In the early years of the 20th century, Harry Houdini was larger than life. He was the world’s best-known escape artist, the “king of handcuffs,” the No. 1 draw in vaudeville and, according to one biography, “America’s first superhero.”
It turns out that Houdini also made motion pictures. And thanks to a remarkable new DVD collection, “Houdini: The Movie Star” (three discs, Kino International, $39.95, not rated), we can see the master entertainer in more than little fragments from ancient newsreels.
This collection not only includes the five silent movies (or remnants of them) that Houdini starred in from 1919 to 1923, but filmed records of some of Houdini’s greatest escapes from 1907 to 1923 and a recording of Houdini’s voice.
The son of a rabbi, Houdini (born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, and raised in Appleton, Wis.) had appeared in a French short film in 1901, just six years after the first motion picture was made, and his daredevil stunts were recorded on film throughout the 1900s and 1910s. But it wasn’t until 1919, when he had been an international star for nearly 20 years, that Houdini made his first feature-length movie.
“The Master Mystery,” released as a 15-part serial running more than 5 ½ hours, stars Houdini as a government agent investigating a crooked patents company. The story is a silly piece of hooey involving a menacing robot - it looks kind of farcical today - as well as the dreaded Madagascar Madness laughing disease and a damsel in distress.
It’s mostly designed to place its star in one restraint or torture device after another - straitjackets, wall chains, barbed wire, locked in a crate and thrown into the water, tied under a descending elevator, strapped to an electric chair, chained and dangled over a vat of acid, etc. - at the cliff-hanging end of each episode.
A huge box-office hit in the United States and Europe, “The Master Mystery” garnered enthusiastic reviews in the press, with Billboard proclaiming: “This crackerjack production will thunder down the ages to perpetuate the fame of this remarkable genius.”
The DVD version runs just short of four hours, with text explaining the missing sections. It includes a New York state censor’s report from 1924, when the film was re-released, in which objections were filed about many scenes that “will tend to incite crime” or were “inhuman.”
Only five minutes of Houdini’s next film, “The Grim Game” (1919), survive, but they’re remarkable. A spectacular scene in which Houdini was attempting to move from one plane to another at 4,400 feet shows the two planes accidentally crashing into each other and going into spiraling descents. Pilots of both planes were able to regain control and land safely.
“Terror Island” (1920) features Houdini as the inventor of a high-tech submarine who goes to a mysterious island in the South Pacific to recover some jewels in a sunken ship and save the father of the woman he loves. Catalina Island stands in for the South Seas island in a reasonably energetic story filled with the usual escapes and some unusual underwater photography.
Unfortunately, the film also reflects the prevailing racial attitudes of the times: A bunch of African American actors in absurd “native” garb portray the savage islanders in a gruesome display of movie racism – 13 years before “King Kong” did much the same thing.
The lack of success at the box office for “Terror Island” led Houdini to form his own movie company, the Houdini Picture Corp. Its first offering, 1922’s “The Man From Beyond,” reflects Houdini’s interest in reincarnation.
He plays a sailor who had been frozen in an 1820 Arctic shipwreck, only to be discovered 100 years later, thawed and brought back to life. He then meets a woman who looks exactly like the woman he had been engaged to a century earlier.
Filmed in Lake Placid, N.Y., and Niagara Falls, the movie includes some spectacular footage of Houdini swimming in rapids just above the falls between the United States and Canada. According to the DVD’s film notes, he had a cable attached to his leg while he swam to ensure that he wouldn’t go over the falls.
Houdini’s final film, 1923’s “Haldane of the Secret Service,” is a fairly straightforward suspense film - with the addition, of course, of Houdini’s spectacular escapes - in which Houdini plays a government agent on the trail of counterfeiters in New York’s Chinatown; Glasgow, Scotland; Hull, England; London and Paris.
The movie is marred by some stereotypical depictions of the “mysterious” Chinese but includes one spectacular scene in which our hero gets tied to a water wheel.
So how good an actor was Houdini?
Biographer Kenneth Silverman, discussing “The Master Mystery,” writes: “His `acting’ consists of three expressions: pucker-lipped flirtatiousness, open-eyed surprise and brow-knitted distress.”
Silverman’s characterization is accurate, but he’s overly harsh. While no Charlie Chaplin or Greta Garbo among silent screen actors, Houdini doesn’t come across as any more false or exaggerated than the other actors in his films. In the service of the melodramas they’re appearing in, many of Houdini’s fellow cast members overact on a grand scale. In contrast, his performances are relatively underplayed, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Fortunately, the DVD also includes examples of Houdini’s real-life escapes from straitjackets and handcuffed bridge jumps before thousands of people in the United States and Europe. They are dangerous and truly spectacular, giving modern audiences an inkling of what made Harry Houdini such a major attraction and star.