Friday, December 10, 2021

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Wedding night

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 Harry and Bess finally connected at Tony Pastor's. Today we join them on their...

Chapter 5: Wedding Night

Just as in real life, the courtship of Harry and Bess in Houdini (1953) is a short one. Whereas the real Houdinis dated for around four days before tying the knot, in the movie it appears to happen all in one night! But they are meant to be and we got a lot of life to cover, so...

The wedding night sequence starts off with a nice visual beat in which Harry guides his new bride to his family home. Bess assumes they will be ascending the stairs of a handsome brownstone. But Harry shakes his head and guides her down to a basement level dwelling. Rich he ain't!

Not wanting to wake his mother, Harry attempts to sneak Bess into his bedroom. But it doesn't work. Mama, played by Angela Clarke, catches the young couple who then scramble, unsuccessfully, to explain themselves. Clarke was only 44 when she starred in Houdini. The real Cecelia Weiss was 53 when her son got married. Clark is actually a better age match than some succeeding mamas who tended to be portrayed as elderly from the start (most notably Ruth Gordon in The Great Houdinis). Clarke's mama is welcoming of her new daughter-in-law, which is also true of the real Cecelia Weiss.

One of the most interesting aspects of this scene is what can be seen in the background. Look closely and one can spot no less than two Menorahs, thus establishing Harry as Jewish. We've already discussed how Bess's introduction suggests a Catholic school (which is again mentioned here), so the mixed faith marriage of the Houdinis is indeed part of this film...if you look hard enough.

After mama gives her blessing, we dissolve to Harry's bedroom where a sleeping Bess is startled awake by Harry, in pajamas, bringing out a large box. He insists that Bess climb into it. Both actors are exceptional in this moment, almost seeming to ad lib some of their playful dialogue. Once Bess is locked inside, Harry retrieves a large saw and announces, "I'm going to saw you in half."

The famous Sawing in a Woman in Half illusion, as presented here, was first performed by Horace Goldin in 1921. It caused a sensation and ignited controversy over who invented the effect (which is covered in Mike Caveney's acclaimed new book, 100 Years of Sawing). Putting this in the hands of Harry Houdini in the 1890s is a howling anachronism, although Houdini would eventually perform his own version of this effect in 1926 called "Slicing a Girl in Eight."

However, the idea of showing a nascent Houdini working on an effect that would become a classic of magic is entirely accurate. That trick was Metamorphosis. But the Sawing works great here to terrify Bess, which is also true of their early life. In Houdini His Life Story Bess relates at least two stories about how her new husband frightened her with his magic tricks and strange behaviors. He would then soothe her by showing her the secrets, which is exactly what we see play out here in the movie.

While there is no account of what the real Harry and Bess did on their wedding night (I can make a guess), this classic scene became a template for later biopics with events playing out in a very similar manner. In The Great Houdinis (1976) Sally Struthers ends up handcuffed to Harry. In the Houdini Miniseries (2014) Kristen Connolly finds herself locked in a trunk.

Harry: Was it so awful?
Bess: No, but I expected something different on my wedding night.


  1. I'm very glad you are continuing this series on the 1953 "Houdini," as your insights into it are consistently fascinating. Full confession though, I'm a bit obsessed myself with this film, to the point where I was dead-set-convinced for years that Mama is once referred to by someone on-screen as "Mrs. Weiss!" The fact that I thought for so long that this shout-out is in there proves how invested in the film -- even for someone who recognizes how fanciful it's script often is, it is possible to become. -Steve Bingen

  2. I look forward to day when we get all of these as an audio commentary.