Culture and Trends ›

Harry Houdini's Re-Appearing Act

Wikimedia Commons / Library of Congress

Harry Houdini's Re-Appearing Act

Born March 24, 1874, Harry Houdini remains an inspiring and fascinating figure. Today we look at a few of the many fictional portrayals of him in film and literature since his death.

Houdini gained worldwide fame in his day as a magician and daredevil escape artists, one whose death-defying feats baffled audiences throughout his career. Though best known as a stage performer and noted spiritualist debunker, Houdini also starred in feature films and wrote a number of literary works – including a story he collaborated on with horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.

But the depth of his lasting cultural impact can perhaps best be judged by the incredible wealth of material he inspired, appearing as a character in countless films, television shows and books since his death in 1926.

In 1953 Houdini was portrayed by actor Tony Curtis in a biopic directed by George Marshall that took a great number of liberties with Houdini’s life and legend. In the film, Houdini first becomes enamored of escape tricks when his paramour Bess (played by Curtis’ real-life paramour Janet Leigh) convinces him to take a job at a locksmith factory. In reality, he was already doing handcuff tricks when he met Beatrice “Bess” Rahner while performing with his brother in a Coney Island magic act. There’s no record of him having worked at a locksmith factory, and certainly no evidence that he once locked himself in the factory safe and was fired by the foreman when discovered. Most egregiously, the film misrepresents the manner of Houdini’s death, having him die onstage after a failed escape from the Chinese Water Torture Cell. In reality, Houdini died from a punch to the stomach when a college student testing Houdini’s claim that he could withstand any blow ruptured his appendix. Houdini was by some accounts already suffering from untreated appendicitis and likely would have died from peritonitis anyway as he refused to seek treatment. The movie was nevertheless entertaining and was generally well-received.

A more accurate take on Houdini’s life came in 1976, with The Great Houdini, a made-for-TV movie with Paul Michael Glaser in the eponymous role and also starring Sally Struthers, Ruth Gordon and Peter Cushing. This film ended not with his death, but with a séance conducted by the Reverend Arthur Ford (played by Bill Bixby) in which the Reverend contacts Houdini beyond the grave using a secret code Houdini gave to his wife. Houdini, a well-known spiritualist debunker, had in fact given his wife such a code in order to disprove any claim that his spirit had truly been contacted by a medium, but the code had been published in a newspaper prior to Rev. Ford’s stunt.

Houdini again appeared on the big screen five years later, as a character in Ragtime, based on the 1975 E.L. Doctorow novel. A work of historical fiction set in turn-of-the-century New York, the book uses escapology as practiced by Houdini as a metaphor for the immigrant experience. Among other historical figures included – J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. In this movie, Houdini is portrayed by actor Jeffrey DeMunn. Other notables who’ve played the famed escapologist include Wil Wheaton, Harvey Keitel, Guy Pearce and even Norman Mailer.

Ragtime is far from the only novel that has touched upon Houdini’s legend, with some works sticking close to the historical facts and others straying far into the realms of sci-fi and speculative fiction. Author Daniel Stashower has written a mystery series recasting Houdini as an amateur sleuth who sometimes teams up with Sherlock Holmes to solve murders. In real life, Houdini and Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were friends, a fact that has inspired a great number of fictional Houdini-Holmes pairings including Houdini and the Séance Murders, Nevermore, Necronauts, What Rough Beast and Believe – all written by different authors, the last by none other than Star Trek star William Shatner. Fiction writers have also paired Houdini with Theda Bara, a young Edna Ferber, Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain – even Batman. In Carter Beats the Devil, a 2001 best-selling historical mystery thriller by Glen David Gold, Houdini appears to bestow the title “Carter the Great” on magician Charles Carter (a character based on a real-life Houdini contemporary).

Motion picture rights for Carter Beats the Devil were optioned by Warner Brothers back in 2001, but so far the project has been unable to muster any Houdini-like escape from the morass of studio development hell. Whether the film gets made or not, it seems safe to say that we haven’t seen the last of Harry Houdini.