Believed to be the only filmed interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this Fox Movietone newsreel item was given wide release during 1929.
Category: Arthur Conan Doyle
Houdini and Doyle, Episode 3: In Manus Dei (reviewed)
Edwardian-social-issue-of-the-week: faith healing
“Supernatural” crime: faith … killing (?)
We open inside a traveling tent-show where faith healer Elias Downey is explaining the origin of his miraculous powers to an enraptured audience. God, we are told, used Elias as a conduit in healing his desperately ill younger sister, Jane, when the Downeys were both children. A skeptic scoffingly interrupts and, shortly thereafter, falls to the floor, coughing blood and insensible. His wife desperately pleads with Elias to save him, but it’s too late – the man is dead.
Houdini, Doyle and Stratton attend the dead man’s funeral, hoping to gather enough evidence to prove that a crime has actually been committed, in order to be able to order an autopsy. Elias Downey arrives to pay his respects and Houdini (sacrificing all decorum for expedience) baits him into a loud science vs. faith confrontation, distracting the mourners while his colleagues examine the corpse. Doyle deduces that the man may have been suffering from dengue fever, and may therefore have died of natural causes after all.
Constable Stratton, however, discovers that several other people have died shortly after disparaging Reverend Downey and the team then attends another of his faith healing services. Houdini performs an impromptu demonstration of “psychic surgery” on a member of Downey’s audience, to illustrate the power of the placebo effect; the man is deceived by the trick and believes himself to be cured, and so he feels better. Ironically, Houdini himself then falls violently ill; meanwhile, Doyle is convinced of Reverend Downey’s powers and asks him to try to heal his comatose wife, Touie, who does, in fact, rally shortly after Downey prays over her.
Doyle, doubting his earlier diagnosis of dengue fever, conducts an illicit autopsy on the dead skeptic and is overcome by a toxic miasma rising from the man’s incised abdomen; coming to, he realises that the man was poisoned, suggesting foul play in the other deaths that have befallen people who scoffed at Downey. While Doyle and Stratton interview the wife of the dead skeptic, Houdini performs his matinee magic show, but is again overcome by illness and fails to escape the Water Torture Cell, requiring a dramatic glass-smashing rescue.
Eventually it transpires that the Reverend’s sister, Jane, has been bumping off “disbelievers” in order to bolster her innocent brother’s reputation, and thus his ability to do some actual good, even if only via the placebo effect.
The main emotional through-line in this episode lies in Arthur’s relationship with his newly-revived wife Touie. As the story began, he was losing hope that she would recover and was packing her clothes away in storage. After she regains consciousness (as it turns out, she was actually healed by an experimental medical treatment rather than by the Reverend’s prayers), the two of them share some tender moments … but tragically, by episode’s end she has relapsed into the coma. The distraught Doyle is comforted by his young daughter, and then, together, they unpack Touie’s clothing and re-hang it in her closet.
- We’re asked to accept a lot of coincidences in this episode, especially regarding the timing of various illnesses and recoveries, which fit so neatly and dramatically into the storyline as to severely strain credibility.
- Episode 3 is basically an examination of both the limited and erratic benefits and significant dangers of faith healing – here identified as nothing, more nor less, then the placebo effect, bolstered by the above-mentioned heavy dose of dramatic license. The ever-skeptical Houdini offers some trenchant and accurate observations along these lines, and while the more credulous Doyle is always ready to accept a supernatural explanation, his practical skills as a physician are crucial to solving the case.
- Constable Stratton doesn’t have a great deal to do this time, other than to glance sternly at the two “boys” while they banter; hopefully she’ll have more of an active role in the rest of the season, aside from being Houdini’s burgeoning love interest.
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Only six ibangs this week, but we’re looking forward to Episode 4, when Houdini and Doyle take on the legendary “leaping ghost”, Spring Heeled Jack!
Houdini and Doyle, Episode 2: A Dish of Adharma (reviewed)
A pattern is emerging; just as episode 1 of Houdini and Doyle drew together a circa 1900 social issue (the treatment of inmates in a Magdalene laundry) and a seemingly supernatural mystery (a ghostly murderer), A Dish of Adharma weaves the radical women’s suffrage movement together with a case of attempted assassination via (apparent) reincarnation.
During the dramatic opening sequence, a young boy holding a bouquet of flowers approaches Lydia Bellworth, a suffragette who has chained herself to a set of railings as a political protest. Lowering the bouquet to reveal a pistol, he then shoots her in the arm, saying “You murdered me!”
Houdini, Doyle and Stratton are quickly on the case. It transpires that the boy – a runaway adoptee – has been plagued by dreams and visions of a life that he has not lived and believes himself to be the reincarnation of a bohemian artist named Martin Upton, who died some twelve years earlier. Upton is revealed to have been the secret lover of Lydia Bellworth.
