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 José 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 year-long 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 (José 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 14-year-old 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 DeMunn 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. 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 (Byrne Piven), 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 hops 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 western backlot. This could be the Disney Studios in Burbank or Disney's Golden Oaks Ranch near Newhall. Jim Steinmeyer was the technical advisor on the film. Jim worked with Doug Henning at the time, so the technical advisor credit reads just "Doug Henning Magic." The Water Torture Cell was supplied by John Gaughan and went on to make many more television appearances.

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

Also enjoy:


  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.

  6. Hey John, I was wondering if you would mind elaborating on the bizarre section of the film regarding the native american, the box trick, and the coma. There is so little written about it, and this film in general, that it was difficult to track down this film for someone, being all they could remember was that section of the film. I would guess there are others out there looking for only the things they can remember. It would be so cool if people would write everything about all films, because sometimes weird things, or big spoiler events are all folks can remember; observations of odd dress, piercings, habits, etc. The more detailed writings, the better....even if it has to be under a spoiler tag (as long as it is findable through google :) ). I figured I would come to you, as you are the definitive expert on this flick, and many look for your information on it. Thank you for your help.


    1. Hey Tayler. Thanks for the kind words and finding my site. You seem to remember it pretty well. From what I remember (I have the movie, but it's been a while since I watched it), young Ehrich goes off with a native american who is working for the magician Ehrich is traveling with. He teaches him to get in touch with his inner self, great-spirit type of thing, and Ehrich learns to concentrate his "power." This allows him to mysteriously escape from a box in which he's hopelessly trapped. The movie proceeds, and then in the end it's revealed that all of the action after the box escape sequence -- which is a little bizarre -- is all a dream. That Ehrich didn't escape the box, and he's been unconscious this whole time. Or was he??? Something like this.

  7. Great article love the intro video
    Not the best quality but someone has uploaded the movie