When I was in college I became interested in sleight of hand. In
addition to learning how to perform a couple of tricks with a certain degree
of skill, I read a lot of books on both magic and magicians, including
a couple of biographies of Harry Houdini. Houdini was a very good
magician and escape artist. What set him apart from other magicians
of his day, and the reason that just about everyone reading this knows
his name, was his genius for self-promotion. There have been several
people more talented and creative in performing magic, but no one comes
close to Houdini's ability to capture the interest of the public and turn
that interest into paying customers.
As early as 1901 Houdini recognized the power of film. That year
he made a short for Pathe that showcased a number of his escapes and tricks,
which is sadly lost. In the following years Houdini would film some
of his larger scale spectacles and screen them during his stage show, and
in 1918 decided to become a movie star. He filmed several films and
a 15-part serial before giving up on the movies in 1923. Some of
his films have been lost, along with a few chapters of the serial, but
Kino now put together an amazing collection: Houdini: The
Movie Star. This set brings together all three of Houdini's existing
movies as well as the surviving chapters of his serial The Master Mystery.
Not only that, but the set contains extensive and informative notes of
the films and their production as well as several shorts of Houdini escapes,
an audio recording of the escape artist, and more. A truly comprehensive
package that is one of the most exciting silent film releases of 2008.
The Master Mystery (1919):
To avoid studio interference, Houdini and his co-producers created their
own production company to make his first major film. The Master Mystery
is rip-roaring chapter play that has all of the advantages of the format
(suspense, excitement, and lots of action) along with all of the pitfalls
(convoluted and sometimes nonsensical plot, a story that's slow to make
any real advances until the final chapter, and low production values.)
In this adventure Houdini plays Quentin Locke (one of the few times
his character doesn't have the initials H. H.,) a government agent who
poses as an inventor in order to gain employment at International Patents
Inc. This is a company that buys up patents from inventors, and then
sits on them so that the new technology doesn't get out and the holders
of the rights for earlier, less advanced, machines will still be able to
make money. (Okay, I know this doesn't make any sense, but it's a
serial.) The head of IPI, Peter Brent (Jack Burns) is getting death
threats and starting to have second thoughts about what he's doing.
He decides to do the right thing and release all of the new inventions
to the world. His VP, Herbert Balcom (Charles E. Grahm,) has different
ideas however. He wants to take over the company and keep the inventions
locked away forever.
That night while meeting with an informant, Brent and his friend come
down with the "Madagascar Madness" a malady that makes them laugh non-stop.
This was brought on by Q, a mysterious robot with a human brain that keeps
his hideout in the tunnels beneath Brent's mansion. It's up to Locke
along with Brent's plucky daughter Eva (Marguerite Marsh) to stop Balcom
and his agents from taking over the company and stifling innovation.
A fun serial, there are several subplots involving Balcom's son Paul
(William Pike) who is engaged to Eva and the femme fatal with the unlikely
name of De Luxe Dora (Edna Britton). After the plot is set up in
chapter one, the follow installments fall into a pattern where Locke and/or
Eva discover some clue, follow it, only to be discovered by the villains.
Locke manages to fight off four or five guys only to be knocked out at
the last minute and put into some improbable death trap. He's dangled
over a vat of acid (my favorite...available only in the censor's report),
tied up with barbed wire, locked in a chest and thrown in a river, strapped
into an electric chair, just to name a few.
The episodes usually end with poor Locke facing death, and the beginning
of the following installment always shows him escaping. Some of these
are quite fun to watch and the creative escapes are the highlight of the
serial. Most of the big chapter-ending escapes at least look like
they're real (though it's obvious in some places the traps are not nearly
as dangerous as they appear. The barbed wire one is a good example,
the barbs bend and flatten when Houdini rolls on them.)
It's too bad the same can't be said for the story itself. Written
by Arthur B. Reeve, the creator of the popular (at the time) pulp hero
Craig Kennedy, Scientific Detective and scribe of the hit serial Exploits
of Elaine, the chapters of this serial are convoluted and muddled.
Viewers will often wonder why Locke is going somewhere, or how the thugs
knew where he was going to be. Locke is also pretty gullible.
In one episode he thinks he's tricked Balcom into believing that he and
Eva have gotten into an argument and split, only to fall for the exact
same trick himself when De Luxe Dora confides that she's had it with Paul.
If he'll only bring Eva to the docks late that night, she'll reveal all
of his secrets! No, that doesn't sound suspicious, but Quentin falls
for it hook, line, and sinker.