The investigators discover that the boy – whose real name is Peter – has actually become fixated upon the life and death of Martin Upton via obsessively studying Upton’s secret journal, to the point that Peter’s own identity has become submerged. Eventually the truth comes out – Lydia Bellworth really did kill Marton Upton, because he refused responsibility when she became pregnant with his child, who was then adopted out immediately after birth. In a truly Dickensian turn of events, that child turns out to be none other than young Peter.
The boy is reunited with his loving adoptive parents and (one hopes) recovers his own identity, independent of that of his murdered father.
A Dish of Adharma offers us a suitably twisty gothic mystery and some further insights into the lives and psyches of our protagonists. Doyle struggles to be a good father to his young daughter Mary, who is beginning to question her own role and future in a society that systematically devalues girls and women. Meanwhile, Houdini’s fascination with the still-enigmatic Adelaide Stratton leads them into a “truth-trade” game that may betoken a deeper future relationship between them.
- Although the mystery is again revealed to have a strictly non-supernatural (if only just plausible) solution, the question remains as to how Peter was able to lead Houdini, Doyle and Stratton to the exact site of his father’s secret, unmarked grave. Obviously, that information could not possibly have been contained in Martin Upton’s journal. Doyle suggests that it might be evidence of “spirit guides” and Houdini doesn’t have a ready retort. Logically, the implication is that Peter had, in fact, learned or deduced where Martin was buried, though how he might have done that is never addressed.
- One of Houdini and Stratton’s “truth trades” involves each of them writing their greatest fear upon a scrap of paper, swapping papers and then reading each other’s answers (as it turns out, both of them fear “being unloved”). It’s later implied that this coincidence of written answers was a sleight-of-hand illusion on Houdini’s behalf; when Adelaide asks him whether it was a trick, he shows her a number of identical scraps of paper bearing different answers such as “losing family” and “spiders”. The suggestion is that he somehow matched his own answer to hers, out of a collection of likely responses (a cold reading-style application of the Barnum/Forer effect).
The “trick” as actually shown, however, would have relied entirely on luck or very shrewd guesswork; there was no possibility of a sleight-of-hand substitution of one scrap of paper for another. Perhaps the implication is that Houdini did not want to reveal the depth of his interest in Adelaide, and so sought to camouflage it (and give himself an “out”) by pretending that it actually was just a trick.
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Seven out of ten ibangs for Episode 2 of this intriguing series.
The Folklorist: The Cottingley Fairies
The Folklorist presents this accurate and very nicely produced mini-documentary on the famous Cottingley fairy hoax, including re-enactments of Frances and Elsie staging the photographs with their cut-out paper fairy pictures. The winking “maybe it was true after all” tag at the end grates a bit given the nature and history of the Cottingley case, though arguably it’s very much in the spirit of things given that Frances never completely came clean.
“Fairy Tale: A True Story” (review)
This is what really happened; in 1917, and again in 1920, two rural English schoolgirl cousins went into the local woods and took photographs of paper cutouts shaped like fairies. All historical evidence suggests that the girls intended nothing more than a simple, silly prank, which then spiraled out of their control. As one of them said, much later in life, “I never even thought of it as being a fraud – it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun. I can’t understand to this day why they were taken in – they wanted to be taken in.”
“They” were the True Believers; Theosophists and Spiritualists, wonder-seekers championed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who took the Cottingley fairy photographs as clear proof of the existence of the supernatural. To a nation reeling from the devastation of the First World War, the photographs offered a glimmer of hope “beyond the veil”; if fairies were real, then perhaps death did not equal the extinction of identity.
Fairy Tale: A True Story is a clever, subtle and deeply compassionate examination of the nature of faith and skepticism during this very turbulent time. Each major character has his or her own perspective on the fairies. To Sir Arthur, for example, they represent the possibility of life beyond death and the vindication of his own father, who spent many years confined in a “lunatic asylum” and who frequently painted and wrote of seeing fairies.
To arch-skeptic Harry Houdini, who fought hard to expose the exploitation of the bereaved by fraudulent mediums, they represent a clever magic trick; an ultimately harmless and charming illusion.
Gardner, the Theosophist, comes up with increasingly far-fetched, pseudo-scientific theories about the fairies’ true natures.
To the comically nasty and cynical reporter, Mr. Ferret – who is, other than Houdini, the only adult who figures out how the photographs were actually produced – the fairies are a juicy story, perhaps part of a conspiracy orchestrated by Sir Arthur.
Several charming sequences show actual fairies flitting about, the director wisely leaving it ambiguous as to whether these scenes are intended to be taken literally, or more in the poetic spirit of Peter Pan’s urgent plea to “clap if you believe in fairies!”
It is also implied that the girls themselves come to realize the power of their own myth-making, as when they are shown making a solemn “vow of fairy secrecy”, which can either be interpreted as a promise not to reveal the magical secrets of real fairies, or as a promise not to reveal the simple trickery that has accidentally deceived the famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and so many others. At several points, when they are asked point-blank “are the fairies real?” by people for whom belief in fairies is clearly of great emotional importance, they exchange knowing looks before kindly nodding their heads.
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Nine ibangs out of ten for this underrated modern classic.