TODAY marks the 69th anniversary of Houdini's premiere at the Des Monies Theater in Iowa on June 25, 1953. So what better day to continuing my scene by scene dissection of the classic biopic and one of its most iconic scenes...
Chapter 8: Magicians' Dinner
We now come to one of the most memorable and important scenes in Houdini (1953); the Magicians' Dinner at the Astor Hotel and the famous straitjacket escape. It's a fantastic sequence with a lot to unpack. So let's get into it!
For starters, this entire event appears modeled on the Society of American Magicians annual dinners at the Hotel McAlpin in New York City. Houdini would organize and preside over these dinners and the gathering of wizards would always draw press coverage. This delighted Houdini as drawing attention to the S.A.M. as a national fraternal organization was one of his goals as their "Most Illustrious" president. So it's all a little out of time to have Houdini attending an event such as this as a wide-eyed novice. But it works wonderfully well as a representation of a larger organized World of Magic that he badly wants to join. We just need to forget he's the one who organized it!
We start with the Houdinis taking a table. Bess is instantly suspicious of her surroundings. "There's quite a few magicians here tonight," she observes. "Magic's becoming quite a hobby," says Harry innocently.
Our first treat is a performance by Magic Castle co-founder William Larsen Jr. (uncredited). Bill was the son of William Larsen who was Bess Houdini's lawyer and, along with his wife Gerrie, good friends with Bess during her final years in Hollywood. Bill and his brother Milt both knew Mrs. Houdini and even did magic for her. So having a Larsen performing for the young Houdinis is a nice insider nod.
Here Larsen does the Lester Lake head chopper illusion. This is an effect from the 1930s, not the 1890s, but we've already established that Houdini '53 features contemporary magic for a contemporary audience. It's a wonderful, uninterrupted performance by Larsen and now a piece of magic history in itself. However, I'm always disappointed when the head drops off at the end. Not only does this rely on a camera edit, but it undermines the entire effect. (If she was never in the stocks, there was no passing of the blade miracle.) This feels like an idea foisted on the scene by someone who just wanted a gag ending, and it's the one time Hollywood "creativity" gets in the way of the magic in the movie.
The evening's host, Mr. Malue (Ian Wolfe), then takes the stage. Malue greatly resembles Harry Blackstone Sr., one of the last great figures from the Golden Age of Magic at this time, so the resemblance may be intentional. Malue announces a special challenge in "escape routines that has never been tried before". Several straitjackets "from Bellevue hospital" are brought out and Malue says a Grand Prize will be given to the man who can escape. Again, it's odd to see escapology as part of the magic world pre-Houdini. It's worth noting that a similar straitjacket escape contest was held at the Des Moines Theater in Iowa for the film's premiere.
Harry is eager to volunteer. But Bess forbids him. He has to literally beg her, drawing attention and laughs from the audience. Bess relents and Harry joins to applause. It's a cute moment for the couple, but the movie may actually be channeling the real Houdini without even knowing it. In his notes, Houdini worked up a similar piece of business headed “Big Laugh”:
Plant in box, man and woman. Houdini asks committee to come on stage. Man starts to get up, woman pulls him back. Woman of a chatterbox type. Have the man try to get up two or three times, the woman scolding. If you wish to see this to a finish, have the man finally come up and the woman leave the theater.
Houdini is strapped into the straitjacket along with the other men. The straitjackets used here are not from Houdini's time, nor are they from the 1950s. They were specially made for the production by the famed Abbott's Magic Co., and are beautifully dramatic in their design. I love that the production went to the trouble of creating their own unique cinematic straitjackets. A surviving jacket was given to The Magic Circle in London where it is still displayed today.
As the orchestra plays a jaunty tune, the men get down to struggling in what becomes a largely comedic entertainment. (Although the fall one man takes onto a stage-side table seems serious enough.) But Harry, unique among the men, remains on his feet in deep concentration. He appears as trapped as the others, but then he finds himself drawn to a spinning crystal hanging from a chandelier. It becomes hypnotic, aided by strains of a theremin-like score, and he's unable to look away. Bess notices. So does Mr. Malue. There's something strange happening to Houdini.
This mysterious power has been hinted at in several earlier scenes (notably Miner's Hall), but at last Harry seems to be in control of it. Suddenly he is able to strip the straitjacket off his body. The moment is less like an escape and more like a butterfly shedding its cocoon. HOUDINI has emerged! He then collapses to the stage, seeming not so much drained by his struggle, but by the power he just experienced.
"And I guess there's no doubt as to who wins the prize," says Mr. Malue who hands Houdini an envelope to applause.
The scene then dissolves to a private, post dinner conversation between Harry, Bess, and Mr. Malue. Here we experience what Joseph Campbell and screenwriting courses would call the "meeting with the mentor" scene. Here our main character is inspired by an elder to take the next step in his heroes journey, or is warned not to embark down a particular path. A warning that is typically ignored. Which version we have here will soon become apparent.
Malue reminds Houdini that no one has ever escaped from a straitjacket before. Interestingly, Harry says what he did was only "a trick". It's similar to the vanish at Miner's Hall. We the audience felt we just witnessed something supernatural, but Houdini later laughs it off as just one of his effects. But the old magician tells him, "It isn't a trick!"
Malue then relates the tale of a magician in Berlin named von Schweger who would escape from a sealed bottle that wasn't faked in any way. "The talk was von Schweger was able to dematerialize," says Maule. This greatly intrigues Houdini who has never heard of von Schweger despite having "Read all the books on the great magicians." This is a nice nod to the real Houdini's devotion to magic history from a young age. Malue tells him just when von Schweger could have made a name for himself, he quit the profession. "I think he he was frightened by what he was able to do," says Malue.
Herr J. von Schweger will become a big part of this story and he is not as fictional as some may think. But we will have a whole chapter devoted to him in due time.
Mr. Malue realizes they are the last people left at the dinner and he says his goodbyes to the Houdinis. He then offers the young magician his most sincere advise:
"Drop it. Drop it! It will make you famous. But it will kill you."
Thanks to Joe Fox for providing the information on the Abbott's straitjackets and photo of the Magic Circle presentation.