Houdini: The Movie Star

Raymond Owen
From The Grim Game

“Tell the Sahib the Strangler has arrived from Madagascar.”

Houdini: The Movie Star

Distributor: Kino
Cast: Harry Houdini
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1910
US DVD Release Date: 2008-04-08

Cinema’s first robot enters the frame carrying a candelabra. This sublime moment is itself worth the price of Kino International's splendid Houdini: The Movie Star, a three-disc set presenting the surviving record of the world-famous magician’s protracted effort to conquer the silver screen.

“Q, the Automaton” strides forth from his subterranean headquarters, sinister candelabra in hand, early in the first chapter of The Master Mystery (1919), Houdini's giddy debut serial and the ornament of Kino’s collection. Written, probably on a napkin, by Arthur Reeve and Charles Logue (who also wrote The Exploits of Elaine), briskly directed by Burton King and beautifully shot by the unheralded William Reinhart, The Master Mystery is a delightful addition to the distressingly small number of silent serials available on video.

And check out the robot: The Automaton looks like an animated ventilation duct. Its head resembles a beer keg with light bulbs for eyes. It's galvanized, sentient, can walk through doors if they aren’t too thick and commands a gang of thuggish henchmen. The robot has henchmen. Bliss it was that dawn to be alive.

Four of the original 15 chapters of The Master Mystery are presumed lost. Kino provides intertitles that fill in some of the missing action, but they’re hardly necessary; story is not the point. The plot involves suppressed patents, a mysterious psychoactive gas from Madagascar and fraught questions of paternity, but The Master Mystery often dispenses altogether with conventional narrative and floats about like an absinthe dream, a poor man’s Feulliade.

Some of this is caused by the missing reels: Characters appear without introduction and vanish without explanation, a “Chinese temple” housing a malevolent Fire God pops up from nowhere, the title bears no connection to the surviving film. But even the intact portions of The Master Mystery are a bit hallucinatory, and in the end a character we’ve only just met explains the events of the preceding four-plus hours in a long series of intertitles that must have been as unintentionally funny in 1919 as they are now.

Houdini plays Quentin Locke, an undercover operative of the Justice Department. In him we meet all of Houdini’s onscreen characters, whatever their names: Locke is forthright, kind, brave, omnicompetent, indestructible—and a lady-killer. Houdini, who (unfortunately) had a hand in writing all of his pictures, wanted to be a leading man, and in all his films he is cast opposite attractive young women and provided a romantic subplot. In The Master Mystery it is Marguerite Marsh as Eva, a resourceful tycoon’s daughter desperately searching for her missing father; refreshingly, she is permitted to intercede in one of the cliffhangers with a pistol.

Director King handles his action scenes well and keeps things moving, although he sometimes seems a half-step behind the loony scenario. Reinhart is the real star of the show. His striking photography features multiple deep compositions and an ambitious chiaroscuro. A short dialogue scene in Chapter 10 is an early example of alternating over-the-shoulder shots.

The Master Mystery was the opening salvo of Houdini’s years-long campaign to attain cinema stardom. Rarely has an applicant for the position seemed so well-qualified. The world’s most celebrated magician routinely publicized his vaudeville appearances by escaping from a straitjacket while suspended upside-down 100 feet in the air over downtown intersections. He was an underwater specialist who patented a quick-exit diving suit and an aviator at a time when flying was extremely perilous.

Moreover, Houdini evoked shuddery mystery; he was the Fox Mulder of his time. His famous crusade against spiritualism was but one facet of a life-long prepossession with the possibilities of the paranormal. Some members of his audience saw Houdini himself as paranormal; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who watched him work at close range, believed Houdini possessed supernatural powers.

On top of all this Houdini was visually striking, a dark, intense-looking man with startlingly penetrating eyes. Everything about him screamed “Hollywood”. Who better to star in action melodramas than the man described by his most recent biographers as “America's first superhero”?

Alas, it was not to be. Houdini’s strenuous grab for stardom was in vain — each of his movies made less money than the one before. His acting was bad, his indistinguishable scripts worse. He made four feature films after The Master Mystery. Three of them survive, and Houdini: The Movie Star contains all of them.

