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.  

Houdini

 

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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