Harry Houdini, Hollywood action hero? A look back at the escape artist’s films

March 24, 2010 | 4:04 p.m.

Harry Houdini was born 136 years ago today. To mark the day, Susan King goes back to look at a life that included a somewhat-forgotten stint as a movie star.  



He was born Ehrich Weiss on March 24, 1874, to Rabbi Samuel Weiss and his wife, Cecelia, in Budapest, Hungary. By  1887, though, the family was in chaotic and pulsing New York City, and four years after that, young Ehrich created a magic act with a friend named Jacob Hyman. They called themselves the Brothers Houdini, and Ehrich chose a new first name, Harry.

Hyman went his own way, and by the final year of the 1890s, the man known as Harry Houdini was the hottest attraction in vaudeville, thanks to his extraordinary, mystifying handcuff-escape tricks. His trip to Europe in 1900 turned him into an international star, and his escape tricks became more elaborate. In 1904 at London’s Hippodrome, he performed his “Mirror Cuff” escape, an hourlong escape from specially made cuffs with nesting locks.

In 1906, he escaped from the jail in Washington, D.C., where Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President James A. Garfield, was held and then the following year he performed his first “manacled bridge jumps” in Rochester, New York. And in 1912, Scientific American magazine declares that his underwater box escape from the East River in New York was “one of the most remarkable tricks ever performed.”

Then a new type of fame beckoned him. And not even Harry Houdini could escape the siren call of the silver screen.

In 1919, having already conquered the stage, the superstar of illusion and escape set out to become a master of motion pictures. Much of that screen work is gathered up in the three-disc set “Houdini: The Movie Star” from Kino International, a 450-minute collection that hit DVD in April 2008.

The collection shows how the stage showman became an early-days action star in “The Master Mystery,” a 15-episode serial from 1919; “Terror Island” from 1920; “The Man From Beyond” from 1922, which he also wrote and produced; “Haldane of the Secret Service” from 1923; and a surviving five-minute fragment of “The Grim Game” from 1923.

Though the 5 foot-5 performer was shaped somewhat like a fire hydrant and would never dazzle anyone with his acting, the brief movie career took his fame to even greater heights by  capturing the breathtaking stunts and magic tricks that had made Houdini’s name synonymous with confounding feats.

After his foray into film, Houdini continued to work on stage, finally hitting Broadway in 1925 with the 2 1/2-hour extravaganza entitled “HOUDINI,” featuring tricks, illusions, his most famous escapes and an exposé on spiritualism.

Houdini was a leading opponent of spiritualism after he attended a séance in 1922 with Lady Doyle, the wife of his good friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Lady Doyle believed she could channel automatic writing from Houdini’s mother. Houdini didn’t believe her; this lead to a break in his friendship with the couple.

Houdini was performing on Oct. 22, 1926, at the Princess Theatre in Montreal. Before the show, a college student entered his dressing room and asked him if he could punch the magician in the stomach to see how strong he was. During the pummeling, Houdini’s appendix burst. The doctor told him not to perform, but for Houdini, “the show must go on” was more than a motto. He died in Detroit on Halloween of complications from the burst appendix. A steady parade of the grieving and the curious came to see Houdini as he lay in state for two days in New York, and some 2,000 mourners gathered in the ballroom of the Elks clubhouse in New York for his memorial service on Nov. 4. Just as he had instructed, his head was put to rest on a coffin pillow of letters from his mother.

— Susan King


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8 Responses to Harry Houdini, Hollywood action hero? A look back at the escape artist’s films

  1. joanna says:

    These are some real intersting facts, and I must admit to my shame, I didn't know all those things about Houdini, not even that he was hungarian, I always thought that he was italian because of the name. I guess that this is what happens when a person is identified so much whith an idea or with a concept: the public opinion tends to forget his personal background, concentrating only upon that detail which makes him famous.

  2. mo says:

    Such a fascinating person, that man. After viewing The Master Mystery some months ago (the one you have here), I had to get the rest of it. I just finished the last of the films, on the three set DVD, and I enjoyed watching him a lot. I don't care what others have to say about his acting, he's entertaining to me, and I could re-watch those films over again and again.. gotta love that hypnotizing gaze.
    I would love to see more of his older footage, including more of him and his wife.. shame it was so long ago. So, I've been reading what I can, and have been desperately searching for things online.. I did recently come across this, http://tinypic.com/player.php?v=v6hv10&s=5 and it really made my day. I hope it does the same for anyone else that watches it!
    Happy Birthday Houdini!

  3. Westside Steve says:

    Well written peice – I learned some new information about the master Illusionist.
    Also, liked his logical mind: providing himself as an experiment in the existence of an afterlife. He told his wife a secret word before death: armies of psychics, holy gurus, spiritualists and other charlatans claiming to be able to speak with the dead came to her until her death. Not a single one ever revealed the word. Remember that when someone on TV tries to convince you that some random white noise is an EVP of a ghost.

  4. alyy says:

    im doing a report in class this, information is very helpful, depending on what i need to know!

  5. Arye (Leslie) Michae says:

    Once we accepted 'Jesus Christ, Superstar' the rest was inevitable.

  6. Caleb says:

    Very interesting article. Another fact is that Houdini had some people ghostwrite short stories for him to be published in magazines of the day and had people investigate the mediums to find out their tricks. One of the persons to do this was C. M. Eddy, Jr. He was a friend to Houdini as well as an investigator and author. There is an interesting website at http://www.fenhampublishing.com
    that people might enjoy.

  7. thiago says:

    oi thiago meu porque harry houdini deus ajudas mágico ?

  8. dylan rubin says:

    Harry Houdini is really too incredibly awesome with how he escapes traps and all different stuff

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