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History Channel’s Houdini

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Houdini – History Channel biography of Harry Houdini, starring Adrien Brody
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Houdini – History Channel biography of Harry Houdini, starring Adrien Brody

Something that comes to mind about the History Channel’s Houdini biography, is actually a comic strip. Once, many years ago in the Bloom County comic strip, Opus the penguin was writing a movie review, which read in part:

“This bad film just oozed rottenness from every bad scene –simply bad beyond beyond all dimensions of possible badness. Well, maybe not that bad, but Lord, it wasn’t good.”

In a nutshell, that’s my opinion of the History Channel’s Houdini biopic, starring Adrien Brody — and that a true pity, for several reasons. First, the acting was very good — Adrien Brody has been a favorite of mine since I saw him in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and he’s quite capable of performing the role. Likewise, the actors and actresses playing his wife Bess, aide Jim Collins, brother Dash/Hardeen, etc. all did well — given the script that they had to work with. The problem really does come down to the script, for several reasons:

Problems with History Channel’s Houdini

  1. The show feels rushed, without taking the time to flesh out the characters into people that the audience would care about. As a result, most of the characters seem like two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs.
  2. Several of the characters aren’t sympathetic in the least. The film portrays Bess Houdini as an alcoholic, with a marijuana dependency, who acts like a shrew who will try to pull her husband down at any opportunity.
  3. Accuracy was the last consideration — for example, it spends much time on Harry Houdini’s career as a spy. Although there’s not a stitch of evidence that he ever did that.  To go from that to having Houdini stealing documents from a German ambassador’s safe is a massive stretch. Likewise, it shows Houdini fretting over motion pictures stealing his audience — including playing to half-empty houses.  But it totally ignores that Houdini himself made multiple movies, and owned his own motion picture company.  There are many more examples — literally dozens.  But possibly the most egregious is portraying Harry Houdini as a serial adulterer.
  4. The producers committed the major sin of exposing how the various magic tricks work.  I don’t have a problem with their using CSI-style x-ray view of Houdini picking a lock, for instance.  But they went from there to expose several secrets still in use by magicians today.  Houdini, a member and former president of the Society of American Magicians, would have complained loudly were he still alive.

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