It's obvious that this serial was done on a tight budget, both in time
and money. The acting is wooden and stiff, to say the least, and
Houdini has almost no screen presence. This is ironic since he was
so charismatic and gregarious in real life. Still, as a fan of chapter
plays I found this one entertaining and worth watching, though playing
more than a couple of episodes in one sitting isn't recommended.
Note: There are a few chapters missing from this serial.
Kino has re-created the lost sections by stitching together any extant
footage with title cards that fill in the missing action.
The Grim Game (1919): Though
Master of Mystery was successful, the accounting was sloppy and all the
partners ended up suing each other and the company folded. The film
did accomplish one thing however; it illustrated that Houdini could bring
people to the theater. He ended up making his next two films with
Famous Players Lansky/Paramount. The Grim Game is a lost film, but
one significant five minute fragment still survives and is included in
this set. During the filming of a wing-walking scene where Houdini
(doubled by a stunt man) is supposed to transfer from one plane to another,
a patch of turbulence caused the two bi-planes hit each other and crash
while the stunt man was hanging from a rope. No one was seriously
injured, and this accident was worked into the script. Luckily, that
is the fragment that survives, and it's quite interesting to see.
Terror Island (1920): The
best film in this collection is easily Terror Island. This has all
the best elements of The Master Mystery, without the long convoluted plot,
and a talented director (James Cruze who would later direct The Great Gabbo
with Erich von Stroheim.) Unfortunately reels 2 and 3 no longer exist.
Title cards that explain the missing action are included.
Houdini plays Harry Harper, an inventor (once again) who has built a
new submarine. He wants to use his invention to recover sunken treasure
from ships that were sent to the bottom of the ocean during WWI.
He'll use the money he collects to "brighten the lives of little waifs"
Luck seems to be on his side when a young girl, Beverly West (Lila Lee),
comes to Harper seeking help. Her father has given her a map that
leads to a South Seas island where he is being held captive that just happens
to be near where a boat carrying a load of diamonds was sunk. Beverly's
evil relative is trying to steal the map in order to get the diamonds.
They eventually are able to get the map, and Beverly, so Harper is forced
to follow the villains in his sub. Can he save the woman he loves
and her father while retrieving a fortune worth of diamonds?
It's a shame that only 5 of the 7 reels still exist, because this is
a fun adventure flick. The first reel drags a little with the set
up, and just as things start to get interesting we're forced to skip past
the missing footage. The newly made title cards do a good job of
bringing viewers up to speed on the stiff they've missed, but it's disappointing
that so much is missing.
Starting with reel four the film moves at a good clip. There are
some escapes, but they're worked into the plot a bit more elegantly than
in the other films in this set. There're angry natives and evil competitors
to deal with and this plays like a standard adventure film rather than
a Houdini vehicle. One nice twist is that someone else is locked
in a safe and thrown into the ocean. Of course Houdini jumps in after
and saves them, but it was still an unexpected pleasure.
Houdini is a bit more natural in this film, but he's still no actor.
He never looks like he's comfortable with his leading ladies, but in this
film he seems a bit more at ease than the others. The rest of the
cast does an adequate job, but it's the adventure that really caries this
The Man From Beyond (1922):
Terror Island made money but didn't do well at the box office, and so Houdini
formed another independent company to film his next feature. This
film, based on a story by Houdini who was fascinated by the occult by this
time, is a mess and plays very poorly today.
A scientific expedition to the Arctic discovers a ship that has been
frozen in the ice for 100 years. On board is a man frozen solid in
a block of ice. When thawed, he comes back to life and introduces
himself as Howard Hillary (Harry Houdini). Hillary was knocked out
by an evil ship's captain as the rest of the crew, including Hillary's
love, Felice, abandoned the ship. The scientists take Hillary back
to civilization, and there he meets the daughter of a missing scientist,
also named Felice (Jane Connelly) who is identical to Hillary's lost love
of 100 years ago.
A wicked man has kidnapped Felice's father and is holding him hostage.
He plans on marrying the young girl to gain control of the father's fortune.
Hillary is sure that this new Felice is the reincarnation of his old love,
and that their souls are joined. Not only does he have to stop Felice
from getting married, but he has to convince her of who she was in a previous
When seen today, this film is pretty poor. There's very little
action, the thing that people go to a Houdini movie for and only one escape
trick. Even this is set up poorly. Houdini's trapped in a straight
jacket in a padded cell in a mental hospital, and when the door is opened
some time later he has gone. It's not until 10 minutes later that
they show the actual escape, and by that time no one really cares.
