Cast & Crew
In the 1890s, young Harry Houdini is performing with a Coney Island carnival as Bruto, the Wild Man, when Bess, a naive onlooker, tries to protect him from the blows of Schultz, his "trainer." Harry then appears as magician The Great Houdini and, spotting Bess in the audience, invites her on stage. Harry flirts with the unsuspecting Bess during his act, but she flees from him in a panic. When Bess shows up to watch Harry perform two more times, however, he corners her. Bess admits her attraction, and soon after, the two appear at Harry's mother's house, newly married. Bess becomes Harry's onstage partner, touring the country with him, but soon grows tired of the low pay and grueling schedule. After Bess convinces Harry to take a job in a locksmith factory, Harry works as a lock tester while fantasizing about escaping from one of the factory's large safes. On Halloween, Harry and Bess attend a special magicians' dinner at the Astor Hotel, during which magician Fante offers a prize to anyone who can free himself from a straightjacket. Harry accepts the challenge and, through intense concentration, extricates himself from the jacket, greatly impressing Fante. Afterward, however, Fante advises Harry to "drop it," noting that Johann Von Schweger, a German magician, retired at the height of his career after performing a similar feat, fearful of his own talents. Bess then persuades Harry to give her his prize, a single, round-trip boat ticket to Europe, so that she can cash it in for a down payment on a house. Later, at the factory, Harry locks himself inside one of the big safes, determined to make an escape. Before he can get out, however, the foreman orders the safe blown open, then fires Harry. That night, in front of his mother, Harry and Bess argue about their future, and frustrated by Bess's insistence that he quit magic, Harry walks out. Soon, a contrite Bess finds Harry performing with a carnival and presents him with two one-way tickets to Europe. Sometime later, at a London theater, Harry and Bess are concluding their magic act when a reporter named Dooley challenges Harry to break out of one of Scotland Yard's notoriously secure jail cells. Harry, who hired Dooley to issue the challenge, accepts the challenge, unaware that the jail's cells do not have locks in the door, but on the outside wall. Despite the added difficulty, the dexterous, determined Houdini picks the cell lock and appears on time for his next performance. Now billed as the "man who escaped from Scotland Yard," Harry begins a successful tour of Europe with Bess. In Berlin, Harry is joined by his mother and begins searching for the reclusive Von Schweger. While performing an impromptu levitation trick with Bess at a restaurant, Harry is arrested for fraud. During his trial, Harry denies that he ever made claims to supernatural powers, insisting that all his tricks are accomplished through physical means. To prove his point, Harry locks himself in a safe in the courtroom and breaks out a few minutes later, noting that safe locks are designed to keep thieves out, not in. Vindicated, Harry then goes to see Von Schweger, who finally has responded to his queries, but learns from Von Schweger's assistant, Otto, that the magician died two days earlier. Otto reveals that Von Schweger summoned Harry to ask him the secret of "dematerialization," a feat he accomplished once but could not repeat. Although Harry demurs, Otto insists on becoming Harry's new assistant and travels with him to New York. There, Harry finds he is virtually unknown, so for publicity, hangs upside down on a skyscraper flagpole, constrained by a straightjacket. Harry executes the escape and soon makes a name for himself in America. To prepare to be submerged in a box in the chilly Detroit River, Harry bathes in an ice-filled bathtub. During the trick, which takes place on Halloween, the rope holding the box breaks, and the box drops upside down into an opening in the ice-covered river. Although Harry manages to escape from the box, the current drags him downstream, and he struggles to find air pockets under the ice and swim back to the opening. Above, Bess and the horrified audience assume Harry has drowned and proclaim his demise. To Bess's relief, Harry shows up later at their hotel, admitting that he heard his mother's voice, directing him toward the opening. Just then, Harry receives word that his mother died at the exact time that he heard her voice. Two years later in New York, Harry, who has not performed since his mother's death, reveals to Simms, a reporter, that he has been trying to contact his mother's spirit, without success. Harry invites Simms to attend a seance with him, and after the medium appears to have communicated with his mother, Harry and Otto expose her as a fake. After a public crusade against phony mediums, Harry decides to return to the stage and builds a watery "torture cell" for the occasion. Terrified, Bess threatens to leave Harry unless he drops the dangerous trick, and he agrees not to perform it. Before the show, Harry admits to Otto that his appendix is tender, but goes on, despite the pain. When the audience noisily demands that he perform the advertised "water torture" trick, Harry succumbs and is immersed, straightjacketed and upside down, in a tank of water. Weak, Harry cannot execute the escape and loses consciousness. Otto breaks the tank's glass, and after reviving, Harry vows to a weeping Bess that he will "come back."
