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HARRY HOUDINI
Best of Film

Harry Houdini: Born in Hungary in 1874, Houdini's family immigrated to America when he was age four. He escaped into magic and conjuring in his teen years, catching on as a vaudevillian act. Once famous, Harry appeared in several films showcasing his abilities, and was inspired to start his own production company for which he produced and starred. Harry himself directed two films, The Soul of Bronze (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923), shortly after which he abandoned the film business. Harry Houdini died in 1926.

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HARRY HOUDINI MOVIE REVIEWS

Classic Movie Review
Review by Megan Powers




The Master Mystery (1920)
Directed by Harry Grossman & Burton L. King
Starring Harry Houdini, Marguerite Marsh

Synopsis:

Quentin Locke (Harry Houdini) is a secret agent battling an international group trying to suppress scientific patents led by a robot called The Automaton. Locke must escape numerous attempts on his life while trying to protect the daughter of a man who was about to expose The Automaton’s nefarious plans.

Terror Island (1920)
Directed by James Cruze
Starring Harry Houdini, Lila Lee & Eugene Pallette

Synopsis:

A sunken treasure, a submarine, human sacrifice, a long-lost father, and a strange tribe of Polynesians are just the beginning of mayhem and adventure for Harry Harper (Harry Houdini) and Beverly West (Lili Lee).

The Man from Beyond (1922)
Directed by Burton L. King
Starring Harry Houdini

Synopsis:

A man (Harry Houdini) has been frozen in Arctic ice for 100 years returns to find his lost love.

Ehrich Weiss was born in 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. He would later change his name to Harry Houdini and become the most famous and greatest magician and escapologist. Houdini was four when his parents emigrated to Appleton, Wisconsin, where he had six siblings. Houdini made his public debut as a 9-year old trapeze artist. Later he adopted the name “Harry Houdini” after the French magician Jean Eugene Robert Houdin and Harry was in honor of Harry Keller, another magician that he admired.

Houdini’s career started with card tricks, but he soon began doing handcuff escapes that attracted more attention. In 1899 he met manager Martin Beck who was impressed by Houdini and suggested that he concentrate on escape acts. Beck scheduled him on the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit and in months he was the top performer in the country. He then toured Europe and became a sensation there as well.

Houdini was a major celebrity in the 1900’s, so it was no surprise that he would star in films to cash in on his extraordinary popularity. His first starring role was in the 15 part serial The Master Mystery. Houdini is special agent Quentin Locke who battles the mysterious robot The Automaton and his evil henchmen. The Automaton is a very silly looking robot, but must have been thrilling to see for an audience in 1920.

The series is funny to watch since Houdini’s character is always getting caught, so we can see him escape unharmed in the next episode. These are the highlights of the series. It is fascinating to watch him use his body to escape from ropes, handcuffs, barb wire and other nefarious contraptions. This is extremely rare footage of actual handcuff and straightjacket escapes.

Houdini’s acting is best in The Master Mystery. One can understand why he was a great performer. He has an intense presence in this series. It’s amazing to watch these films and study Houdini. He is still a huge figure in the world of illusion and still fascinates us. The films are proof that he existed. He’s not just a story we were told or someone in an old picture. He is so iconic that one could forget that he was flesh and blood. He was a real person that executed miraculous feats. These films show us some of his famous routines.

I enjoyed watching the Master Mystery with it’s silly Automaton robot, a gas weapon (“The Madagascar Madness,”) an early use of chemical warfare and the cross dressing character Zita Dane(Ruth Stonehouse), who’s looking for her long lost father. All ends up well for the good guys and not so good for the bad guys. Houdini’s energy on screen is best in this series maybe because it was a new adventure for him. He seems most natural in his love scenes with Marguerite Marsh (Eva Brent). Marsh was the older sister of the Mae Marsh who starred in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916) and many more. Marsh and Ruth Stonehouse are subjected to some unbelievably awful hair styles for the period. The Master Mystery was a box office success.

Terror Island (1920) is also an amusing film. Houdini is Harry Harper, an inventor who has discovered a device that can find sunken ships. Beverly West (Lili Lee) wants to save her father from South Sea natives holding him for ransom until a skull shaped pearl that Beverly possesses is returned to them. Just to make things more complicated Job Mourdant (Wilton Taylor), who is Beverly’s guardian, also wants the pearl. Mourdant kidnaps Beverly and sails to the island where her father is being held. Harper follows in his submarine and rescues Beverly after she jumps off Mourdant’s ship. Once they all arrive at the island, Harper and Beverly are menaced and Houdini gets to show off his escape skills.

The natives take the pearl skull back and take Beverly as a sacrifice. They put her in an iron safe and drop her into the sea. Houdini rescues her in the nick of time. He then amazes the tribe with his magic and takes Beverly and her father back home. Like I said it’s amusing…why did they put her in a safe? It’s unintentionally funny. There are many moments like this in the film. I liked Lili Lee as Beverly. She had a nice screen presence and was very attractive. Eugene Pallette plays Guy Mourdant in the feature. Pallette was a wonderful character actor known for his deep gravelly voice. It was really something to see him as young man in the film.

The Man from Beyond (1922) has a fanciful premise. Two explorers find a man frozen in a block of ice. They melt the ice and revive him and take him home to study. They interrupt the nuptials of Felice Strange (Jane Connely) and Dr. Trent (Arthur Maude) with there arrival. Houdini insists that this Felice is his beloved Felice Norcross. Felice postpones the ceremony and wishes to see Houdini. He’s been taken to the asylum, but has escaped, of course. He soon realizes that 100 years have pasted. He decides to help Felice search for her missing father. As it turns out, Dr. Trent has been holding Felice’s father captive in his hidden dungeon. Houdini and Dr. Trent fight on the edge of a cliff and Trent falls to his death. Houdini then has to rescue Felice from going over Niagara Falls. Houdini is finally reunited with his sweetheart.

This wacky story credit goes to Harry Houdini. We’ve seen this premise played out many times, an old love reincarnated and true love reunited. But usually your beau hasn’t been frozen in a block of ice. I’ll give Houdini credit for coming up with that one. Yes, it’s unbelievable; it’s a fantasy! But it was a new concept when this film came out. I can’t name too many films that thaw out people. I can come up with creatures thawed out like House of Frankenstein (how did that happen? Watch Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)), The Thing From Another World (1951) and Iceman (1984).

Houdini doesn’t seem as lively in this film. He’s trying to hard and we notice. The Man From Beyond was produced by Houdini’s own production company, Houdini Picture Corporation and was filmed in Fort Lee, NJ.

No matter what these films are like to watch or whether Houdini a good actor or not, the most important thing to remember is that they exist. This is the only chance we have to see the great Houdini. He captured the imagination of a generation that had the privilege to see him perform live. He still continues to generate interest 84 years after his death. That is truly amazing.

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HARRY HOUDINI