houdinicoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No, ages 10+
1953, 106 min., Color
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG for peril)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

Hollywood legend Tony Curtis gives one of his best performances in Houdini, a colorful biography set in the 1890s through the 1920s, and he does it playing opposite his then-wife Janet Leigh when they were still relative newlyweds. In this film, Harry and Bess’s meet-cute courtship is the stuff of romantic comedies, and there are plenty of laughs as she joins his act and they go from playing West Virginia vaudeville houses to performing in front of packed crowds at the best opera houses in Europe.

Harry Houdini was the most famous magician and escape artist in the world during his lifetime and through the 1950s, when this Technicolor period biopic was made. This film does a great job capturing the carnivalesque nature of vaudeville and the fame that Houdini found in Europe, where he made headlines by breaking out of a Scotland Yard jail. The film also captures houdiniscreen1Houdini’s obsession with giving the audience bigger and more death-defying stunts, including one in which he was hung upside down from the roof of a skyscraper as he wriggled free of a straitjacket and chains. The real Houdini lived to be 52 and died, ironically, not from any of his dangerous stunts—which included escaping from inside locked safes and chained boxes lowered into water—but from gut punches administered by a cocky college student who had heard Houdini had an iron stomach. The blows aggravated the escape artist’s appendicitis, and he died of a ruptured appendix and peritonitis.

Biopics reached their zenith in the 1950s, when the public romanticized their heroes and celebrities and were perfectly content to have filmmakers do the same. If you’re looking for a completely factual biography of Houdini, you’ll have to look elsewhere. But as the 1976 TV movie starring Paul Michael Glaser proves, facts are underrated if altering them makes for better entertainment. For my money, this 1953 biopic is not only one of the best ever made about Houdini, but one of the best to come out of the Technicolor era as well—at least for family entertainment. Even kids who tend to be bored with life stories will find this one engaging because it’s crisply paced and there are plenty of magic tricks and stunts to divert.

houdiniscreen2But there are moments of peril when you think Houdini is going to die, and this biopic does, in fact, romanticize his death by linking it to the magician’s belief in an afterlife and his obsession with trying to communicate with his dead mother.

[SPOILER Paragraph] It certainly adds more drama to the structure of the film to embellish the facts and have his death happen as a result of one of his tricks rather than a sucker punch, and it makes for more traditional three-act suspense to have one big trick—the Chinese water torture cell—be something that has never been successfully done before, than to have it be Houdini’s specialty. In real life he performed the trick of escaping from being suspended upside down in this torture chamber hundreds of times from 1912 until 1926, but where’s the suspense in that?

By today’s standards, Houdini would qualify as an “inspired by” comedy-drama rather than a factual biography. And as I mentally weigh a more accurate dramatization against this one, I can’t help but think that producer George Pal (The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm) and director George Marshall (How the West Was Won) made the right choice. Houdini is highly entertaining and a good choice for family movie night. It was one of my favorite biopics as a kid, and I was pleased to see that it still holds up well.

Language: n/a
Sex: Just kissing and the most wholesome implied wedding night imaginable
Violence: None, unless you count throwing tomatoes
Adult situations: Moments of peril involving near-death experiences as a result of escapes gone wrong
Takeaway: Curtis turned in some great performances in Some Like It Hot (1959 and The Defiant Ones (1958), but he also shined in three biopics: The Boston Strangler (1968), The Great Imposter (1961), and Houdini (1953)