(2/10) Harry Houdini is frozen in ice for a hundred years, and is too busy longing for love and escaping from danger to realise it is no longer 1820, but 1922. Houdini is charismatic, but the film derivative, and the escape acts don’t transfer well to the screen.
The Man from Beyond. 1922, USA. Director: Burton L. King. Written by: Harry Houdini, Coolidge Streeter. Starring: Harry Houdini, Nita Naldi. Produced by Harry Houdini. IMDb score: 5.6. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore. N/A.
Nearly every living human being knows the name Harry Houdini, the world’s most legendary escape artist. Less known is the fact that Houdini was also something of an action hero during the latter silent film era. 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 the Hungarian magician 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), 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.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the 1922 film The Man from Beyond – Houdini’s second and last foray into sci-fi, is wholly without interest. As far as I can tell, this film, which is his best remembered movie, is the first feature film that depicts the theory of cryonics – that a human being can be frozen for an infinite amount of time and then awakened hundreds of years later without having aged a day.
In the movie Houdini – or Howard Hillary as his character is called – is found in a ship that froze in the Arctic a hundred years ago – and it is now 1922. Hillary is perfectly preserved in a block of ice. In a painfully long sequence, the explorers chip away the ice, warm him by the fire – and lo and behold – he wakes up and starts rambling about someone called Felice. She was a fellow passenger on the ship, that he fell in love with.
Back in the States Hillary doesn’t realise he has been asleep for a hundred years. This is where the film starts getting silly. All the way until the final third of the film Hillary believes it is 1820. He apparently doesn’t realise that there are no horses pulling the cars that shuttles him around, or that there seems to be electricity everywhere, that everybody wears strange clothes and that basically the whole world has had a complete make-over.
But of course this facade must be maintained for the basic premise of the film to work. What happens is, basically, that he meets Felice’s doppelgänger, who also happens to be called Felice (Jane Connelly), and is convinced she is his girlfriend. The only problem is that he meets her at her own wedding to another man and starts raving. Felice is, naturally, the descendant of Felice, and she is blackmailed into marrying a rich and shady man in return for him helping her to find her father who has been kidnapped.
The thriller element is very standard fare, stiffly acted, badly explained and not very interesting. There is also the love story between Felice and Hillary, which is also pretty basic melodrama fare, ending in a strange conclusion about reincarnation. What this film is really about, though, is Houdini climbing walls, escaping from a torture chamber, getting into fisticuffs and replicating one of his most famous acts – escaping the Niagara Falls.
The problem is that in a fictional setting Houdini’s real-life escape acts come off as unimpressive. The famous Niagara Falls escape is basically shots of Houdini swimming around and he never seems to be in any real danger of going over. Most of the things in the film were already being done by actors like Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks, but with special effects and a lot more inspired filming and directing – where one could actually feel a sense of danger and thrill. Danger and thrill is exactly what is missing from this film. What Houdini has done is basically surrounded himself with passable bit part actors and industry professionals, that pull off a passable thriller-melodrama with sci-fi elements. Houdini is charismatic as always, but no great actor. But the sheer physicality of his presence brings a bit of magic to the film. One fun exception from the mediocrity is that one of the bit parts is played by Nita Naldi, one of the silent eras most famous vamps. She got her breakthrough playing opposite John Barrymore in the famous (and one of the best to this day) version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1920 (review). She is famous for appearing in several films with Rudolph Valentino, in particular the 1922 blockbuster Blood and Sand, as well as in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923), and in Alfred Hitchcock’s second film as a director, The Mountain Eagle (1926).
The draw of the film, beside Houdini, for science fiction fans is naturally that it is the first feature film to display the theory of cryonics, albeit in a rather unscientific manner. The idea of suspended animation has long literary and indeed mythological roots, being present in so-called King in the mountain stories (Holger Danske, King Arthur, etc) as well as fairy-tales like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. In the 18th and 19th century there was a fad with both utopian and dystopian novels. Some authors, like Louis Sebastien Mercier, Mary Griffith and Edward Bellamy used suspended animation as a literary necessity in order to allow their protagonists/narrators to travel into the future, and describe the changed society. Many of these works were mainly philosophical or political in nature and make for rather dreary reading today for an audience that is quite removed from many of the social and indeed theological problems ponder two hundred or three hundred years ago. As a sort of inverted history reading they are fascinating, though.