Malcolm Lee Beggs
Norma Jean Eckart
Harold "hal" Neiman
Daniel De Jonghe
William Larsen Jr.
Louise De Carlo
A. J. Rasmondo
C. Kenneth Deland
Frank Freeman Jr.
Michael D. Moore
The film begins with Houdini (Tony Curtis) performing in a lowbrow dime museum, where he doubles in the Wild Man act. There, he meets future bride Bess (Janet Leigh), a school girl playing hooky from a field trip. Using a combination of prestidigitation and boyish charm, Houdini woos and marries Bess. The couple then struggles to make a name for themselves, rising through a music hall in West Virginia (dodging the unruly audience's tomatoes and spitballs) to the stages of Europe, and -- in the film's most tense evocation of Houdini's breathless escapes -- to a frozen river in Detroit, where Harry escapes a chained metal crate, but has difficulty finding an opening in the ceiling of ice that covers the surface of the water.
Houdini does get a few things right, historically speaking. It accurately captures the magician's mother fixation, as well as his superstitious streak. However, both of these ingredients are twisted into artificial plot devices, contrived to add dramatic punch to the story rather than illuminate Houdini's character. The film concludes on the evening of Houdini's death in 1926, when he performed the famed "water torture cell" illusion. As one might expect, the film deviates wildly from the facts of that fateful evening. But then, would an audience really want to see the great illusionist suffering from peritonitis due to a ruptured appendix, and watch him waste away for a week in a hospital bed?
Maybe Paramount was right. "Print the legend."
Tony Curtis doesn't look a lot like Houdini. Nor does Janet Leigh resemble Bess. But that's okay. The idealized casting perfectly suits the storybook feeling of the film. Filmed in Technicolor, it is engineered to dazzle the eyes, and the peach-complected Curtis and Leigh do just that. Appropriately enough, the film was produced by George Pal, who is best remembered for such visual delights as the animated Puppetoon series and the sci-fi classics The War of the Worlds (made in 1953, the same year as Houdini) and The Time Machine (1960). In its own way, Houdini is as much a fantasy as are Pal's other films. But, as Houdini himself would probably have agreed, reality can be overrated.
Casting newlyweds Curtis and Leigh was a publicity coup for Paramount, as the public was fascinated by the young marrieds and was eager to see them together on screen. Both were under contract to other studios, so Paramount had to negotiate loan-outs, Curtis from Universal, Leigh from MGM. As a result of the complex contracts, according to Curtis's autobiography, "The studios got a lot of money for it, but we just got our regular salaries."
Daily Variety was intoxicated by the on-and-off-screen lovers. "Paired, they are a harmonious, ingratiating team. First-rate in every division. This is going to be one of the big numbers of the year. Will give top audience satisfaction." Leigh and Curtis went on to make five more films together -- as well as two daughters, actresses Kelly Curtis and Jamie Leigh Curtis.
Houdini was made under the technical supervision of Joseph Dunninger, a veteran of stage magic who had inherited a number of Houdini's devices upon Bess's death in 1943. Efforts were made to recreate the look of some of Houdini's signature illusions, but only the trunk escape "Metamorphosis" is performed on-camera without any cuts. During most of the magic scenes, director George Marshall (Destry Rides Again, 1939) is happy to cheat the illusion by cutting away during the performance (or relying on an optical dissolve). Apparently to Marshall and Pal, the magic of editing was just as impressive as stage illusions.
Curtis remembered that he trained for the role not under Dunninger but under magician George Boston. "I worked with him every day for about four months before the picture started on escapes and sleight of hand. I was a pretty quick study, and it stayed with me for life. I still practice it, and I've been inducted into the Magicians Society here and in Japan."
The set of Houdini was relaxed, encouraging a great many practical jokes among cast and crew. In her autobiography There Really Was a Hollywood, Leigh remembers, "We were shooting in an empty auditorium, and Bess was pleading with Harry not to include the dangerous Water Torture Cell Escape in his act. George kept positioning me farther away from Tony, and I was complaining that the distance seemed wrong for the intent of the scene. 'Well, try it, see if it works.' So, after the lights were set and everything was ready, he rolled camera. The cameraman had warned me it was crucial to hit my mark because lighting was difficult in such a vast area. So I did. And was absolutely drenched, head to toe, by huge buckets of water strategically placed in the rafters. Obviously the whole crew was involved in this cleverly conceived plot. Ho, ho, ho, it took two hours to get me back in shape. But, no one cared. We were on schedule, and the laughter and friendliness were important."
