Monday, September 1, 2014

Magician Harry Houdini -- Hot or Not? History Channel Takes a Chance

The History Channel gives us another opportunity to ponder the above question with its two-part miniseries Houdini starring Adrien Brody beginning tonight -- Labor Day -- and concluding tomorrow evening.  It's a query that TV and motion picture producers have always loved to answer in the affirmative.  Even back when the real Harry Houdini starred in a handful of silent movies it was essentially the same question.  Sure, all audiences love magicians -- and particularly Houdini -- for the awe and wonder they create, but the ladies in the crowd also appreciate some other qualities. It was perfect, of course, that Harry Houdini's fantastic escapes often included him appearing in skimpy loincloths to demonstrate that there was nothing up his...sleeve?

On the big screen producer George Pal (The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine) back in 1953 cast then-contemporary heartthrob Tony Curtis as the most famous magician of them all, with Curtis' real-life wife Janet Leigh as Harry's beloved spouse Bess.  Perfect casting -- Hollywood's Bernard Schwartz aka Tony Curtis playing Ehrich Weiss aka Harry Houdini -- and a luscious Technicolor production plus Curtis in bathing trunks added up to pure entertainment.  Hot?  Even Hollywoodized, you bet he was.

TV-loving baby boomers lived through the golden age of TV movies, when exciting concepts met agreeable television names to create highly watchable original productions.  Among them was in October 1976 with The Great Houdinis (originally The Great Houdini) starring Paul Michael Glaser as Houdini and written and director by Hollywood veteran Melville Shavelson. Glaser was riding high starring as one-half of ABC's Starsky and Hutch, the immensely popular buddy cop series which had premiered the previous year.  Glaser's streetwise, darkly handsome and slightly goofy Dave Starsky was an appealing ethnic-ish contrast to co-star David Soul's tall, blond and more traditionally heroic Ken Hutchinson.  Together they were unbeatable as they drove around in their souped-up car doing macho police work and also managed to charm the female viewers from teenagers on up through pure masculine appeal.  

Glaser was indeed a perfect choice for Harry Houdini, with both a physical resemblance and undeniable charisma that matched the legendary magician's own.  All in the Family ingenue Sally Struthers played Bess Houdini, with Ruth Gordon as Houdini's beloved mother, Vivian Vance as the Houdinis' friend, Nina Foch as a trance medium and Adrienne Barbeau as a seductress.  Glaser as Houdini was inspired casting and helped bring Houdini alive again for a younger generation many of whom probably never had never seen the Tony Curtis movie and even more who only knew Houdini as a vague historical figure. The Great Houdinis was truly a pop culture delight with exactly the right amount of levity and accurate-enough period touches to keep it engaging.  

Producers of The Great Houdinis knew exactly what they had in Glaser and weren't shy about stripping him down to his underwear or even less during the movie.  A touch of beefcake helped make the TV movie a sensation.  Even better, you can watch the movie here:

As you'll see, that famous pose of the real Houdini slightly scrunched over, in chains and clad in a thong, is one of the most popular used to demonstrate how much actors look like the man they are portraying.

In 1998 Turner Network Television made another TV movie on the life of Harry Houdini.  Houdini starred actor Johnathon Schaech as Harry and Stacy Edwards (Chicago Hope) as Bess.  Rhea Perlman played a psychic, Grace Zabriskie was Mama Weiss and David Warner was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who joined with Houdini in exposing phony mediums. Schaech was physically right for the role but like many TNT movies this one managed to suck the excitement out of the story right from the beginning, opening with a static seance sequence that made even the audience feel dead. Schaech had potential in the role but instead of charisma this Houdini unfortunately specialized in dreariness.  (I was in Programming at TNT at the time and was disappointed by the production which had much potential but simply wasn't exciting enough for good ratings.  It underwhelmed.)

Will Oscar-winner Adrien Brody succeed in bringing his version of Harry Houdini to greatness?  For one thing Brody is the tallest of the Curtis-Glaser-Schaech-Brody Houdini portrayers.  Houdini himself was about 5'6", Curtis three inches taller, Glaser one more than that, Schaech one more than Glaser, and Brody towers over all at 6'1", making him a full head taller than the real Harry.  Brody is also a lanky guy, not physically a match at all for Houdini and it will be interesting to see if this disconnect makes a difference.  Will Brody brood or cajole?  History's Houdini purports to examine more of the psychological makeup of the world greatest magician which could make the 4-hour miniseries either a fascinating adventure or a tedious and prolonged slog.  Let's hope for the former.  (Here's a link to the Variety review.)

To delve further into the world of Harry Houdini, there are some awesome resources available on the web.  Highly recommended:  John Cox's Wild About Harry -- Where Houdini Lives blog, a tremendously comprehensive site, Dean Carnegie's The Magic Detective Blog where he just finished a Houdini-thon of articles, Houdini in The New York Times, a terrific essay available here on Houdini on the internet,  and thank you to David Saltman who commented below to bring our attention to the amazing The Houdini File site! Even though the special isn't online, the transcript and ancillary materials for the PBS American Experience documentary on Houdini still are, available here.  For a unique view on the Houdini on TV situation, you will enjoy Toby O'B's Inner Toob article on the subject. The San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum had a Houdini: Art and Magic exhibit a while back.  There's a Houdini collection on Pinterest.  And...was Houdini a spy?  So much terrific material out there from dedicated Houdini scholars and enthusiasts!  Thanks to all of them for keeping Mr. Houdini the foremost name in magic!

From John Cox's Wild About Harry Blog -- be sure to visit! 

For more info on the newest production check out The History Channel official website for .Houdini.

Houdini premieres Monday, September 1st at 9pm with frequent encores.  Be sure to visit the History Channel site for all airdates.

P.S.:  Here are some other interesting clips, such as the real Houdini's voice:

Brilliant British singer/composer Kate Bush has a song "Houdini", lyrics here, interpretation here:

And because this series was always kind of fun, here's E's "Mysteries and Scandals" episode on Houdini"


John Cox said...

Wonderful post! Thank you.


Good post. Don't forget The Houdini File, which has posted some unique criticisms of the History production.

Lisa said...

Thank you so much for your comments! I am looking forward to watching Brody -- I am a Paul Michael Glaser gal myself but I am open! I am down on the TNT version because I was there and so wanted it to be more dynamic than it was, but I appreciate the intent. David, I will put The Houdini File into the body of the post! John, your site is so awesome. I hope you didn't mind me using your amazing "compare and contrast the Houdinis" photo montage -- what a super graphic!

Looking forward to more Houdini! I don't see many ladies weighing in on Houdini's awesome image -- too of the most fascinating figures in American entertainment history, I think!

Thanks again!