Friday, April 7, 2023

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Metamorphosis

Continuing my scene by scene dissection of Paramount's classic 1953 biopic Houdini. Last time Harry and Bess had a blow up that sent them to Europe. Today we join them in London...

Chapter 11: Metamorphosis

"Ladies and gentlemen, my latest invention, the Metamorphosis."

So begins the next sequence of Houdini (1953). Harry could be talking about himself here. Last time we saw him he was working as "Oscar the Sea Serpent" in a Coney Island sideshow. Now he's standing proudly on the stage of the Alhambra Theatre in London performing one of his most famous feats of magic. Metamorphosis!

This sequence actually begins with an establishing shot of London and the exterior of the Alhambra Theatre. Once again the movie is pulling from real Houdini history. Houdini's first engagement in London was at the Alhambra and Metamorphosis was part of the act. Although it was hardly a new invention. Houdini had been performing it from the start of his career.

The real Houdini performs Metamorphosis at the Alhambra.

The only historical fumble is the billing we see on the Alhambra playbill: "The Great Houdinis." By the time Harry and Bess arrived in England, the act had been well established as "Houdini, King of Handcuffs." But that's a quibble.

Real Alhambra playbill for July 2, 1900.

As with all the magic in the film, Metamorphosis is performed beginning to end with minimal cuts. It's also presented in a contemporary way. The real Harry and Bess made their three second switch inside of a cabinet. Here a collection of fan dancers shield the trunk as Harry stands on top. 

Standing atop the trunk is how Metamorphosis is done today and it's surprising to see this presentation as early as 1953. It's also a modern approach to have the assistant locked in the trunk first. It's said this is so the magician is the one to receive the final applause. But it is certainly not how Houdini did it. Presenting it this way also robs Houdini of an "escape" which is important to what follows. (In case you've never noticed, Houdini escapes his handcuffs during the applause.)

Amidst the applause we suddenly hear a cry of "fake" from the audience. A man (Michael Pate) stands and identifies himself as Dooley from the London Examiner. He believes "that's a trick trunk" and challenges Houdini to "get out of something real." Of course, Houdini did not get out of the trunk. Bess did, so...

After exchanging barbs, Houdini throws out a £100 challenge "to anyone who can lock me in anything I cannot escape from." This challenge was a big feature of Houdini's first UK tour so once again the movie is on target. Dooley notes that Inspector Marlick (Barry Bernard) of Scotland Yard is in the audience and challenges Houdini to try and escape from one of their jails. With a bit of prodding from Houdini, Marlick agrees to the contest, but insists Houdini remained locked up for 24 hours if he fails to escape. Houdini invites the audience to come back and see him tomorrow. "You won't be here!" shouts Dooley.

Confrontations and challenges hurled at Houdini from the audience were a regular occurrence. In fact, on Houdini's opening night at the Alhambra he was challenged from the audience by another Handcuff King, Cirnoc. It's also true that Houdini's challenges were frequently "bets" with some sort of humiliating consequence for Houdini should he fail. (When challenged to escape from a mail bag in Los Angeles, he would need to be "delivered" to the post office to be set free.) Just another great example of how this movie dramatizes Houdini's exploits using established facts.

Following the performance, Dooley comes backstage to the Houdinis dressing room. Turns out their confrontation was staged. No other Houdini biopic has dramatized his close and sometimes complicit relationship with the press. But while the drama behind Houdini's challenges might be staged, the escapes themselves were legit, which is also established here. "My end of the bargain was to get you into jail," says Dooley. "You promised me two pounds. I want it now because tomorrow you might not be here to pay me."

Houdini pays Dooley and has complete confidence he will escape. "I can open the locks of these old English jails with a button hook," he assures Bess. But then Dooley says, "Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you. But in our jails the cells are built differently than in the states. The locks aren't in the doors. Good luck, yank!"

The reporter leaves Harry now looking far less confident. Has he bitten off more than he can chew? Can he escape? We'll find out next time.


  1. I’ve never seen that photo of Houdini before! Fabulous! Where did that come from?

    Perry from NJ.

    1. Check out this post for info and link to David Saltman's site. Incredible shots.

  2. I did a little digging on the version of the Metamorphosis where the performers are on top, and from what I can gather, it was first done by a circus magician around the time of this movie.

    Because of the surrounding nature of the circus, this magician found a way to do it while standing on top of what I think was a hatbox, but others can correct me if I am wrong.

    The first magician to make it popular to stand on top of the trunk was Siegfried, but as you can see, it was done about ten years before he did it with Roy.

    1. The hatbox idea might have been Rita Moreno, (magician, not actress) who did it with her partner Anne.

      The idea of standing on top of a locked container could have been Joe Korengo who did it on top of a barrel. I cannot confirm it, but I remember someone mentioning a while back.

    2. Thanks Michael. Great info. Recall Doug Henning also stood on top. That's when I first saw it done this way and it blew my mind.

    3. Me too. I first saw Doug do the sub trunk standing on top of the box.

      I am still trying to find out who the first magician to do this version. What I can gather was that Hungarian magician Joe Korengo was on Ed Sullivan in 1948. I am not certain if he did his version of the Metamorphosis with the barrel on that broadcast or not.

  3. In the Oct. 2013 issue of M.U.M. magazine, Scott Alexander has a 4 page article on both the Sub-Trunk and the Canvas Covered Substitution Trunk:
    "So it very well may have been Jack Gwynne who was the first guy to ditch the skeleton-framed tent, and just use the now infamous "hoop-curtain" switch, while standing on top of the trunk.
    This became the default way the trunk was done from the thirties through the seventies."

    The above article certainly isn't a definitive historical account of the "Substitution Trunk", but it might be a starting point for those wishing
    to research who was the first performer to stand on top of the trunk, etc.

    1. Jack Gwynne. I should have guessed. That man had a creative mind. He invented the Tip Over Box.

    2. George Boston was the magical advisor to this film, but I think Gwynne contributed a few of his tricks to it. Like the Stacked Goldfish Bowls and the Temple of Benares.

      I wonder if Gwynne also contributed the trunk as well. It would be interesting to find out.

  4. Thanks, John. Such fun to read these deconstructions! (I can't help but wonder if any Brit ever had the temerity to address the real Houdini as "yank"!)

  5. I was staying with Edwin Hooper ( Supreme Magic C°) at the Widgery ( Bideford . Devon) one summer. The circus Robert Brothers was in wetward Ho. Ewin received an invitation. There was a young australian couplke presenting Metamorphosids. The trunk was on the procenium. They never turned it round to show both sides. I asked them why they bothered to slide the back panel ! They could have done without the back... Dany Trick

  6. Apologies for the misspellings. Westward Ho, Metamorphosis. Edwin. Australian couple. I speak and write French better than English ! Dany Trick from Froggieland

  7. And Chun Ling Soo on the same bill as Houdini at the Alhambra! Must have been quite a show...wonder if the spectators knew what they were seeing?