Had Houdini lived to supervise the production himself, he would have probably been just as reckless with the facts as screenwriter Philip Yordan was. Throughout his career, Houdini (as did all seasoned showmen of the early 1900s) exaggerated his achievements and distorted his life story to more effectively dramatize his rise to fame. The only thing he would have likely done differently is insist that he be cast in the lead.
It is not commonly known that Houdini had a brief career as a screen actor from 1919 to 1923, in thrilling vehicles formulated to enhance his persona and showcase his talent for escapes. These films were essentially wish-fulfillment for Houdini -- another facet of his fabrication of a spectacular public image. He generally played secret agents with the initials H.H. (Heath Haldane, Howard Hillary, Harvey Hanford, etc.) who were also gifted inventors. Houdini was himself an inventor and filed numerous patents over the course of his life. In their 1992 biography The Secret Life of Houdini, William Kalush and Larry Sloman reveal that Houdini was consulted by the American and British governments on the topics of espionage and escape. He was not quite a secret agent, but liked for people to believe he was. He was perpetually constructing a legend around himself.
Initially, Houdini's films were quite popular. Crowds mobbed the theatre where The Master Mystery (1920) had its debut. But by the time the independently-produced serial reached its fifteenth episode, the formula had worn thin. Houdini was signed by Paramount, who elaborated upon the formula by sending his character, Harry Harper, to an exotic locale (Terror Island, 1920) in a submarine of his own design, including a primitive form of video. The escapes were more unusual, but the formula was pretty much the same.
Ever the control freak, Houdini decided he should be the one making the films and reaping the profits. He founded his own production company, film lab, and distribution firm, and began working on all sides of the camera. He even directed himself in the last film: Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). When the films proved only marginally profitable, and the multiple businesses became a nightmare to manage, Houdini unceremoniously quit the business. It became just another one of his costly efforts to achieve immortality. An earlier one had been his brief stint as a pioneer aviator, entering him in the record books in 1910 as the pilot of the first powered flight in Australia.
Fortunately, Houdini's film appearances were not limited to the melodramas. He used the company cameras to film his public straight-jacket escapes across America, typically performed while dangling from the roof of the local newspaper office, thus insuring press coverage. Sometimes Houdini integrated this footage into his stage act. These precious reels provide us with a view of Houdini performing without spotlights, without varnish, and without a net. They are likely the closest we can ever come to seeing the true Houdini.
Director: George Marshall
Producer: George Pal
Screenplay: Philip Yordan
Based on the book Houdini: His Life Story by Harold Kellock
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Production Design: Albert Nozaki and Hal Pereira
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Tony Curtis (Harry Houdini), Janet Leigh (Bess Houdini), Angela Clarke (Mrs. Weiss, Houdini's mother), Torin Thatcher (Otto, Houdini's assistant), Michael Pate (Dooley), Stefan Schnabel (Prosecuting Attorney), Douglas Spencer (Simms).
by Bret Wood
Houdini - Tony Curtis & Janet Leigh Star in the 1953 Biopix HOUDINI
Synopsis: Carnival 'ape man' Harry Houdini (Tony Curtis) has ambitions to become a stage magician, even though audiences are unimpressed by standard magic tricks. He falls in love with and marries Bess (Janet Leigh), but she tires of life on the road with unappreciative audiences and gets him to take a normal job. Harry returns to the stage not as a magician but as an escape artist. Flashy publicity stunts escaping from strait-jackets and locked safes soon make Houdini an international sensation. Magic specialist Malue (Ian Wolfe) encourages Harry to find an elusive escape artist named Von Schwager, who, it is rumored could use mental concentration to dematerialize himself. Harry does hire Otto, Von Swager's assistant (Torin Thatcher) to help him devise ever more ingenious escape stunts. After his mother (Angela Clark) dies Harry becomes interested in the possibility of communicating with the dead, and takes a break from performing. His investigations uncover fraudulent mediums and other spiritualism scams. When Houdini returns to the stage, Bess worries that her husband is taking unnecessary risks to maintain his personal legend.
