Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Tony Pastor's

Today I continue my scene by scene dissection of Paramount's 1953 biopic Houdini, in which I attempt to make the case that it's much more historically accurate than it is given credit. And anything else that comes to mind. Last time we witnessed a death-defying escape at Coney Island. Today we head to...

Chapter 4: Tony Pastor's

Tony Pastor's is a familiar name to Houdini buffs and an important part of theater history, so seeing its marquee at the start of this sequence is a thrill. However, what we see inside is not the Tony Pastor's of history. Tony Pastor's was New York's first vaudeville house and a typical theater experience. What we see in Houdini '53 is more of a dinner club. Once again the movie is fusing past and present, evoking the nostalgic name of Tony Pastors (sans apostrophe), but showing an entertainment venue that would have been very familiar to audiences of 1950s (less so today).

The real Harry and Bess performed at Tony Pastor's at least twice during their early years (more here). This is well documented in the Harold Kellock book, which is probably why it gets a nod in the movie. But here it is the setting of Harry of Bess's third fateful meeting.

Once again Bess in on a date with the unfortunate Fred (Peter Baldwin). However, an old man keeps leering at her from another table, much to her annoyance. The dinner show begins with a Professor Allegari (Hungarian actor Ernö Verebes) who promises to "rejuvenate" a willing audience member. The leering old man is the volunteer. With the help of a special potion, a circle of showgirls, and some smoke, the old man transforms into the young Houdini! (Notice his suit has also somehow "rejuvenated".) He then proceeds to chase the showgirls off the stage Harpo Marx style. End of show.

While all this might seem like pure Hollywood invention, there is some real Houdini history embedded in this odd performance. During their early years Harry and Bess traveled with the California Concert Company, a medicine show headed by a Dr. Hill. One of Houdini's many jobs was to play the embedded audience stooge who would be first to buy a bottle of the magic elixir being offered by Hill. So here we see the same thing--although a sanitized version--in which Harry is playing the stooge to a medicine show huckster throwback.

Houdini being disguised as an old man is also familiar territory. Houdini would frequently don disguises to challenge rival Handcuff Kings and later to ensnare fraudulent spirit mediums. This is the only Houdini biopic to date that shows his fondness and skills at disguise.

Fred notices this is the same man they saw at Coney Island and suddenly becomes suspicious and accusatory. Bess says she had "no idea he'd be here" and asks to leave. When Harry comes out, he once again finds Bess gone. "They didn't even order anything," says the headwaiter played by character actor Torben Meyer.

As the dejected Houdini turns, he suddenly comes face to face with a radiant Bess. It's a beautiful moment. Bess says she doesn't know why she came back this time. But Houdini says he does and explains, "Everything happens to me in threes. This is the third time we've met."

This idea of things happening in threes is not from Houdini history nor does it ever come back again in the film. But it is an important character-building block, showing Houdini is a man who is aware his life is guided in ways that he doesn't entirely understand but has come to trust. The real Houdini frequently stated that he was a "fatalist," believing he was living a life that was predetermined. Hence, he had little fear. Houdini (1953) is the only biopic that depicts this key philosophy.

Dayton Daily News, Dec. 12, 1916.

Bess has also now experienced this same strange pull of destiny, and she will now trust her instincts. The idea that the Houdinis lives are guided by mysterious forces is something that will come back several times.

That's when Fred comes back to reclaim his date. Bess refuses to leave and Fred is ejected from the club (and the movie) for causing a disturbance. 

"I've only got one more show to do, then where would you like to go?" asks Harry.

"Wherever you go," answers Bess.


  1. Another great analysis, John! I love reading these. (And I got a kick out of your Harpo Marx comparison!)

    1. Thanks! I threw in the Harpo Marx reference because I'm so under the spell these days of The Marx Brothers Council Podcast.