by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The movie Charles and I watched last night was Houdini, the 1953 biopic made at Paramount but starring two leads they had to borrow from other studios, Tony Curtis as Houdini (Universal) and Janet Leigh, his then-wife, as Mrs. Bess Houdini (MGM). It was a movie Charles and I both had seen when young, but only on black-and-white TV’s; neither of us had ever seen it in color, and Charles hadn’t even known it was in color until it started last night. It’s the sort of movie that could have been a lot more interesting with a script that stuck closer to reality and particularly one that faced up to the issue this one (by Philip Yordan based on a Houdini biography by Harold Kellock) hinted at but ultimately ducked: namely, did Houdini ever come to believe he really had supernatural powers, or did he remain to the end what he had always been: a magician and escape artist whose feats, though astonishing, were rationally explainable?
It began in the milieu you’d expect, the carnival, with the heartwarming sight of Sig Ruman as Schultz, carnival showman and barker who’s hired Houdini to play the “wild man” in his act — Houdini had won the concession that he could also perform magic in the show if he did the “wild man” — and as a result he attracts Bess, an upper-class girl who went to the carnival to “slum” and who attracted Houdini’s eye immediately and ultimately agreed to go out with him and, eventually, marry him. The film has Houdini drop out of entertainment for a while after he’s pelted with fruit by a West Virginia audience and the goldfish bowls he uses in his act are upended by a well-aimed slingshot pellet to Bess’s ass — as the scene fades they’re frantically trying to recover all their goldfish from the stage before the fish die — and he takes a job in a lock factory, fascinated by the big safe this company makes and determined to try to escape from it. (Later he explains, “Safes are designed to keep people out — not in!”)
When they blow up the safe to get him out — much to his annoyance because he was about to escape from it anyway — he’s fired, only to win back his real career one night when he attends a magicians’ ball at the Astor Hotel and gets out of an “escape-proof” straitjacket — a feat the MC of this event tells him had been done only by one other magician, a German named von Schwager, who came to believe he actually had the power to dematerialize and was so frightened by this that he quit magic and became a recluse. Houdini’s prize for winning the straitjacket-escape contest is a ticket to Europe, where he becomes a sensation and tries to get in to visit von Schwager, who supposedly perfected the “Pagoda Torture Tank” (a glass case holding two tons of water in which the magician is suspended upside down and chained in) but was too scared of his own powers to use it. When he shows up at von Schwager’s house, the great man has been dead for two days but Houdini inherits his assistant Otto (Torin Thatcher), and the three (including Bess, who changed Houdini’s round-trip ticket into two one-way ones so she could come along) return to the stage in the U.S. and are a sensation, especially after Houdini stages a spectacular escape from a safe dropped through a hole in the ice-covered Detroit River (hours behind schedule; he got out of the safe just fine but the river currents carried him too far from the escape hole and he had to survive by finding little air pockets between the water and the ice and using them to breathe).
The film takes a detour when Houdini’s mother (Angela Clarke) dies and sets Houdini off on his famous quest to find a true spirit medium and expose all the frauds in the field — which he was able to do because they pulled their tricks with the same set of skills he used as a stage magician. It ends with his spectacular return to the stage doing the “Pagoda Torture Tank” escape — much to his wife’s disgust — only before he goes on, he falls on a prop sword, rupturing his appendix, and he dies, though he lasts long enough after the sides of the tank are bashed in by stagehands attempting to rescue him to give a faintly moving curtain speech to his wife before expiring.
Houdini is a fun movie as it stands but more could have been done with its subject. Tony Curtis looks the part (except for his anachronistic 1953 greasy-kid-stuff hairdo), though it’s a pity John Garfield had died two years earlier because he would have been the perfect actor for it; Curtis pretty much fails to dramatize Houdini’s inner demons (though, admittedly, Yordan’s script gives him precious little to work with) and the choice of a director, George Marshall, doesn’t help much either — though with Marshall, Bob Hope’s favorite director, at the helm, at least we get a surprising number of laughs for what’s ostensibly a “serious” biopic. What makes it entertaining is the sparkling color, the insouciance of Janet Leigh’s performance (especially by comparison to the High Seriousness of Torin Thatcher’s!) and the boyish appeal of Curtis, who was a teen idol and who gets a lot of screen time in nothing but a period swimsuit that shows off a body type (tall, stocky, hairless) that does little for me but others might find (indeed, did find) sexy.