Houdini is an excellent example of a biography that remains true to the spirit of an historical character even as it fictionalizes most of the facts of his life, including his demise. The script by the prolific Philip Yordan pays homage to the mystique of Harry Houdini, a man who had half the world believing he possessed supernatural powers.
As in any show-biz biography talent, ambition and energy carry the young Houdini to great achievements. His courtship with Bess has a sweetness we associate with other films produced by George Pal, another American immigrant from Hungary. Sig Ruman and Connie Gilchrist are the carnival couple that fire Harry for chasing Bess during the show. Once married, we see Bess going on tour to help Harry with his magic act, and becoming frustrated when rowdy audiences ruin the tricks. The optimistic and self-confident Harry doesn't mind, but Bess soon has him back in New York working for a lock and safe company. Domesticity doesn't last long, as Harry has the performing bug and loses his job by locking himself inside one of his company's safes.
The second part of the film charts Houdini's rise to fame, taking on a series of escape challenges, each more audacious than the one before. He squirms free of strait-jackets both on stage and while suspended upside down from tall buildings, thrilling crowds in the street and guaranteeing enthusiastic front-page news publicity. In London, an audience shill (Michael Pate of Major Dundee) dares the Police Commissioner into letting Harry attempt an escape from a London jail. Houdini is put on trial for fraud before a German court, and turns the hearing into a further vindication of his talents. Houdini never claims to have superhuman powers but his stage manner convinces many that such must be the case. The movie doesn't go into details about keys swallowed and regurgitated, or Harry's ability to dislocate his own shoulders to slip free of strait-jackets.
Houdini investigates every 'impossible' magic and escape trick, and attempts to contact a mysterious 'Von Schwager' said to possess incredible mental powers over matter. He instead finds the man's assistant, Otto, who claims that his master has recently died. Otto, however, is available to assist Harry in his work. Typical of George Pal's films, the script never addresses the obvious suspicion that Otto is Von Schwager in disguise. Fifties' kids accustomed to seeing actor Torin Thatcher as the sinister Sokurah in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad understandably watch the remainder of Houdini waiting for Otto to show his true colors!
The movie bypasses Harry Houdini's less successful stage and movie acting career, but it does confront the controversial subject of Houdini's later investigations into spiritualism. We see Houdini, Bess and Otto actively debunking a charlatan claiming to communicate with the spirit world. Although a skeptic to the end, the real Houdini was obsessed with the secret of death, as if it were an escape artist's ultimate challenge. He gave out secret codes for his wife and others to use after his death, to test anyone claiming to be in contact with his spirit in the afterlife.
Yordan's script drops this macabre theme in favor of a pair of hair-raising escapes. In the first Houdini lowers himself into a freezing river, locked in a steel box. The cable snaps, sending him to the bottom. The finale reproduces the famous 'Chinese Water Torture Cell' trick, in which Houdini is suspended upside down in a locked iron box filled with water. A glass wall allows the audience to watch him struggle to escape. We know the sinister-looking Chinese Water Torture Cell is different when its unveiling is accompanied by an eerie music cue. Harry promises Bess he will put the trick aside, but goes ahead with it anyway.
Tony Curtis's experience as an amateur magician surely gave him a leg up on the role. Half the fun of Houdini is watching the charming Curtis and Janet Leigh interact on screen; the movie is practically a Valentine to their romance. Under George Marshall's straightforward but effective direction the couple have plenty of opportunity to shine. The Technicolor show makes good use of limited sets, suggesting rather than showing that tens of thousands of New Yorkers are watching Harry dangle from the top of a ten-story building. Some of the same design and effects experts from George Pal's science fiction classics manage clever matte shots, such as when a bridge over the dry Los Angeles riverbed appears to span a snow-swept, frozen Northeastern river.
Legend Films' DVD of Houdini is an acceptable but imperfect transfer of Paramount's Technicolor original, made from an Eastman composite element. The red matrix is imperfectly aligned for much of the movie, resulting in rather wide red terminators and haloes around bright parts of the image, such as Harry's white tuxedo shirt. Although not bad enough to spoil the experience -- the flaw is not obtrusive for most of the film -- image purists will not be pleased. Savant recommends the disc anyway, as a full film restoration of this commercially marginal title would cost millions.
The aspect ratio is a standard 1:33, a shape borne out by the text blocks in the film's title sequence. Legend has included the original trailer as an extra.
