The Great Houdini (1976)
Aired fifty years after Houdini’s death, this made-for-TV biopic tries hard to differentiate itself from Tony Curtis’ earlier effort. In manufacturing a vicious conflict between his mother and his wife, unearthing his extramarital affair and dwelling upon his bout with depression, The Great Houdini takes a much darker tone than the previous film. It is also dissimilar in a more telling fashion, in that it’s not very entertaining.
Those scenes that do escape their dour confines usually occur on stage. Elsewhere TV stars Paul Michael Glaser and Sally Struthers struggle with the dramatic demands of the backstage story. Struthers in particular irritates with her constant battles with Houdini’s mother, and later the memory of her. Here the biopic strays into some murky territory. Not only does writer/director Melville Shavelson have Bess accuse her dead mother-in-law of wanting to sleep with her son, he also has Houdini reply to his lover’s invitation to bed with a “Yes Mother”.
Though Houdini’s crusade against the Church of Spiritualism is effectively handled, it is undermined by the scenes that bookend the film. Mysterious knocks on the front door, a clock that stops ticking and a photo of Houdini's mother falling off the wall cause Bess to fall down some stairs, precipitating her flashback to happier times. The final scene, which suggests that Bess had successfully made contact with her dead husband, would have had Houdini spinning in his grave.
There is no evidence to suggest Houdini's mother and wife did not get along.
Houdini was not driven to debunk Spiritualism as a direct result of his mother’s death. Houdini first began publicly attacking those who claimed they could make contact with the dead after he attended a séance with Sir Arthur Conan and Lady Doyle. Though this is depicted in the biopic, it occurred nearly 10 years after his mother’s death.
Vivian Vance’s character, Minnie, is fictional.
Bess did not have a miscarriage while Houdini was performing an escape from handcuffs in a river.
Though it is technically true that Bess never denied that the Rev. Arthur Ford did convey the her husband's secret message, it is misleading to suggest she went to her grave believing Houdini had contacted her from the grave.
“There was a time when I wanted intensely to hear from Harry. I was ill, both physically and mentally, and such was my eagerness that spiritualists were able to prey upon my mind and make me believe that they had really heard from him.”
Biopic does not cover Houdini's career in films.