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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » American Experience: Houdini
American Experience: Houdini
PBS // Unrated // October 4, 2011
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted September 22, 2011 | E-mail the Author
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The Show:
 
There have arguably been more skilled magicians, but there's no debate over who the most famous magician of all time is:  Harry Houdini.  In 2000 PBS created an hour-long documentary on the escape artist and prestidigitator simply titled Houdini.  Now a decade after it first aired on the program American Experience this nice, if brief overview on the man's career is available on DVD.  
 


The show starts out at the beginning of Houdini's life and relates how he was born Erik Weisz in Hungary in 1874.  At the age of four his father, a Rabbi who had previously sailed to America, sent for his pregnant wife and five children.  They settled in a small town in Wisconsin where the elder Weisz was employed by a synagogue. Eventually he lost that position and the family moved from place to place before ending up in the Jewish slums of New York City.
 
It was in the Big Apple that Erik started performing magic under the stage name of Harry Houdini (after the famous magician Robert Houdin.)  He started at the lowest rung of show business, performing several times a day in dime museums and in circus side shows.  He had an act with his brother, but while performing on Coney Island he met a fellow entertainer Bess Rahner.  The two hit it off and in a short three weeks after they met, they were married.  Bess replaced Harry's brother in the act, and she would serve as his on-stage assistant for the rest of his life.
 
Somewhere along the line Harry witnessed a psychic performing a spirit cabinet act.  The performer would be tied up and when the lights were shut off 'spirits' would play musical instruments that were laid at the feet of the psychic.  Harry instantly realized what was happening, the psychic was getting out of their bonds and playing the instruments, and that gave him an idea that would catapult him into stardom:  becoming an escape artists. 
 
People were fascinated by Houdini's escapes.  Not only would he remove locked handcuffs, but he would do it in life-threatening situations:  while locked in a trunk and thrown in a river for example.  With his wife at his side, Houdini traveled not only the US, but Europe as well, impressing people all over the world.
 


This is a nice chronology of Houdini's achievements, filled with vintage photos and films of his feats as well as commentary from magicians James Randy and David Copperfield as well as Houdini's friend the late cartoonist Al Hirschfeld and author E.L. Doctorow.
 
The show does hit on all of the most pertinent details of Houdini's life including his deep love (some would say obsession) with his mother, his fascination with death, and his debunking of psychics in his later years.  The only real problem is that, being slightly less than an hour long, there isn't time to go into much detail on any one aspect of the complicated man. 
 
The one area that I think the program should have spent more time is discussing Houdini's amazing showmanship abilities.  If you woke up tomorrow with full knowledge of all of Houdini's secrets and the talent to pull off all of his tricks, you could spend the rest of your life as  a performing magician and never gain a tenth of the fame that Harry Houdini achieved.  Even more impressive than his slight of hand and lock picking abilities was the way he could captivate the public and get his name in all of the papers.  He was a master showman and the fact that everyone reading this knew exactly who Houdini was before they started reading is a testament to that.
 
The DVD:

   
Audio:
 
The stereo soundtrack is good, just what you'd expect for a documentary.  Not much use of the soundstage is made, but the narration (by Mandy Patinkin) is easy to hear.
 
Video:
 
The full frame video looks fine.  The interviews with magicians etc, are crisp and clean, while some of the vintage footage is naturally scratchy and soft. 
 
Extras:
 
Unfortunately there aren't any.  I would have loved a photo gallery of images used in the special.
 
Final Thoughts:
 
At the end of this biography magician James Randi says that people have asked him if Harry Houdini was a real person of just a fictional character like Sherlock Holmes.  That's a true sign of lasting appeal:  when your feats are so impressive that people aren't sure if it's really possible to have performed the.  Houdini was a great magician and escape artist but more importantly he was an amazing showman.  This is a good start for people who are interested in learning more about this bigger than life character.  Recommended.      
 
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