However, the idea of cryonics is a fairly modern one, that started gathering steam in the late 19th century, with W. Clark Russell’s The Frozen Pirate and Louis Boussenard’s 10,000 Years in a Block of Ice – both describing the same sort of accidental cryonics featured in The Man from Beyond. But unfortunately Houdini doesn’t do anything remotely interesting with the premise of a man waking up 100 years later. As mentioned earlier, for most of the film Hillary doesn’t even acknowledge the fact that he’s been sleeping for a century. In fact, the main point of the cryonic theme seems to be one of convenience, so that Houdini can plug his theory of reincarnation, a theory that he firmly believed in himself. While he vehemently denounced all forms of spiritualism and didn’t subscribe to the idea of transmigration of souls, Houdini is quoted as saying that he “firmly believe[d] that we can carry on, as it were, through another lifetime, perhaps through many lifetimes, until our allotted destiny is worked out to its fullest solution”.
It is somewhat odd that Houdini should be a defender of the idea of reincarnation, as he was otherwise a fierce skeptic who battled spiritualists and their promoters without mercy. In one scene in the film, Hillary can be seen reading a book about mediums written by author Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes, The Lost World). Doyle was a devout believer in spiritualism and the supernatural, and was once famously fooled by photographs of cut-out cardboard faeries by a stream. Houdini, on the other hand, was very much the James Randi of his time, and doggedly exposed self-proclaimed mediums and psychics for the charlatans they were. He even wrote a book slamming his idol and inspiration Robert-Houdin for publicly claiming to have psychic abilities. Many of his stage routines included numbers that showed how self-proclaimed psychics did their tricks. Houdini and Doyle were very close friends, but despite this they debated the issue of spiritualism actively both in private and in public, and the differences in opinion on the subject gradually put a strain on the relationship. Doyle became ever more convinced of the supernatural after losing his wife, and by and by Houdini became more and more opposed to spiritualism, to the point that he took the matter to congress.
Houdini introduced a bill that would make it illegal for “any person pretending to tell fortunes for reward or compensation” in the District of Columbia, and that would slap mediums with a fine for 250 dollars or six months in prison. As it was rumoured that Washington politicians regularly sought the advice of mediums and fortune-tellers, Houdini saw the practice not only as a fraud intended to relieve the gullible of their money, but as a threat to the nation. The four-day hearing was a media sensation, as a small army of mediums and spiritualists turned up in defence of their practice, and in the course of the hearings some spiritualists started naming names of politicians that had consulted them, in an attempt to strengthen their cause. Things turned ugly when one famous spiritualist publicly admitted that she had held seances for sitting president Calvin Coolidge’s predecessor Warren G. Harding, a president that caused a number of scandals, and that Coolidge had worked hard to denounce. In fact, the said Madame Marcia had been the spiritual adviser of Harding’s wife, and rumours had it that Coolidge’s wife had “inherited” her, so to speak. While Houdini privately believed that Coolidge had, in fact, been present at seances at he White House during his time as president, he realised the whole thing was spiralling out of control in the media and backed off from the president. He based his belief on the findings that his investigator, Rose Mackenberg, had turned up.
Most lawmakers found the whole business rather amusing, and thought that Houdini was taking the issue way too seriously, and countered with snide remarks about the belief in Santa Claus and fairies not having toppled the country into chaos. Other politicians openly defended the work of astrologers and mediums, admitting to having consulted them frequently. The hearing turned into a debacle as spiritualists started hurling insults at Houdini, and Houdini produced evidence after evidence both incriminating the psychics and disproving their claims. At the end of the hearing he produced an envelope with 10,000 dollars in cash, saying he would give it to any psychic who could give him actual proof of their powers. Madame Marcia stood up and said the money belonged to her, as she had predicted both Harding’s election and his death. This did not convince Houdini.
