Saturday, July 6, 2024

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Look at those!

Continuing my scene-by-scene dissection of the 1953 biopic HOUDINI starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Last time, Houdini acquired a new assistant on the eve of his return to America. But will he find success in his homeland?

Chapter 16: Look at those!

Houdini returns to the United States. We know that via a stock establishing shot of the Statue of Liberty. This also tells us he has returned to New York City. The following scene is short, but there is a lot to love, and it contains a shot that has obsessed me for years.

As triumphant music swells, we get a close-up of an invitation being opened in a newspaper office (the year strategically obscured on the postmark). Inside is an invitation to a reception at Houdini's home at 273 W 113th Street. Yes, the address reads 273 instead of 278. Why the change? It's possible the filmmakers were sensitive to the privacy of Rose Bonnano and her sister, who were the occupants of 278 at this time. In fact, producer George Pal had visited Rose in preparation for the film. Or maybe it was just nervous Paramount lawyers. But I'm glad they kept it close.

Notice the date of September 3rd. The real Houdini returned to America in late July 1905 and took a three-week rest. If he had arranged a press reception as this scene depicts, it would have indeed been in early September. However, the recipient crumbles up the invite and throws it into the trash as the music takes a downturn. We've gone from triumphant return to ambivalence in one efficient shot. 

We then dissolve to find a forlorn Houdini standing on the stoop of his home. Once again the filmmakers are going for accuracy, although the facade is more Georgian than a classic New York brownstone. But that's what they had (and still have) on the Paramount backlot.

Here's a recent photo of Houdini's actual house, still standing strong on 113th Street in Harlem. 

Inside, we see a banquet laid out for reporters who have not arrived. It's always a treat to see a re-creation of 278 in a Houdini movie, and this remains one of the best. A few things to notice here. There's a mummy case in the room. Also, the dress Janet Leigh is wearing is one of the very few pieces of wardrobe from the film that survives.

"I don't understand it," says Harry, "It's 3:30, and they were invited for 2:00. Why haven't the reporters arrived?" His mother answers, "Maybe they don't know who you are, Harry." Houdini responds, "Everybody knows who I am, Mama. Look at those!" He then points to a collection of posters and memorabilia that fills half the room.

Look at those, indeed!

When I first saw Houdini '53 on television, this shot went by in an eye blink, but I could see there were treasures to behold. With my first Beta tape recording of the movie, I could pause, but the picture was never clear on those early machines. The commercial VHS release and a better machine helped, but one could still only see so much in the low resolution of videotape. But with the advent of LaserDisc, DVD, and now Blu-ray, one can finally look deeply into this glorious shot. So let's break it down:

  1. Re-creation of Houdini's famed 1898 "King of Cards" poster with Tony Curtis' image central.
  2. Schultz Dime Museum poster, not based on any real Houdini poster. This is the second of three appearances it makes in the movie.
  3. Re-creation of The Houdinis 1894 Metamorphosis cutting with Tony and Janet images central.
  4. Photographic poster of Houdini escaping from the Russian safe. This seems to be an echo of Houdini's famed Victory in Cologne poster.
  5. Actual photograph of Houdini's 1914 packing case escape off the New York Battery.
  6. Actual photograph of Houdini's 1910 jump into Domain Municipal Baths in Sydney, Australia.
  7. Actual photograph of Houdini's 1917 suspended straitjacket escape in Times Square.
  8. Re-creation of Houdini lobby display case.
  9. Re-creation of Houdini handcuff and antique lock lobby display cases.

A parlor full of mementos of Houdini's career is consistent with the real 278, although what Houdini displayed were mostly his trophies and awards. A trophy or loving cup would have been a nice addition here.

Mama's response to all this is, "But that was in Europe, Harry. Americans are from Missouri; you have to show them."

I never understood this reference as a kid, but I eventually learned that Missouri is called the "Show Me State." This does fit the timeline. Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver reportedly coined the phrase during a speech in 1899 when he declared, "I come from a state that raises corn and cotton, cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I'm from Missouri, and you have got to show me."

Overall, the idea that Houdini was not immediately embraced back in his home country is correct. He had been absent from American stages for five years, and during that time, rival Handcuff Kings had flooded the market. He attempted a publicity stunt in which he defeated a rival in an underwater handcuff escape contest, but the coverage was skeptical and snarky. He then opened at the Colonial Theater, a famously tough venue in New York City, and made good. At the end of the year, he took out a half-page ad in The New York Clipper, proclaiming: "I TOLD YOU SO!" (You might say he "showed them.")

Back to the movie. Houdini steps up to Otto and says, "If the press won't come to me, I shall go to the press. Get my straitjacket." Notice that Otto is threading a film projector here. In a preceding shot, he was sitting across the room. Has something been cut? Regardless, I classify this projector shot as a nod to Houdini's real-life use of early film as a promotional tool.

But what exactly does Houdini have in mind? We'll raise the shade on that next time.


  1. I didn't realize until after I posted this that today is Janet Leigh's birthday. Happy birthday Mrs. Houdini!

  2. John, you continue to make me appreciate this movie i never much liked before. Well done. -Bullet

  3. Torin Thatcher before he becomes the evil Magician in 7th Voyage of Sinbad...