(4/10) In a nutshell: This 1919 serial starring Harry Houdini is fast-paced, action-packed and well filmed, and features the first robot in a lengthy American feature. A thin, repetitive script and mediocre acting pulls the serial down.
The Master Mystery. 1919, USA. Directed by Burton L. King & Harry Grossman. Written by Arthur B. Reeve & Charles Logue. Starring Harry Houdini, Marguerite Marsh. Cinematography: William Reisman. Produced by B.A. Rolfe for Rolfe Photoplays. IMDb score: 6.9. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
I generally don’t review serials or series on Scifist, but I make exceptions every once in a while, when I deem something important for the development of the genre, or because it is the first to showcase some specific feature of science fiction. One such exception is the 1919 Harry Houdini serial The Master Mystery. Not because it would be exceptionally good or extremely important to the science fiction genre, but because of the simple fact that it is the first lengthy American production featuring a robot (or an automaton, as it was still called back then).
The name Harry Houdini is synonymous with magic and illusion, and especially the escape act. Born as Erik Weisz in Budapest, then Austria-Hungary, his friends called him Ehrie, or Harry. He was a successful athlete who soon became interested in magic tricks. At first he didn’t even do escape acts, but specialised in card tricks (with little success). For his second stage name he took the name of one of his idols, the legendary French stage magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, by many considered to be the father of the modern conjuring act. Robert-Houdin opened a magic theatre in Paris called Theatre Robert-Houdin in the first half of the 19th century. After his death it was bought by another stage magician by the name of Georges Méliès, who in 1896 began his career as one of the greatest pioneers of cinematic history, director of science fiction movies like A Trip to the Moon (1902, review) and The Conquest of the Pole (1912, review). Theatre Robert-Houdin became one of Paris’ first theatres to show films, and Méliès also filmed some of the earliest of his films on its stage. For his own film studio, Méliès would exactly copy the measurements of the theatre stage to create his personal and stylised brand of fantastical films.
In 1907 Houdini started to show films as part of his vaudeville show, and made a few short films with arbitrary plots to show off his escape acts. Once he had become America’s best paid vaudeville act and a successful businessman, he was offered to play the lead in the 20-part sci-fi serial The Master Mystery (1919, review here), which fuelled his passion for acting, and not long after he established the Houdini Picture Corporation, which produced five films, all starring Harry Houdini, and partially written by him. The films were largely unsuccessful, as the thrill of his live acts – which were the draw of the movies – didn’t translate successfully onto the screen. The problem with doing escape acts in fictional films is that in film anything is possible. We don’t gasp with amazement when someone in a film is able to get out of a pair of handcuffs.
Hoping to capitalize on Houdini’s superstardom, producer B.A. Rolfe of Rolfe Photoplays hired him to star in a 15 piece serial called The Master Mystery. These were the early days of the film serial, and the most influential serial maker was without doubt French director Louis Feuillade, who pioneered the mystery thriller in 1913 with his legendary five-piece Fantomas, featuring a master villain specialising in elaborate disguises. This created an explosion of suspense thriller series, often with unexplained crimes and mysterious masked villains, mainly set in urban landscapes, basements, public buildings and narrow alleys, featuring cliffhangers and sudden plot twists. Feuillade further developed the genre with his 1915-1916 serial Les Vampires. Despite the name, no vampires are involved, rather it is the story of a band of mysterious, ninja-like, masked female villains and murderers terrorising Paris. The series is today considered a milestone of the cinematic mystery thriller, and it popularized the female femme fatale villain to such a degree that for a time almost every serial had to have one.
And it is in this tradition that we see The Master Mystery, primarily directed by Burton L. King. The primary writer of the series was Arthur B. Reeve, a very popular pulp mystery novel writer at the time, best known for his book series about detective Craig Kennedy. Houdini’s character Quentin Locke is basically a reworked Craig Kennedy.
Although originally close to five hours in length, the plot seems to have been jotted down on a napkin after a night at the restaurant. I must admit I have only seen about two of the remaining four hours, but I’d say that’s enough to make a pretty solid statement. One might think that if you are going to make an action-packed escapist fantasy, you could have come up with a slightly more exciting frame story than patent fraud. The bad guys run a firm that buys up inventors’ patents and suppresses the sales of said products, thus raising the price. Quentin Locke is a federal detective who has infiltrated the firm to try to indict them through anti-trust law.