For more information about Houdini, visit Legend Films. To order Houdini, go to TCM Shopping
by Glenn Erickson
Houdini - Tony Curtis & Janet Leigh Star in the 1953 Biopix HOUDINI
Harry Houdini's real name was Weiss, and he is played here by Tony Curtis, whose real name is Schwartz.
As noted by Milbourne Christopher, the editor of Magazine of the Society of American Magicians, in a January 1954 Variety item, Houdini contains many inaccuracies about the magician's life. Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1874, Houdini, whose real name was Ehrich Weiss, emigrated with his family to Appleton, WI, at the age of four. To help his impoverished family, Houdini, the son of a rabbi, began working when he was eight and left home at twelve, sending money home from various jobs. He and his family eventually settled in New York, where Houdini worked as a messenger and a tie cutter, and won awards in swimming and track. Houdini began his magic career as a teenager, calling himself Eric the Great. After reading the autobiography of influential magician Robert Houdin, Houdini then changed his name. His early act included card and handcuff tricks, which he performed with his younger brother Theo at amusement parks and the Chicago 1893 World's Fair. In 1894, Houdini met and married Wilhelmina Beatrice "Bess" Rahner, a singer-dancer with the Floral Sisters act. As depicted in the film, after their marriage, Bess became part of Houdini's act, traveling around the country with him. Around this time, Houdini expanded his magic act to include challenges, offering rewards to anyone who could restrain or imprison him in any manner of apparati or cell.
After a successful tour on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, Houdini went to Europe on the advice of a friend, touring there for five years. In 1913, he introduced his Chinese Water Torture Cell to his act and performed it without difficulty many times. The same year, his mother died in New York, while Houdini was performing in Europe. Although Houdini did work to expose fraudulent gamblers and spiritualists and was interested in the hereafter, as depicted in the film, he did not retire from the stage in order to communicate with her spirit. In addition, he would sometimes deliberately hide under docks during underwater tricks, in order to make people think he had drowned. Houdini starred in six silent films between 1916 and 1923, including Haldane of the Secret Service, which he also directed (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30). Houdini died of peritonitis, brought on by a ruptured appendix, in Montreal on October 31, 1926. The Halloween date was not otherwise significant in his life, as suggested by the film, although his widow hosted annual séances on the holiday for about ten years after his death.
Paramount announced plans to make a screen biography of Houdini as early as 1935. According to July and August 1950 news items, Joseph Raboff and Earl Cohen, real estate men from Los Angeles and New York, acquired the rights to Harold Kellock's biography first, as well as the rights to Houdini's life story from his estate, intending to produce a film entitled The Life Story of Harry Houdini. One-time Paramount producer Endre Bohem was to make the project, for which Stephen Longstreet had already written a screenplay, with Cohen and Raboff and their new company, Film Producers, Inc. John Garfield and Lee J. Cobb were mentioned as possible stars in August 1951. In September 1951, however, Hollywood Reporter announced that Paramount had bought the rights to Kellock's book and assigned George Pal to produce the adaptation. In 1944, Hollywood Reporter announced that Dore Schary was planning to produce a Houdini biography for David O. Selznick's Vanguard Pictures, starring Garry Moore and directed by William Dieterle. That version was never made, however.
According to an October 1952 Hollywood Citizen-News item, the scene in which Houdini hangs from a flagpole was shot with a dummy at the A. E. Bartlett Building in downtown Los Angeles. Houdini marked the first time that Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, who married in 1951, appeared together on screen. Advertisements for the picture featured a shot of the two kissing, with the caption: "Together for the first time." Hollywood Reporter news items include Murray Matheson, Len Moody and Edward J. Marr in the cast, but their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. News items also included Clarence Muse and William Walker in the cast, but they were not in the released film. Technical advisor Joe Dunninger, who is credited onscreen simply as "Dunninger," was a close associate of Houdini, according to modern sources. According to the Hollywood Reporter review, Paramount "previewed the feature on its new studio theatre screen in an aspect ratio of 1.66 to 1." The film was not shot or released generally in widescreen, however. On October 8, 1976, the ABC television network broadcast The Great Houdini, a second film biography starring Paul Michael Glaser and Sally Struthers and directed by Melville Shavelson. In the 1997 British-U.S. release Fairy Tale: A True Story, Harvey Keitel portrayed Houdini, and Johnathon Schaech played him in the TNT television network film Houdini, which first aired on December 6, 1998.
Released in United States 1953
Released in United States 1953