The 1953 Paramount biopic Houdini with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh is what ignited my interest in Houdini. While beloved by many, the movie is often criticized for being wildly inaccurate. But I feel differently. While the movie does inject Hollywood fabrications to be sure, I'd argue that the overall plot is generally faithful to Houdini's life and every scene contains elements rooted in reality, or at least the "approved mythology" of the book on which it is based.
I've always dreamed of providing a DVD commentary where I could make my case for the greatness and accuracy of this movie. I've even considered recording my own for upload to YouTube (and still may do). But I've not quite figured out the technology. So I've decided instead to launch a new series here on WILD ABOUT HARRY in which I will "deconstruct" the movie scene by scene, showing where and how it is rooted in Houdini history...and anything else that comes to mind.
So with that, let's begin at the very beginning!
Chapter 1: Main Titles
The Main Titles for Houdini are designed to look like a vaudeville playbill on the outside of a theater. This would have been recognizable to audiences of the 1950s, but it may be lost on a modern viewers today. Topping the bill is, of course, the name of HOUDINI. Right off the bat we have an image rooted in fact. Not only would Houdini's name always top a vaudeville bill, but the multi-color letters match a real Houdini playbill from the era (below). Maybe this match is coincidence. But for a Houdini buff, it offers the first thrill of recognition and is an excellent start to the movie.
It's also satisfying to see the Paramount name and logo at the head of the film as it brings to mind Houdini's own movies The Grim Game and Terror Island, which were distributed by the studio. In a way, one can almost think of Houdini (1953) as Houdini's third Paramount picture.
Now begins the clever effect of moving down the playbill to the other players and contributors in this "HOUDINI" headlined show. Stars Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh are the first names we see. It's interesting to note that Janet Leigh was the bigger star at this time. Houdini was actually Curtis' first lead role. Leigh was under contract to MGM and had to be loaned out at the expense of Paramount. But the studio was eager to feature the newly married couple in their nostalgic and romantic biopic, and Leigh's star-power would bring a name to the movie. It certainly worked out!
With a screenplay by Philip Yordan, Houdini was "Based on a book by Harold Kellock." For our purposes, this may be the most important credit on the bill. The book in question is 1928's Houdini His Life Story, a collaboration between author Harold Kellock and Beatrice Houdini. It was the first Houdini biography and is packed with popular mythology, some of which will find its way into Houdini and later movies. In the 1930s, Bess and her partner/manager Edward Saint shopped the film rights, eventually landing a deal at Paramount. For those who fault Houdini for inaccuracies, you should read those earlier scripts!
That first film was never made and the rights to the book drifted around Hollywood for decades. At one point Gone With The Wind producer David O. Selznick wanted to make the movie with Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock. But Paramount reacquired the rights when producer George Pal showed interest. A new script was commissioned and the result is the movie we have today.
A prominent credit for Technicolor was common at this time time as Hollywood was eager to differentiate movies from television and the transition to color was key. But there is also a nice Technicolor connection to the real Houdini. Daniel Comstock, who co-founded Technicolor in 1916, was one of Houdini's allied members on the Scientific American committee during the Margery investigation. In fact, it was Comstock's control device, not Houdini's infamous "Margie Box," that finally prevented the medium from producing her phenomena. Oh, and the color in this movie is gorgeous!
Joseph Dunninger receives a prominent credit as Houdini's Technical Advisor. Dunninger was one of the most famous names in magic at this time and his inclusion in the credits would certainly be noticed by audiences. He was also good friends with Houdini. While Dunninger loaned some props to the production (such as the iron overboard box), the true technical advisor to the film was magician George Boston who taught stars Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh to do magic and oversaw the magic sequences. But Dunninger's name in the credits gave the film its magical gravitas and a nice personal connection to the real Houdini.
Houdini was produced by George Pal, who was one of Paramount's top producers at the time. Like his subject, Pal was Hungarian. He graduated from the Budapest Academy of Arts and made his early movies for Hunnia Films in Budapest. It's interesting to note that Pal was working on his sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds at the same time Houdini was in production. Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, in costume, were even photographed with Pal and one of the famous Martian flyings saucers.
The playbill ends with a final credit for director George Marshal and the title sequence fades out. When the picture fades back up, we've transitioned to...