- Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century by Matthew Solomon
The discourse of “magic” has often been invoked to describe both live theatre and movies, but Matthew Solomon’s fascinating study documents the explicit connections between performed stage magic and the cinema throughout the latter’s early days. Tracing a continuum of illusion from the stage acts of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin to the cinematic conjuring of Georges Méliès, Solomon showcases the blurry boundaries among spiritualism, realism, and spectacle that marked early twentieth-century performances. Situating Harry Houdini at the fulcrum upon which the study hinges, Solomon argues that [End Page 146] the use of magic in many early films elucidates the dual use of the new art form to both capture actuality and create illusions.
Solomon starts his study with a look at the spiritualist movement of the late nineteenth century and the role of stage magicians in exposing some of their more outlandish claims. As he explains in the first chapter, stage magicians employed their trickery to encourage skepticism rather than cultivate faith in the supernatural. While photography was sometimes employed to prove spiritualist claims, the cinema never caught on in that regard, and Solomon begins here in tracing film’s oscillating tendencies. Film’s ability to capture events somewhat authentically made it an apt tool for exposing spiritualist claims, but magicians soon found it also useful in adding layers to their own illusions, making the truth more obscure.
Chapters 2 through 6 are framed around Méliès and Houdini, representing illusionism and actuality respectively. While Méliès was against spiritualism, he nevertheless emphasized cinema’s illusionistic tendencies over its ability to capture events or expose fallacies. As seen in chapters 2–3, stage illusions would heavily influence Méliès’s cinematic trickery, with cutting and superimposition replacing sleight of hand and misdirection. Spectacle figured prominently in Méliès’s stage performances and informed the style of his films like A Trip to the Moon.
In chapter 4, Solomon notes that illusionism carried over into the work of Méliès’s contemporaries Gaston Velle and Alber, who popularized the trick film—a showcase of special effects and transformations. The form would fade into obscurity with the rise of Hollywood, but in the beginnings of the twentieth century, the trick film was a popular staple of French movie houses and provided an artistic home for magicians leaving the stage.
Houdini looms over the latter portions of the book (chapters 5–6), and Solomon provides us with several fascinating descriptions of now-lost Houdini films. Having transitioned from conventional stage illusion to the feats of escape for which he is most well-known, Houdini crafted “actuality films” that showcased his escape skills, whether contextualized within the frame of a story or not. These films were featured in his stage show, where he would personally introduce them for exhibition among his live escapes. The films captured some of his most public escape attempts, letting audiences see his speed and skill with clarity and in proximity.
Houdini’s narrative films cast him in roles that required his character to escape and evade the authorities in increasingly exciting ways. Films like The Grim Game, Terror Island, and The Man from Beyond sometimes referenced spiritualist themes to draw in audiences, but contained scenes of actual escapes, rooting their appeal in film’s perceived ability to record events faithfully. Despite their claims of actuality, such films would be manipulated to hide parts of an escape attempt that Houdini wanted to conceal and were not more accurate or less biased than a live staged feat.
Solomon ends with Orson Welles and his obsession with stage magic and illusion, a fascination that culminated in his final film, F for Fake. Here, Solomon makes explicit the tensions surrounding authenticity and legitimacy in magical performance, with Welles’s film documenting hoaxes and charlatans before revealing his own trickery. The ability for recorded media to illuminate and obscure...