The Story of Magic

We all know what the world's oldest profession is. But this sumptuously detailed, ultra-comprehensive four-hour historical doc makes a strong case for magic being the second-oldest, blending film footage, stills, literature and artifacts to paint a complex picture of the role that legerdemain has played down through the centuries. It approaches the subject from an almost scholarly angle that's at times mesmerizing and at others simply tedious. Indeed, "The Story of Magic" has a tendency to overdo it on the self-important blather. No less an authority than Siegfried (of Siegfried & Roy fame) appears early on to declare dramatically, "At that moment I knew what I had to become. My life became magic. Magic became my life." Yet while focusing for four hours on just about any single subject is an invitation to overkill, the two-nighter packs plenty of compelling factoids and riveting archival film into its exhaustive mix. And card illusionist Ricky Jay strikes just the right eloquent tone as host and narrator.

With:
Host: Ricky Jay.

Sunday night’s opening two-hour seg, entitled “Centuries of Deception,” traces the roots of magic to the Egyptian empire of 249 B.C. (where, oddly enough, David Copperfield was already working on making the pyramids disappear). In the earliest days, magic was confused with witchcraft and the occult, meaning that the reward for a good magic show was sometimes death.

The cups-and-balls trick, it turns out, is literally one of the oldest tricks in the book — popularized in one form today by three-card monte professionals on the streets of New York. And a certain automaton humanoid chess player in the 18th century drove everyone batty.

We learn that a 19th-century Frenchman named Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin is credited as the father of modern magic, turning his interest in clock-making into a stirring career of weaving illusions that combined “technology with feeling.” Magic was also there at the birth of moviemaking and cinematography through magician Georges Melies, cq who would die bitter and penniless.

Second two hours, “Mystery in America,” shows magic riding the crest of vaudeville. It also picks up with Harry Houdini, whom Jay pronounces “the world’s first superstar.” Besides all of the wondrous, death-defying stunt footage of the magic great, Houdini is singled out for his crusade against spiritualism and embracing of film.

Yet once cinema took hold of America, it booted live magic shows out of the nation’s theaters, pushing the art onto street corners and into nightclubs. TV would later give rise to the glitzy Las Vegas-style magic extravaganza a la Doug Henning. But as “Story of Magic” tells us, the aura of the past essentially evaporated.

Doc begins losing steam in part two at roughly the same time that magic itself does, around the 1940s. Producers Rick Davis and Jim Steinmeyer simply run out of interesting personalities to profile, and once you’ve seen one levitation, you’ve seem ’em all. But it’s to the producers’ credit that they are able to take so many loose ends and connect them into as neatly woven a quilt as they manage here.

Of course, as the documentarians themselves readily admit, “Story of Magic” isn’t truly a history of magic. It’s merely the history of magic that they had pictures of.

At least we finally uncover the origins of abracadabra. Turns out, it was an ancient nonsense word meaning … nothing. Consider yourself informed.

The Story of Magic

Production: (Sun. (7), 8-10 p.m., and Tues. (9), 9-11 p.m., A&E) Taped in Los Angeles; Las Vegas; Chicago; Marshall, Mich.; London and Paris by Jaffe Prods. in association with Actuality Prods. for A&E Network. Executive producers, Bob Jaffe, Michael E. Katz; producers, Rick Davis, Jim Steinmeyer; supervising producer, Doug Camb.

Crew: Camera, Michael Loftus; editor, Greg Byers; sound, Bob Kucera; music, Alan Ett Music Group. 4 HOURS.

Cast: Host: Ricky Jay.

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