Aside from her work on the television sitcom Maude, I’m not that familiar with Adrienne Barbeau’s work. However, I remembered she appeared in a TV movie of the week back in the 1970s about the magician Harry Houdini and decided to revisit it for the blogathon.
I saw it during its original broadcast, but didn’t recall that it’s actually a very good movie, especially considering how cleaned up most biopics were and still are. On top of that, it boasts a stellar supporting cast, including Ruth Gordon as Houdini’s mother, Bill Bixby as Reverend Arthur Ford, Peter Cushing as Arthur Conan Doyle, Maureen O’Sullivan as Conan Doyle’s wife, Nina Foch as Reverend Le Veyne, Vivian Vance as Minnie, the Houdinis’ nurse/companion, who also narrates the film. And of course, Adrienne Barbeau, as Houdini’s mistress Daisy White.
Paul Michael Glaser stars as Harry Houdini and Sally Struthers as his wife/partner Bess. The film is mainly concerned with their marriage and professional relationship, as well as Harry Houdini’s not very healthy relationship with his mother (Gordon). It also traces his fascination with the supernatural and his crusade to unmask most mediums as phonies and hucksters.
As I said, the film doesn’t clean up his life, and is very honest about his deep depression after his mother’s death, Bess’s alcoholism, and his affair with Daisy. Yes, it does fictionalize a few things: Bess never had a miscarriage after witnessing an almost failed escape stunt, nor did Houdini die after another escape mishap. Bess did not prove that Harry truly contacted her after death with a secret message only the two of them knew. But it’s understandable that these were added to increase the drama. And Minnie is a made-up person, though Vance gets some of the best lines in the movie.
(My favorite: while telling spiritualist Reverend Ford to leave Bess alone, she says “If you contact Robert E. Lee, tell him he lost.”)
Barbeau has only a few scenes, but they’re all good: at the beginning by Harry’s graveside (the story is told in flashback) she encounters Bess. Telling her she has to leave because she has a matinee, Bess counters with, “What’s his name?” (The dialogue is pretty good all around.)
She encounters Harry for the first time backstage and is clearly star struck. While Harry is depressed and separated from Bess, Daisy shows up to check on him (i.e. seduce him). But it’s not done in a cheap way. She confesses to many things (including having had an abortion) and tells him she loves watching him escape because it always gives her hope.
In another likely fiction, Daisy shows up the night Houdini receives the sucker punch to the belly that supposedly kills him (it really didn’t—he died from peritonitis because he ignored the signs of appendicitis). She assures Bess that he is no longer interested in her. Their argument about Daisy is what causes Harry’s distraction when the young man sucker punches him.
Doing research for this film, I found that many Houdini aficionados consider this the best film about his life. Impressive for a TV movie of the week from the 1970s, which have a reputation for being churned out on the cheap.
When it ended after this recent viewing I commented to my mom, “Gee, Adrienne didn’t have a lot of scenes.”
She said, “Yeah, but she was really good.”