In Houdini’s serials, henchmen keep making the mistake of tying him up.
By. C. Michael Forsyth
Most Americans know that Harry Houdini was a famous magician and escape artist. But how many know that he was also a matinee idol? From 1919 to 1923 Houdini starred in five silent film serials and features.
His body of work is collected on a wonderful DVD set Houdini the Movie Star, which also includes a rare audio recording of Houdini speaking in 1914, newsreel footage of Houdini’s escapes, and detailed film notes. Viewing the three disks was enormously valuable to me as I tried to fashion the “character” of Houdini in my novel Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini in The Adventure of the Spook House. Here before my eyes was the Houdini of fiction, a figure even more heroic than the larger-than-life man of reality: Brave, resourceful, brainy and ready to fight
at the drop of a hat.
The Automaton, a hulking robot, menaces Houdini in The Master Mystery.
In The Master Mystery
(1919) Houdini plays Quentin Locke, an undercover Justice Department agent who infiltrates an evil corporation that purchases scientific inventions solely to keep them off the market. The villain, whose identity is a mystery, works through a man-sized robot (the first of its kind on film) plus an army of henchmen. They regularly overpower Houdini and leave him in a deadly and seemingly inescapable predicament at the end of of each episode. Houdini must free himself from an electric chair before a goon can throw the switch; escape from the bottom of an elevator shaft where he’s been tied as the car descends; save himself from corrosive acid that spreads toward him as he lies bound, and a slew of other deadly scenarios. One has to suspend disbelief, of course, to buy that the henchmen keep tying the escape artist up instead of simply shooting him. But hey, James Bond villains have been making that mistake for 50 years!
Daredevil Houdini wing walks in The Grim Game.
Only a five-minute fragment of the 1919 feature film The Grim Game
remains. But what a fragment! In the spectacular sequence, Houdini, chasing by plane a villain who has kidnapped his sweetheart in another airplane, climbs out on the wing at 4,000 feet, then dangles from a rope to get to the cockpit of the other plane. Suddenly the planes collide and, locked together both go into a tail spin. The plane Houdini and the girl are in crashes and a horrified crowd rushes over to the smoking wreck. Out of the cloud of smoke, Houdini emerges carrying the unconscious damsel. The sequence is striking even by today’s standards. It owes its realism to the fact that the planes really DID accidentally collide! The director had the presence of mind to order the cameraman to keep rolling and, miraculously no one was killed. When the picture came out, a New York film critic enthused, “There is more excitement in one reel of The Grim Game than in any five reels of celluloid I have ever watched.”
After a spectacular rescue, Houdini gets the girl at the finale of The Grim Game.
Island natives get the better of Houdini in Terror Island.
The serial Terror Island
(1920) was just as action-packed, and gave Houdini ample opportunity to showcase his prowess as an underwater swimmer. He stars as Harry Harper, the inventor of a submarine recruited by a young woman to help her rescue her father from an uncharted island. He hopes to find sunken treasure there that can be used to care for impoverished children. Houdini must contend not only with the island’s savage cannibals but also with a gang of ruthless villains determined to get their hands on the treasure. In one memorable scene, the natives stuff the heroine in a safe and drop it over a cliff into the ocean. Houdini swims underwater from the sub, cracks the safe and rescues the girl.
“Ha, Ha! The white devil will never escape from this!”
The Man from Beyond (1922) was the only feature over which Houdini had complete creative control, and he chose to make a rather quirky and cerebral film. Indeed, his own publicity materials described it as “the weirdest and most sensational love story ever told on screen.” Houdini plays Howard Hillary, a sailor who is frozen in the Arctic for more than one hundred years then revived by explorers. He becomes convinced that a professor’s daughter is the reincarnation of his lost love. The man from the past is so obsessed he interrupts the woman’s wedding and as a result gets committed to a mental hospital—from which, of course he has no trouble escaping. The highlight of the film is a scene in which Houdini struggles in the rapids close to the edge of Niagara Falls.
Haldane of the Secret Service (1923) also features few escapes, but there are other forms of movie action galore. Houdini plays Heath Haldane, a government operative assigned to bring to justice a band of counterfeiters who murdered his father (also a Secret Service agent). Anticipating the Bond films of today, the hero is something of a globe-trotter. His quest takes him from New York’s Chinatown to London and Paris. In one of the handful of escapes, the hero tracks the gang to their lair, an old monastery where the bogus monks capture him and tie him to the spokes of a giant waterwheel.
Bound to a waterwheel, Houdini must escape or drown in Haldane of the Secret Service.
Houdini took his acting very seriously and instinctively perceived the difference between stage and screen acting. He eschewed the broad gestures that look so silly to modern audiences in favor of more subtle facial expressions. He also had a sure understanding of how to adapt his physical talents to the medium for which they were so well suited.
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