Chapter 13: Europe's Eclipsing Sensation
We're just over an hour into Houdini (1953), and Harry has become a sensation. What better way to show this than with a montage! I love a good Houdini movie montage. It's a chance to quickly touch down on some key events and see some cool recreations, and that's what we get here.
The montage begins with a shot of Houdini entering his 26th Week at the Alhambra in London. Oddly, this is being pasted over his "12th Week." Shouldn't it be Week 25? Anyway, it is true Houdini was held over for many weeks at the Alhambra in 1900, eight weeks during his first run and nine weeks at the end of the year. So a lengthy run at the Alhambra is right in sync with real Houdini history.
The next establishing shot is pretty vague, but it looks appropriately Europe-ish. Here we see Harry and Bess doing the Needles. This is a trick Houdini was famous for, so getting a recreation shot is a treat. The Needles is also on the cover of the Kellock book on which Houdini '53 is based, so that makes this extra special. It's worth noting that all the montage scenes, including several that did not make the cut, were filmed on Halloween 1952.
Paris is the next stop. Nothing vague here as we see a shot of the Eiffel Tower. Here Harry and Bess do an arrow through girl effect. This isn't a trick that comports with any known Houdini history, but this one falls into the category of contemporary magic for audiences of the time. In reality, Houdini's card magic won the day during his first Paris engagement. While Houdini's "big game hunter" costume might seem out of character, recall the photos of Houdini in his "ice cream suit" and pith helmet during his travels to Australia and publicity for Terror Island. So a pith-helmeted Houdini...box checked!
A shot of an overnight train takes us to Germany and the Hotel Europea in Berlin. Here we see Houdini is playing the Wintergarten, another real theater from Houdini's first European tour. As the montage ends, we learn that Harry's many letters sent to the enigmatic Herr J. Von Schweger have been returned.
In Chapter Eight I hinted that Von Schweger is rooted in reality. These returned letters should be the tip-off. To my mind, von Schweger is clearly Wiljalba Frikell. Houdini tried to visit the famous German conjurer during his first European tour, and Frikell repeatedly and mysteriously rejected him. The similarities will become even more evident in a few chapters.
We seem to have taken a leap in time as Houdini now shows grey at his temples. This is our first look at the successful and wealthy Houdinis, and Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh slip into these new roles perfectly. They were, after all, a wealthy and famous married couple!
Bess comments that it's his birthday, which Harry doesn't seem to want to celebrate. But then his mother appears as a birthday surprise. Houdini's mother did come to Europe at this time, so we are once again right in line with real Houdini history. I've also always thought this scene of Harry celebrating his mother in a hotel before an admiring crowd is a nod to the famous reception Houdini had for his mother at the Royal Hotel in Budapest.
Here the movie also reinforces Houdini's great love for his mother. "That's my girl," he says at the end of their dance. This echoes the famed "My two sweethearts" photo of Houdini with Mama and Bess in 1907. The waltz that plays during their dance is also going to come back later.
Houdini is then encouraged to do a trick. He does an impromptu broom levitation with Bess. This is not a trick the real Houdini ever performed, but it's another contemporary magic piece performed from beginning to end without a cut by the actors, and it's terrific! It's probably my favorite magic trick in the movie and the most effective.
It's worth noting that this hotel sequence is one that would be truncated or cut entirely when the movie was shown on television in the 1970s and 80s. The version I had recorded on Beta tape and watched endlessly went from the montage to the courtroom scene. It was many years before I ever saw this sequence in its entirety.
We end with Houdini being served a summons to appear in a German court for fraud. "I might go to jail," he tells Bess. Of course, this is also rooted in reality, and it's where we will be traveling next.