Sunday, October 31, 2021

Hollywood kills Houdini

Today is the 95th Anniversary of the death of Harry Houdini in Detroit. How did Houdini die? Let's take a look at what Hollywood tells us.

When a Houdini biopic was being shopped around Hollywood in the 1930s, Columbia Picture's head Harry Cohen passed on the project, complaining Houdini's life lacked romance and "needed a better ending than a punch in the solar plexus." Hollywood never seemed to get past this, and over the course of five biopics has tried to add drama to Houdini's death. Here's how Hollywood killed Houdini.

Houdini (1953)
The classic biopic Houdini starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh decided to have Houdini die onstage inside his "Pagoda Torture Cell." It's plenty dramatic and for many decades people believed this is how Houdini really died (and some still do). The idea that Houdini is suffering the early stages of appendicitis is established in an earlier scene. And before he performs the fatal escape he runs into the handle of prop sword in his dressing room, presumably rupturing that problematic appendix.

The Great Houdinis (1976)
By 1976 the belief that Houdini died onstage in his Water Torture Cell was so wide spread that Hollywood couldn't resist doing it all over again. Give the people what they want! But this time the dressing room punch is also nicely dramatized for the first time. And Houdini doesn't actually die onstage. Over a freeze frame we hear Mini's voice explaining that he died a week later in Grace Hospital. So they were able to have it both ways. I do love Mini's final line: "We all knew he was waiting for Halloween. Made such a nice headline."

Houdini (1998)
Despite striving for more accuracy on several fronts, this 1998 movie from TNT decided to once again trap Houdini inside his Water Torture Cell. But he doesn't actually drown this time. Instead he dies in the hospital on what appears to be the operating table. The punch is also part of the chain of events, but it's a blink and you'll miss it moment.

Death Defying Acts (2008)
By the 2000s most people knew Houdini didn't die in the Water Torture Cell and that his death had something to do with a punch to the stomach. That was good enough for this indie feature which depicts Houdini being punched in the stomach in the lobby of a Montreal hotel and dropping dead on the spot.

Houdini Miniseries (2014)
For once Houdini's final days and death are portrayed largely accurately. But despite fine performances by stars Adrian Brody and Kristin Connolly, Harry Cohen might have been right. It's a little anti-climatic. As for Harry being kissed by Mama's in a sexy nurse outfit...what a weird movie this was.

I'm sure Hollywood isn't done killing Houdini in their own creative ways. What does the future hold? We'll find out!

on the
October 31, 1926


  1. John, I can picture you with your finger hovering over the keyboard to get that perfect 1:26 post time!

    1. Haha. Glad you noticed that Lisa. :) I can actually program it to automatically post at a specific time. So that's how I pulled it off.

      Happy Halloween! (And National Magic Day.)

    2. You were supposed to pretend that you didn't even NOTICE that had happened - what a weird, spooky coincidence - musta been Harry - etc. (Guess that's why you're a historian, not a magician!)

  2. Cohen lacked vision. Harry had romance, he was married, and the agony he suffered during his last performance would have been better than dying in the USD. You can imagine the actor playing HH taking a brief break in the wings clutching his abdomen and grimmacing in pain.

  3. I already watched movies about Harry Houdini. When I saw death scene of Harry Houdini, I starated crying.
    Forever Harry Houdini.