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Houdini’s best trick is... disappointing its audience

History Channel's Houdini Review

By Kevin I. Matos
On October 31, 2014

Once again, History Channel has attempted to entertain its audience with its original programming, investing in series that are designed to be both entertaining and factual. As with any creative work, even those based on actual events, people understand that certain facts are redressed to make them more entertaining. Yet, as it has been doing for some time, History Channel has tricked its audience into thinking that they would actually learn something about Houdini in its two-part, four-hour mini series Houdini.

Despite having been disappointed by such series before, I sat down to watch this one in hopes that it would be good (after all, they have had much success with The World Wars miniseries and Gettysburg). Now, though I’ve long been a fan of Houdini, I admit I had very little knowledge on him. I knew a few things about his tricks, and about his career; that was mainly it. What I saw was a number of his most famous tricks being performed, a man with a pronounced and quite unhealthy relationship with his mother, a wife who did little more than watch him do tricks and bicker, and finally, situations that were good for entertainment, but quite a stretch from the truth.

The two things that threw me off the most were: his wife’s idleness, and Houdini’s supposed ‘Oedipus Complex’. Though I confess I didn’t know much about the man before I sat down to watch the show, I could not recall ever having read about him having an obsession with his mother that would be considered a textbook case of Freud’s Oedipus Complex. As for his wife, I do remember her having been an important person for him and his career, and very much so doubted the accuracy of her character, whom was reduced to someone who merely speaks to bicker and stares idly at her husband during every single one of his shows. Honestly, I can’t recall her having any dialogue outside of scenes where she is arguing with her husband.

Having watched it, I resolved to do some fact-checking, unable to accept the information provided to me by the History Channel at face value. What I found was that a great number of people had already done so, comparing the series to actual known facts about the historical figure the show was based off of. Aided with some knowledge I acquired through a bit of research, I cross-checked all of the available information and comparisons.

The series gets a few things right, and some of the creative details worked into the series are well-done and highly entertaining, yet the question remains: would you learn much about Houdini by watching this series? The short answer is: no.

Contrary to what the series wishes to tell you, Houdini (real name Ehrich Weiss) did not have issues with his father and did not have such an unhealthy obsession with his mother, though his family was poor and he did care much for his mother. When Houdini ran away at the age of 12, he did not work for a travelling magician, but his stage name was indeed inspired by the work the famous French conjurer known as Robert-Houdin. The series was accurate in the portrayal of the manner in which he and his wife met, and later married, and it was correct to say that Houdini would (at times) strip fully to perform escape tricks as a way of proving that he had no hidden lock picks or keys on his person.

One detail that the series played around with was the man who helped Houdini engineer some of his great tricks. Houdini had an assistant named Jim Collins, like the series states, but Collins was from England, and was certainly not an American from Georgia. The series also talks about Houdini having achieved great fame with his handcuff escape tricks, but it sets it in America in 1890, when Houdini did not achieve that level of fame until his tour in Europe from 1900-1905.

Houdini had a great interest in law enforcement and the methods used by criminals, so he would often communicate with them. As a result, he did send some reports back to law enforcement about what he saw in Germany and Russia (remember, this is before WWI), but he never worked as a spy. Also, the series has a scene in which Houdini does the infamous bullet-catching trick, in which one fires a bullet at him and he catches it with his teeth. It was a very entertaining scene, and the series talked about it being a ‘cursed’ trick that no one wanted to attempt. Fun to watch, the scene fails simply because it did not take into account that Houdini refused to do this trick, which cemented its reputation as the ‘trick that even Houdini wouldn’t try’.

The latter half of the series did a better job with the facts than the first half, but even here one finds that the major details are accurate while other details are either omitted or altered. Houdini had been in Hollywood during its early days, he did make an elephant disappear (though no one is sure as to how), he did tie himself to a cannon, and he did launch a crusade on fraudulent mediums (but not because he wanted to contact his late mother).

What it comes down to is that Houdini was made mainly to entertain, not to inform. While there is some accuracy in the series, the majority of scenes and events suffer from changes in date, location, and/or tricks, making it difficult for people to have a solid foundation on which to start their research into his life.

For all of this, I give the series a 5/10, and would recommend watching it mainly for the chance to not only see some of his famous tricks performed, but also see them be decoded.

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