AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Director: George Marshall (Dir)
Release Date:   Jul 1953
Premiere Information:   New York opening: 2 Jul 1953; Los Angeles opening: 22 Jul 1953
Production Date:   early Sep--31 Oct 1952; addl scene 17 Feb 1953
Duration (in mins):   105-106
Duration (in reels):   12
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Cast:   Tony Curtis (Harry Houdini)  
    Janet Leigh (Bess Houdini)  
    Torin Thatcher (Otto)  
    Angela Clarke (Mrs. Weiss)  
    Stefan Schnabel (Prosecuting attorney)  
    Ian Wolfe (Fante)  
    Sig Ruman (Schultz)  
    Michael Pate (Dooley)  
    Connie Gilchrist (Mrs. Schultz)  
    Malcolm Lee Beggs (Warden)  
    Frank Orth (White-haired man)  
    Barry Bernard (Inspector)  
    Douglas Spencer (Simms)  
    Joanne Gilbert (Girl)  
    Mary Murphy (Girl)  
    Peter Baldwin (Fred)  
    Richard Shannon (Miner)  
    Elsie Ames (Entertainer)  
    Nick Arno (Entertainer)  
    Ester Garber (Bess's girl friend)  
    Norma Jean Eckart (Girl in guillotine act)  
    Lewis Martin (Editor)  
    Mabel Paige (Medium)  
    Lawrence Ryle (German judge)  
    Fred Essler (Official looking man)  
    Arthur Gould-Porter (Manager of Alhambra Theatre)  
    Alex Harford (Assistant manager of Alhambra Theatre)  
    Tudor Owen (Blacksmith)  
    Harry Hines (Barker)  
    Oliver Blake (Barker)  
    Cliff Clark (Barker)  
    Harold "Hal" Neiman (Barker)  
    Erno Verebes (Professor Allegari)  
    Anthony Warde (Emcee)  
    Grace Hayle (Woman who screams)  
    Jody Gilbert (Fat girl)  
    Billy Bletcher (Italian basso)  
    Lyle Latell (Calcott)  
    Frank Kreig (Stagehand)  
    Len Hendry (Stagehand)  
    Ray Spiker (Stagehand)  
    Ralph Peters (Prisoner)  
    Henry Guttman (Maitre d')  
    Gil Warren (Fire chief)  
    Edward Clark (Doorman)  
    Tor Johnson (Strong man)  
    Mike Mahoney (Bell captain)  
    Jerry James (Reporter)  
    Bill Meader (Reporter)  
    Daniel De Jonghe (Desk clerk)  
    Frank Jaquet (Foreman)  
    Bobby Barber (Comic piano player)  
    Torben Meyer (Headwaiter)  
    Don Dunning (Heckler)  
    Jim Davies (Heckler)  
    Louise Murchison (Juggler specialty act)  
    Alan Hunter (Spectator)  
    William Larsen Jr. (His own guillotine act)  
    Jon Gardner (Boy)  
    Susan Cooke (Maid/Bess's friend)  
    Eric Alden (Sailor)  
    Louise De Carlo (Dance girl)  
    Marion Dempsey (Sword swallower)  
    Maurice McLoughlin (Fire eater)  
    Betty Yeaton (Contortionist)  
    Audrey Washburn (Contortionist)  
    Joan Ardin (Shimmy dancer)  
    Florence Jensen (Fat woman)  
    Sailor West (Tattooed man)  
    A. J. Rasmondo (Little man)  
    Luz Potter (Little woman)  
    Bill Gentry (Fred's friend)  
    Fred Aldrich (Waiter, bouncer)  
    Maxine Gates    

Summary: 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." 

Production Company: Paramount Pictures Corp.  
Distribution Company: Paramount Pictures Corp.  
Director: George Marshall (Dir)
  Michael D. Moore (Asst dir)
Producer: George Pal (Prod)
  Frank Freeman Jr. (Assoc prod)
Writer: Philip Yordan (Scr)
Photography: Ernest Laszlo (Dir of photog)
  Guy Bennett (2d cam)
Art Direction: Hal Pereira (Art dir)
  Al Nozaki (Art dir)
Film Editor: George Tomasini (Ed)
Set Decoration: Sam Comer (Set dec)
  Ray Moyer (Set dec)
  Bob Goodstein (Props)
Costumes: Edith Head (Cost)
Music: Roy Webb (Mus score)
Sound: Harry Mills (Sd rec)
  Gene Garvin (Sd rec)
Special Effects: Gordon Jennings (Spec photog eff)
Make Up: Wally Westmore (Makeup supv)
Production Misc: Dunninger (Tech adv)
  C. Kenneth DeLand (Prod mgr)
  Andy Durkus (Prod mgr)
  George Boston (Tony Curtis' magic coach)
Color Personnel: Richard Mueller (Technicolor col consultant)
Country: United States
Language: English

Source Text: Based on the book Houdini by Harold Kellock (New York, 1928).
Authors: Harold Kellock

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Paramount Pictures Corp. 1/7/1953 dd/mm/yyyy LP2729

PCA NO: 16247
Physical Properties: Sd: Western Electric Recording
  col: Technicolor

Genre: Biography
Sub-Genre: Show business
Subjects (Major): Escapes
  Harry Houdini
  Mothers and sons
Subjects (Minor): Appendicitis
  Astor Hotel (New York)
  Baths and showers
  Berlin (Germany)
  Detroit (MI)
  Dismissal (Employment)
  London (England)
  New York City
  Prizes and trophies
  Scotland Yard (London, England)

Note: As noted by Milbourne Christopher, the editor of Magazine of the Society of American Magicians , in a Jan 1954 Var 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 31 Oct 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 Jul and Aug 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 Aug 1951. In Sep 1951, however, HR announced that Paramount had bought the rights to Kellock's book and assigned George Pal to produce the adaptation. In 1944, HR 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 Oct 1952 HCN 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." HR 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 HR 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 8 Oct 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 6 Dec 1998. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
American Cinematographer   1 May 52   p. 205, 220.
Box Office   23 May 1953.   
Daily Variety   18 May 53   p. 3.
Film Daily   21 May 53   p. 6.
Hollywood Citizen-News   6 Oct 1952.   
Hollywood Reporter   21 Nov 1935.   
Hollywood Reporter   2 Mar 1944   p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter   9 May 1944   p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter   1 Jun 1944   p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter   1 Sep 1944   p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter   28 Feb 1946.   
Hollywood Reporter   28 Jul 1950.   
Hollywood Reporter   21 Sep 51   p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter   14 Aug 52   p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter   5 Sep 52   p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter   11 Sep 52   p. 4, 7.
Hollywood Reporter   15 Sep 52   p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter   2 Oct 52   p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter   31 Oct 52   p. 12.
Hollywood Reporter   3 Nov 52   p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter   18 Feb 53   p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter   18 May 53   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   8 Jul 53   p. 8.
Los Angeles Times   23 Jul 1953.   
Life   22 Jun 53   pp. 119-20, 122-23.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   23 May 53   p. 1845.
New York Times   13 Aug 1950.   
New York Times   3 Jul 53   p. 10.
Time   22 Jun 1953.   
Variety   20 May 53   p. 6.
Variety   20 Jan 54   p. 60.

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