The following document is an abstract of a paper accepted for presentation at the Visual Delights III — Magic and Illusion conference at the University of Sheffield, July 15-17th 2005.

The trick film was a specifically cinematographic form of magic. Through adroit manipulations of mise-en-scène and illusionistic uses of splicing and multiple exposure, trick films made possible visual marvels that outshined the most stunning effects of the magic theatre. Trick films extended the recognizable iconography of stage magic into the adjacent medium of moving pictures, yet also made possible the appearance of another, more performance-based, mode of cinematic magic. I term this "actuality magic" since it was seen in the early nonfiction films that showcase the tricks of magicians rather than the wonders of special effects. Foremost among these magicians was American escape artist Harry Houdini, who used motion pictures throughout his entire professional career. After the turn of the century, Houdini was performing many of his most spectacular escapes (manacled bridge jumps, upside-down straitjacket releases) outside of theatres. These stunts, of course, served a publicity function, but were also almost always filmed. After 1906, screenings of these actuality films were often a significant part of Houdini's stage act, as well as being included in various newsreels mdash; not to mention embedded in otherwise fictional films like Exploits d'Houdini è Paris (Lux, 1909).

Surviving footage (in the George Eastman House, UCLA Film and Television Archive, and elsewhere) indicates that the modern city provided a compelling mise-en-scène for Houdini's outdoor escapes. Performed in streets filled with onlookers (whose presence vouchsafed the authenticity of the proceedings) beside bridges and skyscrapers, Houdini's feats displaced magic from the confines of the theatre, catapulting the magician resolutely into the modern world. Indeed, Houdini was no longer seen crouching behind a curtained enclosure on the stage, but instead dangling from the tops of buildings, looking down upon the teeming crowds of the twentieth-century metropolis. On one hand, actuality magic troubles the commonly held idea that cinema does not present "real" magic and destroys it by replacing it with film trickery — as Erik Barnouw contends in The Magician and the Cinema. On the other hand, actuality magic suggests that what constituted "magic" — both in the theatre and the cinema — was in fact changing at the beginning of the twentieth century, perhaps in response to the increasing familiarity of special effects.


Victorian Web overview Theater & Popular Entertainment

3 May 2005