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Case Number 22514: Small Claims Court

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American Experience: Houdini

PBS // 2000 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kent Dixon (Retired) // October 14th, 2011

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All Rise...

Judge Kent Dixon once escaped from a sweater that was two sizes too small.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of American Experience: Dinosaur Wars (published April 9th, 2011), American Experience: Hijacked (published February 22nd, 2006), American Experience: LBJ (published March 8th, 2006), American Experience: Panama Canal (published February 12th, 2011), American Experience: The Duel (published July 30th, 2011), American Experience: Victory In The Pacific (published September 5th, 2005), and American Experience: Kinsey (published June 21st, 2005) are also available.

The Charge

"Nobody has ever done and nobody in all human probability will ever do such reckless feats of daring. His whole life was one long succession of them."—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Case

There's something about magic that captures our attention and imagination. It seems both children and adults alike love watching a good trick or illusion that defies reasoning and stretches our imagination. In the entire history of magic and illusions, there are only a few names that have truly risen to legendary status. David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy, David Blaine, and Criss Angel have all earned international recognition and fame, but before any of them came a man whose name would be forever linked with the world of magic and illusion. That man was Harry Houdini.

Billed as "TV's most watched History series," American Experience is a PBS program that airs documentaries about important people and events in American history. In 2000, the series aired American Experience: Houdini, a biography of the legendary magician, illusionist, and escape artist. Narrated by Mandy Patinkin (The Princess Bride), the documentary explores Houdini's life in depth, beginning with his trip from Budapest to New York in 1878 when he was just four years old.

Following his childhood in poverty and the death of his father, the documentary covers many (if not all) of the highlights of Houdini's life. Born Eric Weiss, the young man worked hard to stand out from his four brothers, adopting strict mental and physical discipline early in life that served him well as he performed as a contortionist and trapeze artist for his childhood friends. When his father died of cancer at just 63, Weiss made a promise to himself and his father that he would care for his mother all his life, and that he did. At 18, Weiss and a friend formed a magic act and called themselves "The Brothers Houdini," an homage to the great French magician of the time, Robert Houdin, and with that partnership, Eric Weiss became Harry Houdini. It wasn't long before Houdini realized his escapes and non-traditional magic would become the core of his performances.

Performing in carnivals and sideshows, it wasn't until the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago that Houdini got his first taste of real success. After meeting his wife Bess in 1894 and marrying, Houdini began performing in Vaudeville where after just 14 months he was commanding $400 a week. His success built and built over the years as Houdini become more and more famous and drew larger crowds as he traveled and performed across Europe. As he entered his 30s, water became more of a feature in Houdini's act, likely harkening back to a near drowning he experienced as a child, and audiences around the world marveled at his milk can and Chinese water torture escapes. As he entered his 40s, Houdini developed one of his greatest escapes ever, and ultimately his last: hanging suspended over a crowd while he escaped from a straight jacket. Tragically, while preparing for a lecture at McGill University in 1926, Houdini met the challenge of a young man who wanted to test his assertion that he could take any punch from any man. The student struck before he had prepared himself and, as a result, Houdini was seriously injured. The blow resulted in a ruptured appendix. Houdini's unwillingness to rest and recover while touring led to his untimely death on Halloween 1926.

Through archival footage and photographs, as well as on-screen interviews and dramatic recreations performed by escape artist Bob Fellows, American Experience: Houdini brings the remarkable history and legacy of Harry Houdini to life. The full screen video presentation is solid, despite a wide range of content, from archival footage and stills, to more contemporary on-camera interviews and recreations. The 2.0 audio mix does its job as well, serving as adequate for a documentary of this type. There are no extra features of any kind.

American Experience: Houdini is a fantastic documentary that presents the life of one of the most memorable historical figures the world has ever known. While Houdini is long gone, his legacy has served to inspire generations of magicians, illusionists and performers all around the world and his achievements continue to amaze and astound us.

The Verdict

His guilt escapes me and his legacy lives on.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: PBS
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Historical
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb

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