Houdini (1953)

Harry Houdini has been the subject of many a biopic over the years, materialising in the form of Harvey Keitel, Guy Pearce and even Wil Wheaton. Arguably the image most film-goers would conjure up, is that of Tony Curtis in this highly enjoyable film.

 

Touching on many milestones of the magician’s life and career, we first encounter Houdini as a side-show alley performer who meets and falls in love with Bess. Now billed as The Houdinis, the married couple travel to Europe where he becomes a sensation, boasting that there is nothing from which he cannot escape and challenging authorities to prove him wrong. Upon his return to the United States, he uses the same flair for self-promotion to become vaudeville’s biggest star. 

 

Though all of this is true, their presentation here is heavily fictionalised, causing much consternation among Houdini devotees at the time. Yet the general public didn’t seem to care. Sumptuously produced by George Pal, this film rollicks along from one escapade to another, pausing only momentarily for some witty aside or some other such delight. The much underrated Tony Curtis provides a charming, sympathetic hero with then-life wife Janet Leigh providing radiant support. Torin Thatcher, in a fictional role as Houdini’s assistant, provides the occasional level of gravitas.

 

With such a winning combination, it’s easy to understand why any nit-picking over this film's accuracy all but magically disappeared.

cast, harry houdini, tony curtis, janet leigh
Tony Curtis
Tony Curtis

as Harry Houdini

Janet Leigh
Janet Leigh

as Bess Houdini

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Houdini was touring Europe at the time of his mother’s death, not when he was trapped in a frozen Detroit River.

 

Houdini did not take a two year break from performing in order to make contact with his dead mother.

 

Though the depiction of his escape from a chained trunk in a frozen river matches Houdini’s own account of the episode, modern day scholars believe it never happened.

 

Houdini did not die on stage. He died in hospital of peritonitis, brought on by a ruptured appendix.

 

Houdini first performed the Chinese Water Torture Cell escape in 1912, and it continued to be part of his act until his death in 1926. It had nothing to do with his death.

 

Bess did not meet Houdini while playing hooky from school. She was in fact a fellow performer.

 

Torin Thatcher’s character, Otto, is fictional.

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Biopic did film a scene recreation of Houdini’s plane stunt from The Grim Game (1919), with the intention of including it in the montage that features the needle swallowing, levitation and bullet through assistant tricks. However, like his milk can and cremation tricks, it didn’t make the final cut.

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