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It would be nine years before the immortal lines were spoken at the end of Paramount's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." But in 1953, the studio had already adopted the philosophy, or so it seems in regard to the 1953 biopic Houdini. The film is a celebration of the larger-than-life mystique of the renowned magician/escapist, and doesn't trouble itself over the factual details of Ehrich Weiss's rise to notoriety.
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