Terror Island, directed by James Cruze (The Covered Wagon), is one of two pictures Houdini made in Hollywood for Famous Players-Lasky immediately after The Master Mystery. Two of its original seven reels are lost. What remains is a competently made, forgettable actioner offering a wildly implausible tale about cannibals, a sacred pearl and a treasure-hunting submarine that serves mostly to showcase Houdini’s considerable underwater skills.

Here Houdini pursues the ooh-la-la Lila Lee, the best thing in the picture, who plays Beverly West, a young woman desperately searching for her missing father. The footage of Houdini’s underwater work was technically groundbreaking in 1919 and remains impressive today, but the film’s most memorable images are dark tracks through a cannibal encampment adorned with hanging corpses. (That there is a “native” encampment of cannibals neatly sums the film’s then-conventional ethnographic assumptions.)

Neither of Houdini’s studio pictures did well enough to warrant renewing his contract. Still dizzy with movie madness -- America’s first superhero was in his mid-40s, tired of vaudeville’s pitiless demands -- he returned to New York and launched Houdini Pictures Corporation, which produced The Man From Beyond (1922), which, because of its theosophical speculations about reincarnation, is often thought of Houdini’s signature film, and his final picture, Haldane of the Secret Service (1923).

Written by the star and directed again by Burton King, The Man From Beyond, probably Houdini’s best-known picture and certainly his worst, purports to be about reincarnation but reads today like a creepy little movie about clinical obsession; in it he plays a role uncomfortably close to “successful crazy stalker”. Houdini is a 19th-century sailor revived after being encased in ice for 100 years who decides that a 20th-century woman named Felice is the reincarnation of another Felice, his lost 19th-century love.

Jane Connelly plays Felice in both centuries. Both Felices are desperately searching for their missing fathers. The Man From Beyond exists only in a degraded 16mm print and is the least-watchable of the films collected in Kino’s set. It is nonetheless a fascinating document, an artifact of the great magician’s highly public engagement the paranormal and of his troubled friendship with Doyle, whom the film cites.

Haldane of The Secret Service, seen here for the first time in more than 80 years in a good-to-very-good tinted nitrate print, puts Heath Haldane on the trail of murderous counterfeiters and dope smugglers, and of Gladys Leslie, briefly famous as Vitagraph’s Girl with the Million-Dollar Smile, who plays Adele Ormsby, a young woman desperately searching, etc. Written and directed by the star, it’s a disassociative and untidy mash-up of banal sentiment and exciting action pieces framed in a plot vaporous even by the standards of Houdini’s previous films.

It engages us today because of cameraman Frank Zucker’s admirable attempts to establish a stylish world of shadows, and because — exasperating acting and awful scripts notwithstanding — the star never fails to draw our attention. Despite his shortcomings as an actor, Houdini really was charismatic, and his visage still exerts a powerful pull on the audience.

Houdini’s celebrity has hardly dimmed in the decades since his death, and Houdini: The Movie Star allows us to experience it virtually first-hand. A single four-minute fragment is all that survives of The Grim Game, Houdini’s first picture for Famous Players-Lasky, but it is the most thrilling footage in Kino’s collection, as it captures an aerial stunt gone catastrophically wrong.

Houdini: The Movie Star also includes promotional actualities depicting several of Houdini’s handcuff and straitjacket escapes; a short depicting Houdini’s signature Metamorphosis illusion performed by his brother, the magician Hardeen; and Slippery Jim, a one-reel French comedy from 1910 inspired by Houdini’s sensational first European tour.

The films are accompanied by concise, intelligent on-screen notes by director and film historian Bret Wood sketching Houdini’s screen career, his complex investments in the film business, the commercial and critical reception accorded his movies and a good deal more; this material is very welcome.

Houdini’s Hollywood success never approached his Fairbanksian ambitions, but no matter: It was all strawberries-and-whipped-cream after the robot. The Automaton validates his whole film career, and The Master Mystery merits more than a single viewing. Kudos to Kino for one of the best releases of the year.


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