Movie Information

In Brief: Colorful, almost entirely fictional Harry Houdini biopic that was mostly an excuse to team newlyweds Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh in a movie. It's harmless and reasonably entertaining — in a very 1950s way — but if you approach it as any kind of historical (or even perceptive) look at Houdini, you're watching the wrong movie. It's more like a compendium of biopic cliches, but there's no denying that Curtis and Leigh make a cute couple.
Genre: Biopic
Director: George Marshall (Murder, He Says)
Starring: Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Torin Thatcher, Angela Clarke
Rated: NR

How you’re going to feel about George Marshall’s Houdini (1953) is going to depend a great deal on what you want from a Hollywood biopic. If you’re wanting any great insights into the man, they’re not here. If you expect anything more than a very superficial connection between what’s on the screen and the actual life story of Harry Houdini, buy a book. If you want a solidly OK Hollywood movie in the biopic tradition, step right up. Paramount’s big idea here was to borrow Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh from their respective studios, so they could put the then-newlyweds and newsworthy couple in a movie to cash in on the public interest. It worked then and it actually kind of works now — simply because they do make an appealing pair. They’re also up to the fairly slight demands of the script. The story seems to be cobbled together from earlier lightweight biopics. Harry (Curtis) meets Bess (Leigh) at a sideshow where he appears both as the “wild man” and magician. The revelation that the wild man is just a disguise is straight out of Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Harry’s relation to his mother (Angela Clarke) is from The Jolson Story (1946) — and so, for that matter, is his drive to perform. It’s the sort of thing that works within the aims of the film — and it’s entertaining. In fact, I only sat down with the movie to refresh my memory of it, and I ended up watching the whole thing.

The Hendersonville Film Society will show Houdini Sunday, Sept. 29, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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