattering picture, it does capture an intriguing moment in time.

First off, we see her head is wrapped due to her “nasty fall.” In the 1976 TV movie The Great Houdinis, we see Bessie fall down the stairs at 278 after being startled by mysterious happenings on Halloween night. A less romantic version claims that the fall took place while she was out drinking with Arthur Ford.

We also see Bessie’s right wrist is wrapped. The Secret Life of Houdini claims Bessie tried to kill herself on the night of January 4, 1929, but it doesn’t specify how. Pills seems likely, but could the wrist wrap offer another possibility?

Finally, and this is what I really like about this photo, and why I’m posting it here, this is the only photo I can recall that gives us a very nice look at her famous wedding band which contains the message from Houdini; "Rosabelle, sweet Rosabelle."

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Unmasking The Secret Life of Houdini

When The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman was first released in 2006, I gave it a positive review. With its oodles of rare pictures and some intriguing new information, I still consider it a worthy addition to my Houdini library.

However, I did point out in my review that I was surprised to see so many apocryphal stories included in the text, like the tale in which young Harry frees a convict from a pair of handcuffs while working for a locksmith in Appleton. But the authors promised a full volume of source notes to be published at a later date that would prove the validity of all their findings.

Those notes have now been published in a beautiful two-book set (The Secrets of Houdini Laid Bare) that I would highly recommend. However, to my eye, these notes reveal the authors took a very loose and, IMO, somewhat flawed approach to their research which now forces me to seriously reconsider my opinion of this book.

What troubles me is just how much the authors used the 1928 biography Houdini His Life Story by Harold Kellock as a primary source (particularly for Houdini's early life - the book is sourced 38 times in the first 83 pages), and how much they relied on material put out by Houdini himself during his career (via interviews, articles, and publicity material). Houdini was a chronic myth-maker and the last person that should be trusted with providing the facts of his own life. Life Story, written in collaboration with his wife, is really just a consolidation of his greatest myths. Everyone who has studied Houdini knows this. It’s an entertaining book, but one that should never be used as a primary source. I believe Silverman said the first thing he did when researching his own Houdini biography (Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss) was to throw out all that had been written before because it was just too unreliable.

The Laid Bare notes also reveal that, too often, the authors have taken the approach that if they could find something written down, even if it's a dubious news-story or self-aggrandizing publicity material, then it could be "sourced" and hence presented as "fact" along with all associations. But just because they found evidence that Houdini did in fact work for a locksmith as a boy does not automatically mean we can or should accept his "convict in handcuffs" tale with all its dramatic embellishments (many added by the authors).

While there IS some good groundbreaking research here to be sure (I’m thinking of the fascinating new Margery material), it is maddeningly mixed with Houdini generated fictions, and the authors decision to write the book in a narrative style continually blurs the lines. In fact, the very first notation in Laid Bare admits that the Santa Ana buried alive stunt -- as told in great riveting detail in the first chapter of the book -- is considered by some to be “apocryphal.” So they opened the book with a story sourced only to Houdini that they couldn’t corroborate? As responsible biographers, shouldn’t they have tried to find the truth behind the stunt or, failing that, left it out entirely (as Silverman did)? What is the point of a new biography if not to present a truer picture of the man?

To be fair, the authors do cite some credible and groundbreaking source material, such as Manny Weltman’s Houdini Escape into Legend. But they do not seem to be working from any kind of reliable bibliography. As noted above, they seem to go with whatever source provides the most dramatic scenario. Bottom line, seeing their research methodology, I just don't know what to believe, and that makes The Secret Life of Houdini a heartbreaker for a Houdini scholar.

And while it’s maybe unfair to bring this up, the authors now aborted plan to exhume Houdini’s body to investigate the possibility that he was poisoned (one of the sensational "findings" of the book) has also left a taint. While the truth of this event is still elusive, most have concluded it was just a publicity stunt. Fine. But if the exhumation was just a publicity stunt, then how committed are the authors to their poisoning theory? What else is in the book solely for publicity value? Let’s not forget the book was initially sold on new-found "evidence" that Houdini was a spy, which has never been followed up in any way.

Unlike Ken Silverman's authoritative and well-researched Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, it's now hard to view The Secret Life of Houdini as a sincere attempt to strip away the myths and find the real story of Houdini. Instead, it seems to be a collection of EVERYTHING that has ever been written or told about Houdini, true or not, with a generous helping of provocative new myth-making. Entertaining? Absolutely. But as a definitive, trustworthy biography -- I’m just not sure anymore.

Your comments are welcome...