Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Eight-thousand, six hundred and forty-three locks

Continuing my scene by scene dissection of Paramount's classic 1953 biopic Houdini. Last time we joined Harry and Bess on the road. Today we find them back at home.

Chapter 7: 8,643 locks

The following series of scenes in Houdini (1953) are largely setups for the more major scenes to come. But in these scenes are many echos of real Houdini history and do well to illustrate my point that, while this film fictionalizes for entertainment purposes, it still builds those fictions atop a foundation of fundamental facts.

We open with Harry, having given into Bess's plea to give up on show business, working the assembly line of a lock factory. This pulls from a few pieces of real Houdini history. Houdini always claimed he apprenticed to a locksmith when he was a boy, and it was there he acquired his expert knowledge of locks. And as a teenager, Houdini worked an assembly line as a necktie cutter. So here we see these ideas have been nicely combined. It's also said Houdini's brother-in-law, William Bartholmes, offered to get him a job at the Yale lock factory. I've only ever seen this mentioned in Kellock, the book on which this movie is based, so it's likely that's what sparked the idea of a lock factory here.

Of course, the always ambitious Houdini wants to move up the ladder and work on the "big safes" like the surly Mr. Hunter (Frank Orth). He also still has escape on his mind, and asks Hunter if he could one day try to free himself from one of his safes "by working the tumblers from the inside." For this he only gets chastised and sent back to his bench. All this is fantastic stuff. Up until now the movie has only shown us a rope escape. But now Harry is in a world of locks and already seeing their dramatic possibilities. His encounter with Mr. Hunter also shows his predilections to make and take on challenges.

Houdini returns home (his mothers home) where Bess is happily ensconced in domestic life. The picture here feels a little more like 1950s domesticity, but it's Bess's ideal.
Bess: How'd it go today?
Harry: Just great. I opened eight-thousand, six hundred and forty-two locks.
Bess: Well at least we're not dodging tomatoes and you get paid every Saturday night.
This is also rooted in fact. Following their second stint with the Welsh Bros. Circus in 1898, the Houdinis returned to New York and the Weiss family home and appear to have, temporarily, given up show business. Houdini attempted to sell his act and open a school of magic. I've always wondered if he might have picked up a few shifts at the old tie factory? He was still in the union. So a hiatus just before the swell of success is right in sync with the real Houdini story.

Bess notices that Harry is "two dollars short" in his paycheck. She asked if he "stopped off anywhere." I think audiences at that time, and maybe still now, would take this to mean stopping off at a bar. But this is Harry Houdini. He pulls out a pair of handcuffs that he purchased (Hamburg 8s). To prove they are "good ones", he has Bess lock them on his wrists. He then makes an instant escape. 

"That makes eight-thousand, six hundred and forty-three locks that I've opened today," he quips.

This is a magnificent moment that does so much for the characters and the narrative. We see Houdini just can't stop being a performer and can't stop dreaming up new escapes. This also gives a handcuff escape a nice moment in the movie and shows them, correctly, as part of Houdini's evolution. We could also give this a deeper read. Harry has been "handcuffed" to a domestic life by Bess. But he's reminding her nothing can hold Houdini a prisoner.

Bess is clearly threatened by this and doesn't share Houdini's joy in the escape. Instead she brings him back to domestic life and tells him to wash up for dinner. But Houdini deflects by saying he's taking her out to dinner. Bess is predictably thrilled, and even more so when mama, at her sewing table, tells her she has her dress all finished. Again, I can't help but recognize an echo of Houdini history here. A key ingredient in the mythic story of how Harry and Bess met is mama making Bess a new dress.

We end with Harry and Bess arriving at the Hotel Astor. Bess wonders if they can afford such a place. Harry gallantly says, "Nothing but the best for you my dear", and he ushers her inside. But we see he has used misdirection to conceal a revealing sign at the hotel door...

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