Disappearing tricks

Published this month by the University of Illinois Press is Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century, by Matthew Solomon. It revisits the golden age of both theatrical magic and silent film to reveal how professional magicians shaped the early history of cinema. This is a subject which is often referred to but seldom give book-length treatment. The classic study for years now has been Erik Barnouw’s The Magician and the Cinema, while Dan North’s Performing Illusions ties together the illusions of the pre-cinema and early cinema worlds to the CGI and SFX of today. Matthew Solomon focuses on the work of those professional illusionists who transferred from stage to screen between 1895 and 1929, looking in particular at the work of Georges Méliès and Harry Houdini. The book also investigates “anti-spiritualism and presentational performance in silent film … highlighting early cinema’s relationship to the performing body, visual deception, storytelling, and the occult”.

So, who were those illusionists? The Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema site has biographies of the leading figures from the 1890s, which was the main period in which magicians made their mark on the new medium:

  • ‘Professor’ Phillip Anderson – magician who toured India and South Asia, ading films to his act in 1898
  • Billy Bitzer – D.W. Griffith’s cinematographer started out pursuing his interest in magic and developing novelty toys before branching out into film
  • J. Stuart Blackton – the co-founder of Vitagraph had a cartooning and conjuring act with Albert Smith before they established one of the leading early American film companies
  • Walter Booth – British conjurer who turned trick filmmaker for Robert Paul and Charles Urban
  • David Devant – famous British magician who made film a part of his act in 1896
  • John C. Green (‘Belsaz’) – magician who tourned Canada and the USA, adding film to his act in 1896
  • Carl Hertz – American magician who introduced films to South Africa
  • Emile and Vincent Isola – Franch magicians who added film to their Paris act at the Théatre Isola and were rivals to Georges Méliès
  • John Maskelyne – famous British magaixian who re-invented the art as theatrical performance and who became interested in film as exhibition and on the invention side
  • George Méliès – French magician turned cinema illusionist of the highest order
  • John Schuberg (‘Johnny Nash’) – Swedish magician and film showman who operated in Canada
  • William Selig – American magician and minstrel show operator turned film producer
  • Albert Smith – British conjuror whose double act with J. Stuart Blackton led to their forming the Vitagraph Company of America
  • G.A. Smith – Started out with a ‘second sight’ act which led to his being used as a subject by the Society for Psychical Research, before he became innovative filmmaker and inventor
  • Félicien Trewey – French shadowgrapher (hand shadows), entertainer and friend of the Lumières, he introduced their films to Britain
  • Alexander Victor – Swedish magician who exhibited films in the USA from 1897, founded the Victor Animatograph Co. and invented successful devices for amateur film production

Just outside the Victorian period was Gaston Velle, magician and the son of a magician who directed fantasy films for Pathé in the early 1900s.

Harry Houdini was unusual in being a magician/illusionist from a later era who made a strong impact upon cinema (or else it made a strong impact upon him). He was a one-man thesis on the boundaries between illusion and reality, being magician, escapologist, actor, film producer and someone dedicated to exposing frauds such as spiritualism. He included films as part of his vaudeville act from the mid 1900s, then starred in a serial which showed off his skills in escaping from impossible perils: The Master Mystery (1919, in 15 parts), followed by two feature films for Paramount, The Grim Game (1919) and Terror Island (1920). He formed the Houdini Picture Corporation to make The Man From Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923), but cheap production and a lack of real film presence in Houdini himself meant that his film career petered out. His stunts also featured in newsreels of the period. Kino Video has a 3-DVD set Houdini: The Movie Star, which includes The Master Mystery, Terror Island, The Man From Beyond, Haldane of the Secret Service, a five minute section from The Grim Game, and assorted archival films of Houdini in action.

In 2006 Matthew Solomon curated a section of the Pordenone silent film festival programme on magic and film. You can find the list of films and his notes on the festival catalogue, here.

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