Friday, May 7, 2021

No hard feelings

One of the things Hollywood gets wrong about Houdini is showing him bellowing onstage how no one ("Not even God!!!") can hold him a prisoner. But had Houdini done this in reality, audiences would have surely turned on him and rooted for such a braggart to fail. While Houdini was a boaster off-stage, on-stage he actually presented a more humble persona. He would famously say to his audience, "I don't know if I'm going to get out of this, but I assure you I am going to give it my best." He presented himself as the underdog and audiences rooted for him.

Of course, Houdini always did escape. But he also went out of his way not to humiliate his challengers. No escape was ever presented as easy, even when it was. Houdini would frequently say he had never faced such a well-made packing case or a more expert rope tie. He left good will in his wake.

The below is a nice example of this. This ran in the The Wisconsin State Journal following Houdini's suspended straitjacket escape from the State Journal building in Madison on January 23, 1924.

Click to enlarge.

Of course, there were exceptions, such as William Hope Hodgson in Blackburn. And later in his career Houdini did do some on-stage boasting. A 1922 review in the Baltimore Evening News complained, "Houdini spends about 10 minutes telling of his greatness, then performs two tricks that he has been showing for years." But in this case he was boasting of past triumphs.

Okay, so maybe Hollywood got it half right.


  1. That zinger from the Baltimore Evening News appears to have been from the 1922 nine week $25,000 Keith tour. HH did it for the needed money and most likely phoned in some of those performances. Like clocking in at a job and going thru the motions: the vaudeville grind.

    1. He actually first got pegged for this during his 1920 UK tour. A few critics noted that he seemed to talk/boast too much. But he seems to have kept it up. What I wouldn't give to hear this, btw. To hear Houdini talking about famous incidents in his career would be wild indeed.

    2. The UK tour: Contractual fulfillment, but I think HH would have preferred to hang out with Doyle and attend seances. Didn't he get pegged earlier for showing films of his exploits? Theater managers didn't want that.

    3. As far as I know, films where never an issue as he started doing this as early as 1907. Movies where a novelty in themselves and it was exciting to have a little cinematic warm-up before the real thing. Very overlooked aspect of Houdini's act. It almost aways involved seeing some film clips.

    4. And now...let us open our Bibles to page 173. HH getting pegged for showing films in his act:

      He tried to ease up by including "animated pictures" in his act, showing his audiences films of himself piloting the Voisin or jumping a bridge in Paris. But not all managers appreciated the switch. "I want a performance by you," a British manager wired him, "not a cinematograph act."

    5. Haha. Ok, you got me. But Silverman isn't infallible, especially when talking about Houdini's movie work. It would be good to know the date of that telegram to put it in context (according to his Notes book, it's undated). If it's from 1908, then, yes, you could say it's a reaction to a "switch" in HH's act. But if it's 1920, it just grousing about how much HH is now using movies as a crutch. But, yes, looks like some managers didn't dig the movies.

    6. We must have faith in the Scriptures Brother Cox. ;)

      I also agree that Silverman pulled quotes that might not have been directly related to the subject on the page. That telegram could have been from 1911 after Australia or the 1920 UK tour. But it does tell us that HH ate the clock onstage with films. He might have combined both films & stories to lighten his hard work. All we have is the negative opinions of reviewers and theater managers. The crowds might have enjoyed his stories and film clips.