Thursday, November 17, 2022

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Magic Ticket

Continuing my scene by scene dissection of Paramount's classic 1953 biopic Houdini. Last time we attended a Magician's dinner. Today the aftermath...

Chapter 9: Magic Ticket

This is a transitional scene that hardens a key conflict that will play out for the remainder of the movie. It also throws up one last roadblock to Harry's success, and, if we believe the warning of the previous scene, his doomed fate. It's a scene that is entirely fictional so there isn't much Houdini history to unpack, but it's still good story telling.

Following the eventful magician's dinner, we find Harry and Bess back at home (Mama's home). Bess knows Harry isn't happy. She says she saw a "different person" tonight when he was up on that stage and knows she has pulled him away from his passion and nature. Harry admits he would rather "do magic than test locks all day," but that he is happy with Bess and the life they have together. Love conquers all. They kiss.

Scenes of domestic intimacy such as this was an expectation of this movie. For many moviegoers of 1953 this was less about Houdini and more about seeing young stars Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. The actors were married in real life and photo spreads of them at home were a staple of fan magazines of this time. So I can't help but see scenes like this serving that audience expectation and, hey, I like it too. I mean, look at them!

Harry suddenly remembers his prize. In all the excitement, he never thought to check what it was. Bess opens the envelope and inside is a boat ticket to Europe. Harry lights up as Bess looks crestfallen. Fate has just burst back into their lives in a major way.

Harry: Europe! Oh Bess, that's where I've always wanted to go. That's where I really could learn something. Why I might even meet Von Schweger! 
Bess: Well it's a round trip ticket for one.

Harry points out that they could trade it in for two one way tickets. He won't go without her. But Bess says they could also cash it in for a downpayment on a house. So it turns out this is a magic ticket to both their dreams. For Harry it's a ticket to the greater world of magic and possible success. For Bess it's a ticket to committed domesticity.

At this point, it may be worth addressing Bess's characterization in this film and how it compares to the real Mrs. Houdini. The movie is very much following the model of Bess as depicted in the Kellock book; that of a school girl naive to show business. But this was not the case. The real Bess Houdini was a show business aspirant just like her husband. She was a performer at Coney Island when they met and married and continued to work her solo singing act during their lean years. Bess would even pave the way at times, such as insisting their act should be called "Houdini" instead of "The Houdinis". Near the end of his life Houdini said Bess was "the only one who has actually helped me in my work." [View the source of this quote on Patreon.]

So a different picture from what we are seeing here, although their struggle was long and hard and there may have been moments of doubt on both sides. But those moments are now lost to time.

At this point Harry plays an interesting card. "Tonight's Halloween," he says. "Something strange always happens to me on Halloween night. We can't pass it up." Again he is expressing an understanding that he is being guiding by forces that he doesn't entirely understand, but that he trusts. This is also the first open mention of Halloween, and just hearing these words come from Houdini's mouth packs an eerie punch.

Of course, Bess understands this as well, but she fears these forces, especially after the warning from Mr. Malue. Harry dismisses this. "He's an old man. They're always afraid of new things. We shouldn't be." It's a standoff and Bess isn't budging. Finally, Harry relents. 

"WellI can't live without you," he says as he slaps the ticket into her hand. "Cash it in."

Bess is thrilled and they fall into another embrace. The decision has been made. The Houdinis will live their lives as a normal domestic couple. Goodbye Europe. Goodbye magic.

Unless something unforeseen happens...


  1. Really enjoyed your deconstructions of the 1953 "Houdini" movie. The back stories, production and legacy of the movie, could make a book!

    1. Thank you. I would love to one day write a book about Houdini (1953). It's on the list!

  2. Love this latest deconstruction, John (now that I've finally had an unhurried moment to read it!) Thanks for sharing. It really is wonderful storytelling, as you say. If Harry doesn't say "cash it in," the audience, certainly the women, lose sympathy for him. But the way Bess ultimately gives in to his wishes (and the wonderfully theatrical way she reveals it to him as he's swimming around the tank at Coney Island in a fish mask!) shows unconditional love on her part too, rather than a manipulated wife capitulating to her husband. Yet another reason this movie is so magical and endearing.

    1. Thank you! There's actually another chapter (10) that I got up before the end of the year. Might be a while until the next. I got a lot on my plate at the moment!