The film also spouts a lot of metaphysical claptrap about reincarnation,
which apparently both Moses and Christ preached (at least according to
a title card.) The bits about immortal souls searching for their
"heart's desire" really drag the movie to a halt. It's hard not to
roll your eyes at the na´ve way this aspect is shoe-horned into the
plot. Houdini was trying to make believers out of his audience instead
of trying to tell an entertaining story.
Haldane of the Secret Service (1923):
This was Houdini's final film as an actor, and he also wrote the film and
directed it. Famous for wanting to control all aspects of his stage
shows, the surprising thing isn't that Houdini took on all of these roles
for one of his films, but that he didn't do it earlier. In any case
this last entry in the Houdini film archive is not an auspicious entry.
While not as bad as his previous effort, it doesn't work quite as well
as Terror Island.
This time around Houdini is an international man of action, Heath Haldane.
Looking for the counterfeiters who killed his father (an officer like himself)
Heath stumbles upon a bag belonging to a young attractive woman, Adele
Ormsby (Gladys Leslie) filled with bogus bills. Tracing the bag back
to its owner, Haldane discovers that the young lady grabbed the wrong bag
by mistake and gets hot on the trail of a ring of crooks who's nefarious
schemes ensnare the whole world.
With this film, like his last, it seems that Houdini was trying to get
away from the 'escape trick' film that had served him well in the past.
There's only one escape in this movie too. There is a lot of action,
with Houdini fighting gangs of men as he did in several of his earlier
films. Overall the plot is a bit too melodramatic and relied on amazing
coincidences to drive the narrative forward. There were also some
sections that were dialog heavy, something that the best silent films were
able to avoid. Overall this wasn't a horrible movie, but not a great
All of these films come with piano or organ accompaniments which were
solid, strong pieces. The score by Stuart Oderman for Master Mystery
was a bit repetitious, but with a four hour long serial, that can definitely
be forgiven. The other entries by Ben Model, Clark Wilson, and Jon
C. Mirsalis were fine too. They were all scene-specific and
did a good job of accenting the action on screen. While I do prefer
a full orchestration, the single instrument scores for these films seemed
to be very appropriate. None of these were top-tier films, and they
probably were rarely accompanied by more than a piano or organ when originally
released. The musicians who worked on these score assuredly put more
thought into what they were going to play than the vast majority of in-theater
musicians at the time, so we're really getting a nice soundtrack.
Needless to say these recent recordings sound great and have no hiss, dropouts
The full frame image is a bit less than the average Kino silent film.
These films have not gone through extensive restoration, but they do come
from nicely preserved prints. There is some print damage to all of
the films, scratches and dirt, but it was a low to moderate amount and
not nearly as bad as it could have been. The images overall were
soft but not blurry, but the contrast was good and the level of detail
was fine. Some details were lost on highlights as well as in dark
areas, but this isn't too surprising. None of these films appear
to come from PAL to NTSC transfers, which is a good thing. If you
go into this set of very rare films expecting an average but solid image
quality, you won't be disappointed.
This is where this set really shines. It has a wonderful selection
of bonus material. Each disc has extensive notes on the films written
by historian Bret Wood, which delve into the production, distribution,
and exhibition of the films along with some interesting anecdotes about
Houdini. These were quite interesting and I only wish they had bound
them into a book and included it with the discs. There are also photo
galleries to most of the movies as well as notes from the NY Censor Board
with scenes that they wanted cut and why. These were both comical
and horrific to read, depending on your mood. In one film they wanted
the scene of four men placing a log across a road to stop a car cut, since
it might inspire violence and criminal activity. It's both funny
that someone would actually think that, and scary that those same people
had the power to demand edits to a film.
The highlights of the extras are ten short films of Houdini escapes
and stunts made between 1907 and 1923 including several straight jacket
escapes while hanging upside down from the top of a building or from a
crane. This section runs a tad over 20 minutes all together and was
fascinating to watch.
There's also a film of Houdini's brother, Hardeen performing one of
Houdini's signature magic effects, the Metamorphosis on the back of a truck
in NY City. A rare clip of Houdini being secured into a straight
jacket before an escape is also included as well as a hilarious and surreal
French film that was obviously inspired by Houdini: Slippery Jim.
Finally there's an Edison wax cylinder recording of Houdini introducing
his water torture cell trick from 1914.
This is a fantastic set. I can't imagine a more complete selection
of Houdini films. This three disc set contains all of his surviving
movies along with a clip from one that is lost. While some of the
films aren't outstanding, I enjoyed watching all of them, even The Man
From Beyond, and the best of them (Terror Island and The
Master Mystery) were loads of fun. The thing that really sets
this collection apart however is the copious bonus material. The
rare films of Houdini escapes are engrossing and the liner notes are very
complete. Kino has really outdone themselves with this release.