Saturday, December 18, 2010

HOUDINI (1953)


Unquestionably the most famous Houdini biopic is Paramount's 1953 HOUDINI starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. It's amazing just how many magic and Houdini buffs, including myself, cite this one film as the reason they became interested in the subject. And while HOUDINI is almost entirely a work of fiction, it does capture the glamor, drama, and danger of Harry Houdini in a way that I think would have made the Master Mystifier proud.

The genesis of this classic movie lay with a pair of film industry novices. In 1950, a former drug store operator, Joseph Raboff, and a real estate man, Earl Cohen, formed a company called, Film Producers Inc., and acquired the film, radio, and TV rights to Houdini from the late magician's estate. They also acquired the rights to the book, Houdini His Life Story by Harold Kellock.

John Garfield
Teaming with a former Paramount executive, Endre Bohem, the indie producers commissioned a screenplay by Stephen Longstreet (The Jolsen Story) and announced production of The Life Story of Harry Houdini for October 1950 with either John Garfield or Lee Cobb in the lead role. There was also talk of a half-hour TV series following the film's release.

It's unclear what happened to Film Producers, Inc. ambitious project, but it's likely Raboff and Cohen found they had bitten off more than they could chew, and used Endre Bohem's connections to sell their valuable Houdini rights to Paramount.

The result was the big, bold Technicolor treat we know today as HOUDINI. Producer George Pal and director George Marshall cast real-life husband and wife Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh in the roles of Harry and Bess Houdini. Angela Clarks plays "Mama", and Torin Thatcher plays Harry's fictional assistant and manager Otto. Dunninger receives a lavish credit as technical advisor, but according to Tony Curtis, the true technical advisor on the film was George Boston. "Dunninger was a blow hard," Curtis would tell a Magic Castle audience in 2009. And speaking of The Magic Castle, that's co-founder Bill Larsen, Jr. (uncredited) performing the Guillotine act at the SAM convention in the film.

HOUDINI is mounted as a lavish magic show within a movie. Several magical effects are played out in their entirety and primarily in long shot. In fact, it plays as such a magic show, live audiences I've seen it with applaud the conclusion of each trick. As for the stars, Curtis and Leigh are nothing less than glamorous!

The film also beautifully recreates many of Houdini's most famous escapes, including the straitjacket escape both onstage and suspended, a safe escape, a metal straitjacket (said to be an authentic Houdini pro), a jail escape, and Houdini's ordeal trapped below the ice following his escape from a submerged metal box. This is one of the most dramatic and memorable scenes in the film, and while Houdini himself was responsible for this fiction, it was actually first slated to first appear in an unmade RKO film in 1932 (click here to read about RKO 581: Hollywood's first Houdini film).

Most interesting to long-time fans of HOUDINI is the recent revelation of several cut scenes. Set photos posted on the LIFE magazine website show Curtis and Leigh performing the Cremation illusion, and a recreation of Houdini's Milk Can escape (the prop can used in the film now resides in the Houdini Seance Room at The Magic Castle). Also, the plane to plane transfer from Houdini's silent film The Grim Game was re-staged on the Paramount backlot for this film, making it the only biopic to acknowledge Houdini's silent movie career (well, it made an attempt to, at least).

The Milk Can and Grim Game airplane stunt were cut from HOUDINI

While HOUDINI starts off light and breezy with wonderful romantic byplay between Harry and Bess, the movie actually grows quite dark as Harry's obsession gets the better of him. One of the best scenes in the film is when Harry and Bess have an argument in an empty theater with a bubbling Water Torture Cell in the background (here called the Pagoda Torture Cell). "I wish it was another woman who took you from me, Harry, that I can fight. This I can't," says Bess. Faced with losing his wife, Harry promises to cut the Cell from his show.