In the end Houdini’s bill didn’t pass congress, but he did manage to turn public opinion against spiritualism. Houdini’s battle against spiritualism may in fact have been the result of his beliefs in the fact that an eternal soul would in some form or other live on. There’s some proof that Houdini at least at some point in his life had held the belief that one could communicate with spirits, and according to his wife, the couple made a promise to try and contact the other if one of them died. Bess Houdini held up her end of the bargain after Harry died suddenly of a ruptured appendicitis on Halloween 1926. She held seances for three years, without success. The mediums muttered that Harry’s spirit was simply being obstinate in order to prove them wrong. There’s a claim that Madame Marcia had in fact predicted that Houdini would die within the year 1926, but I leave it up to you to decide its truthfulness.
Harry Houdini was actually connected with cinema long before he started acting. 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, directing sci-fi classics like A Trip to the Moon (1902, review), The Impossible Voyage (1904, review) and 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 stylized brand of fantastical films.
Harry Houdini was one of the greatest illusionists and stage performers in history, and especially good at creating a buzz around his persona. Like Georges Méliès, he understood how the power of film could be utilised in magic, and perhaps even more so, in promotion. But where Méliès used his skill as an illusionist to enhance the medium of film and create new illusions that were only possible in the movies, Houdini simply used film to promote his stage routine. When Méliés detached his head from his body and put it on a table, we knew it wasn’t possible in real life. The thrill comes seeing the impossible made possible on screen. When Houdini gets out of a strait-jacket on film, we know he does it routinely in real life. We know it requires great skill, but we also know that there is no real danger to Houdini. The thugs are all actors and he can shout “cut” if he has a problem.
The clash between reality and fiction takes us out of the illusion of film, and while we know on an intellectual level that what he does is actually impressive, it doesn’t ring true emotionally – there’s no element of suspense or thrill on a level of fiction in seeing a stage performer doing a routine stunt in front of the cameras – a stunt that would probably impress us if it was filmed as a documentary. But it is this line between document and fiction that Houdini doesn’t grasp, while Méliès grasped it perfectly. Méliès‘ trick films were presented in a documentary style, with seemingly one single take in which people would disappear and reappear in thin air, body parts would shrink or inflate, duplicate or transform. In his narrative films, his tricks were presented as real magic in a fictional universe, the universe of film and fairy-tale.
At the other end of the spectrum we have performers like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, who did stuff on film that were actually potentially fatal, atop moving trains, planes and automobiles, on rooftops, construction sites, off cliffs, etc. Some of them were naturally staged with effects and safety measures, others were just what they looked like. When Lloyd hangs on to a moving railway car or runs atop of a train, he is doing just that. If Buster Keaton hadn’t placed himself just right where that famous window would be, he would have been crushed by a falling wall. And it is also the moments when Houdini shows of his physical prowess that are most impressive in The Man from Beyond, such as when he effortlessly climbs up a wall. Because in these moments we actually feel afraid for the performer Houdini, whereas we do not when he is getting out of a set of chains on a film set. Had the performer been anyone else than Houdini, the strait-jacket scenes might have been suspenseful, as we would have identified with a fictional character and not with Houdini, the master of getting out of strait-jackets. In a way, because of his fame, Houdini kills his own film.
The odd choice for the leading lady in this film is Jane Connelly, who isn’t especially good, but neither especially bad. The ultimate Harry Houdini website, Wild About Harry, writes this about Connelly: “We still know almost nothing about Jane Connelly — who played Felice Strange and her past life incarnation, Felice Norcross — except that she was born on May 2, 1883 in Port Huron, Michigan, and died on October 25, 1925 in Los Angeles. She only made one other appearance in a film, Sherlock Jr., for which she was uncredited. Even more perplexing is that Connelly was 38 when she was cast in The Man From Beyond, which made her an unlikely starlet in the silent era which saw ingenues as young as 15.”
The website does mention that in the press folio for the film, there’s a rather interesting explanation for the choice of Connelly: the press release claims that Houdini was so adamant at getting the right look for the psychic character that he created a composite image of a number of well-known psychics, and chose Connelly for her stunning likeness. The website concludes: “Or maybe she was just willing to work cheap and didn’t mind getting wet.”
