Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century by Matthew Solomon

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2010)

Everybody talks about "movie magic," but Matthew Solomon, an associate professor of cinema studies at the College of Staten Island in the City University of New York, has now written a book about it. The connection between magicians and the early history of cinema has been long acknowledged, at least in the world of magic if not as much by the world of cinema, and notably in The Magician and the Cinema (1981) by the historian Erik Barnouw. But with this new thoroughly researched, carefully written work, Prof. Solomon has taken the subject much farther than his predecessors.

Prof. Solomon contributed a disciplined essay entitled "Magicians and the Magic of Hollywood Cinema during the 1920s" to the academic compendium, Performing Magic on the Western Stage: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present [reviewed in Genii, July 2009], confining himself therein to how magic not only influenced early cinema, but how magic and cinema subsequently disengaged from one another, as cinema defined itself as its own distinct medium and profession. The volume at hand elaborates significantly on these very points.

While the author thoroughly analyzes that separation, and the relative speed with which cinema abandoned magicians and magician-filmmakers, he also greatly expands on the significant role magic and magicians played during the birth and earliest development of the cinema.

Chapter 1 positions film as "an anti-spiritualist medium," arguing that "From the beginning, moving pictures were bound up with the magician's specific tradition of skepticism." Exploring the compelling notion that the live performance of the magician's impossibilities was in fact a challenge and an education to the audience, impelling them toward more critical viewing and thinking, the author concludes that "This tradition of anti-spiritualism was one of stage magic's earliest and most important contributions to the history of cinema."

Chapter 2 explores whether the advent of film presented a hazard to the future of magic, as has often been claimed. Here the author begins to define the differences between several roles that magic played in film, such as films of tricks (essentially documentary recordings of live performance, or approximations thereof)—film as actuality, representing an "attractions" approach to cinema versus "trick films," as typified by the early innovations in trick editing and effects as typified by George Melies. The author suggests that rather than undermining the power of magic in the eyes of audiences, early cinema was more of an enhancement to magicians than a threat.

Chapter 3 examines Melies and his influence on the Theatre Robert-Houdin, making it clear that Melies drew the theatre away from the traditional magic presented by its eponymous founder, and for a time at least, more closely toward the kind of magical sketches and playlets created by John Nevil Maskelyne at Egyptian Hall. (I was mildly surprised to find no reference here to Jim Steinmeyer's insightful essay, "Art and Artifice," from the collection of the same title.) The point is clearly made that at a time of change in magic, in the aftermath of Robert-Houdin's performance years, Melies was doing his best to help the theatre survive in ways that were innovative, but often shunted traditional magic aside even before he became a groundbreaking filmmaker.

Chapter 4 further explores the nature of "trick film," and distinguishes between what was considered modern magic, at the end of the 19 century, and what became known as "up-to-date" magic in the first decade of the 20 century a distinction that is not commonly reflected in the magic literature, but will be readily recognizable as presented by the author, reflecting as it does a great deal of the kind of magic that was presented on the vaudeville stage. And thanks to film, up-to-date magic was seen by an audience far beyond that of any previous stage magic; as early as 1907, some films would be circulated internationally to audiences numbering in the hundreds of millions.

Chapter 5 offers a detailed account and reflection on the film career of Harry Houdini. Often discounted as little more than a novel and failed exercise in self-aggrandizement, Prof. Solomon closely examines how Houdini's film work bridged several forms of the rapidly evolving cinema, and reinterprets the importance of his cinematic output.

Chapter 6 further considers Houdini's extensive use of film in his own live performances, and ponders how such filmed genuine exploits helped to credential his live work (rather than damage it), but how his more narrative film efforts were less well received in such settings.

While Disappearing Tricks is admittedly not intended for the casual reader, students of magic history, film history, the intersection of both, and of Houdini's film career in particular, will all find much to enlarge their insight and understanding of these subjects. Prof. Solomon's book is a valuable contribution to a literature synthesizing these interests, and he has produced a work that suffers far less (albeit perhaps not with complete immunity) from the crippling naivete that so often mars academic considerations of the history of conjuring.

Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century • by Matthew Solomon • 9"x 6" perfect bound • 200 pages • illustrated with 27 photographs