However, on show day, Harry cannot resist the cheers of the audience and the cries of "more", and brings out the bubbling cell for an encore. But a tender appendix and an accidental blow backstage (he walks into a prop sword) weakens him and he becomes trapped in the cell and drowns before Bess and the horrified audience (establishing the myth that persists to this day that Houdini died in the Water Torture Cell). As his limp body is dragged from the smashed cell, the camera drifts off the dying magician to his first innocent magic poster and we are reminded just how far Houdini has traveled in pursuit of applause. It's a remarkably dark and tragic ending that makes a powerful impact.

HOUDINI was well received by the critics of the day. However, the magic community was less enamored. Magician and Houdini biographer Milbourne Christopher (Houdini The Untold Story) led the charge in a review that took the movie to task for its many fictions and inaccuracies. Said Christopher, "I won't attempt to list the anachronisms and inaccuracies in the film. Generally speaking, if any phase of Houdini's life is shown on the screen you can be sure it didn't happen the way it's pictured."

Perhaps this attitude is understandable. The magic community had waited years for a Houdini biopic, and one could see how a largely fictional treatment would disappoint. Of course, no one then had any idea just how influential the film would be, and how many magicians and Houdini enthusiasts it was inspire. In that regard, Paramount's 1953 HOUDINI is certainly the most successful of all the Houdini movies.

Happily, HOUDINI is also the most accessible of all the Houdini movies. It has been released on VHS, LaserDisc, and DVD. The film is often shown on television, and is even periodically screened in theaters. In the final years of his life, HOUDINI was one of the films that Tony Curtis was most fondly remembered and celebrated.

Be sure and check out Shep Hyken's wonderful website devoted entirely to Houdini - The Movie.


10 comments:

  1. Great review, John. It is amazing how many people this film has converted into Houdini followers.

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  2. It's very enjoyable for what it is. I wouldn't have it any other way. Curtis actually does convey something of Houdini's obessive nature and love of applause. Plus, Janet Leigh doesn't hurt the eyes. Still, it would be nice to have a grittier, more accurate movie about him, maybe the sort of multi-part period drama that the BBC is good at.

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  3. Thanks as always gang. I don't consider this article finished just yet. I wanted to flesh out the paragraph about Christopher's negative reaction (I believe he evokes objections from Sid Radner, Manny Weltman, etc.). However, when I went back to the Academy library on Friday to make a copy of the review, I found they are closed until Jan. 3. As I promised this for this weekend, I put it up as is, but when I get my hands on that review in the new year I'll add to this.

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  4. Very cool review.

    I actually came very late to this film and to Houdini himself.

    I only found a copy of this on DVD a few years ago and the first HH biography I read was Secret life of Houdini. I actually read this book before seeing the film. And have been performing escapes long before that. So unlike most it seems it was my love of escapology that brought me to Houdini rather than the other way round.

    I do love the film though. And would also love to see a more factual period drama about HH made.

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  5. John - You are truly a devoted Houdiniphile.

    When I interviewed Janet Leigh for my story about Bess in MAGIC magazine, she told me it was costumer Edith Head who convinced Paramount that the film should be shot in Technicolor. She took one of the costumes to George Pal and said "This film must be made in color!" Edith Head did have a lot of clout in those days and I'm sure the studio realized the story would be much richer in color.

    Janet also told me that in the dramatic scene where she's in the empty theater pleading with Houdini not to perform the USD that George Marshall positioned a bucket of water directly over her head (unknown to her) and after she delivered her plea to Harry, the water was dumped on her head! Would love to find that out take!

    Keep up the spirit.

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  6. Thanks, David. Glad you are enjoying the blog. That bucket of water story is nuts. You know, when I hear these old stories about set pranks...I don't know, they all sound a little sadistic and disrespectful to me. She does a great job in the scene, and it is a very emotional moment. Then to dump water on her... Maybe one had to be there. I just hope she took it out on Tony later on. ;)

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  7. How about the footage of Tony doing the milk can escape and the airplane stunt? Does it exist anywhere? What a crime if it is lost to history!!

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    1. We can only hope it still exists. But chances are it's long gone.

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