As the story progresses we also get an Oliver Twist-like paternity and inheritance drama and a love triangle. But pretty soon Locke’s investigations are interrupted when he dashes off to find a cure for the mysterious poison that induces the Madagascar Madness. His investigations are hampered by a league of evil henchmen that first try to stop him, then kill him. Rather than just shoot him, they seem to have a perversion for tying him up in chains, handcuffs, barb wire, ropes, nets, in crates, below elevators, next to acid, in Chinese torture machines, electrical chairs, strait jackets, and so forth. During the first five episodes they try to drown him three times. Although guns are readily available, no-one ever figures it would be easiest to just shoot him. Indeed, this series is primarily thought up so that we can watch Houdini escape from one set of restraints after the other. As the series progresses each episode starts with Locke freeing himself from one trap, and ends with a cliffhanger of him getting caught and tied up again.
Oh, and then there is the robot. As mentioned before, this is the first outing of a robot in a lengthy American feature. The first screen robot was presented in French special effects pioneer Georges Méliès’ short film Gugusse et l’Automate in 1897 (review), and quite a few short variations had been done on the theme since. As far as I can tell, the first appearance of a robot in a feature film is the automaton Olympia in Richard Oswald’s 1916 operatic horror/fantasy melodrama The Tales of Hoffmann (review). The first feature film robot that actually looked like a robot was presented two years after The Master Mystery in the Italian film The Mechanical Man.
The robot in The Master Mystery is called Q the Automaton, and frankly looks to be made out of a 10 gallon drum for hips, air ventilation ducts for the body, and a a bucket for a head, with large glued-on comic book eyes. The fact that he has a smiley-face cut out of the bucket doesn’t make him less cute, lumbering jollily around the film, even making small victory dances when he has taken out some good guys.
The series itself rests pretty much on Harry Houdini. As the anonymous reviewer of the British Fim Institute writes: ”Houdini was not your usual leading man material – short, woolly-haired, compactly built with an impressively large head and an intense, brow-knitted expression that almost never relaxed – yet he managed to overcome his odd appearance and mannerisms through sheer personal magnetism. You can’t take your eyes off him.”
Alongside the film Terror Island (1920), The Master Mystery is considered Houdini’s best screen work, probably owing to the fact that he didn’t write it himself. And he seems to be better suited for the short format of the serial, where he can frequently show off his amazing physical prowess (he was a veritable body-builder) as well as his amazing escape skills. This serial is also superbly well directed when compared to the turkey that was The Man from Beyond (strangely enough made by the same director). In that film his escape acts were often flatly filmed from a distance, without any flair for the dramatic. In this series the escapes are kinetic, well filmed, supremely edited and filled with energy and action (Houdini did occasionally use stunt doubles throughout his short film career, although he naturally never admitted to it). The camerawork is extremely well done as a whole, as Raymond Owen of PopMatters puts it: [Cinematographer William] 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 series was very popular, but ultimately its biggest flaw is the erratic and flimsy plot, that sometimes gets lost for entire episodes. This feeling of confusion is added to by the fact that some reels are missing, although this is made up for with explanatory title cards. Not that the plot matters much. Indeed, the action also becomes increasingly repetitive when viewed in one sitting, although it probably worked a lot better as a cinema serial. The acting is generally stereotypical and mediocre, and none of the characters, apart from Locke, stand out. A minus is also dished out by me for portraying Africans and Chinese through white actors with black- and yellowfaces. Yes, I know it was the norm back then, but still not OK. There are also a few racist undertones to the portrayal of the Chinese.
As a whole, a well filmed and enjoyable action serial with a few spectacular escape acts and a kinetic Houdini, but ultimately the plot is too thin and repetitive. Although he can not be faulted for not trying, Houdini never became the movie star he aspired to be. Raymond Owen concludes: ”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. ”
The Master Mystery. 1919, USA. Directed by Burton L. King & Harry Grossman. Written by Arthur B. Reeve & Charles Logue. Starring Harry Houdini, Marguerite Marsh, Ruth Stonehouse, Edna Britton, William Pike, Charles Graham, Floyd Buckley, Jack Burns. Cinematography: William Reisman. Houdini’s stunt double: Bob Rose. Produced by B.A. Rolfe for Rolfe Photoplays.