However, the mystery of Jane Connelly isn’t necessarily all the mysterious. If you do a little digging around the internet it turns out that Connelly and her husband Erwin Connelly were well-known vaudeville artists in the early twenties, running a vaudeville group called Jane Connely & Co, especially known for sketches like A Cup of Tea and Foolish Wives. And since illusionists and escapists were basically vaudeville acts themselves, they would often play the same venues and crowds, and were bound to bump into each other. So the most obvious explanation for her appearance in the film is that she and Houdini were friends, and Houdini thought she would be good for the part. That’s probably the same reason her other film appearance was in a Buster Keaton movie, Keaton being another former vaudeville star. Connelly died young in 1925, according to obituaries because of a nervous breakdown. Her husband passed away in a car accident in 1921.
Plus the fact that the film fails to do anything with its interesting time-travel premise, a huge opportunity lost. The film is, however, one if the earlier examples of the same “reincarnated loved one” trope that gained traction in films with Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), and that was then applied to the mummy tradition with Karl Freund’s original The Mummy (1932). But the film has no Browning and no Freund, no Karloff and not even Lugosi. The story is trite, illogical and schematic. The filming is flat and the acting uninspired. The always charismatic Houdini huffs and puffs his way through the film and Nita Naldi does what she can with her non-descript role. Naldi was still an up-and-comer when this picture was released in April 1922, and still probably grabbed what roles she could get. She had worked previously with director Burton L. King on her second film The Common Sin. Just a few months later, in August, she would become an enigmatic superstar thanks to her sizzling performance opposite Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand.
Director Burton L. King was a former actor turned director around 1912, who spent the first years of his directing career in the fledgling Hollywood doing most short westerns , until D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation more or less killed off the short film in 1915. By that time he had been picked up by major company Metro, that later merged into MGM, and was put in charge of guiding the young British star Olga Petrova (real name Muriel Harding). He made around a dozen melodramas starring Petrova, who became one of the first vamps of Hollywood, and some of these films were quite successful. But for reasons unknown, King was dumped by Metro. Fortunately he was picked up by Harry Houdini’s own production company to direct the serial The Master Mystery (review) in 1919, and that same year made what is considered to be his best film – the war movie The Lost Battallion, starring actual soldiers from WWI. Both were successful productions, and enabled King to start his own film company. However, he was never able to recreate the success of his Houdini production or The Lost Battallion, and slogged away doing trite melodramas with eye-catching titles such as The Truth About Women, The Discarded Woman, Playthings of Desire, Satan and the Woman and The House of Shame.
These films were cheap and have left little mark on cinema history, but were successful enough to keep the company afloat until the beginning of the talkies. King was set up for the change, and had already founded a sister-company called Audible Pictures, and in order to make a big entrance on the new stage, he hired ageing movie star Henry B. Walthall, the principal star of The Birth of a Nation, to star in the western In Old California (1929). The result was a resounding dud, which more or less finished off King’s company. After this King formed alliances here and there, and he spent the thirties as a journeyman director and producer for Poverty Row studios in Hollywood. One of his most lasting partners was actor-director and western specialist J.P. McGowan, with whom he made what they both thought would be a great success, When Lightning Strikes (1934), a film about super-dog Lightning. It wasn’t. Still, it is among his best remembered films today, thanks to its canine would-be star. He made his last film, as production manager, in 1938.
In a way The Man from Beyond sits well with the rest of King’s production. I’m giving it a rather brutal two stars out of ten, considering it is one of his best known and most well-regarded films. In a way this says all you really need to know about King as a director and producer. It isn’t that the film is particularly flawed or badly made: you might say that there isn’t anything particularly wrong with it. But in that same breath you’d have to admit that there isn’t anything particularly right with it either. It commits the cardinal sin of being absolutely boring. Give me a Robot Monster (1953) over this film any day.
I’d like to give a shout-out to David Lewis at WVXU Cincinnati for providing most of the information about King that I list above in his program Around Cincinnati, and Alicia Puglionesi at the always superb Atlas Obscura for insight into the Houdini spiritualism hearings.
The Man from Beyond. 1922, USA. Director: Burton L. King. Written by: Harry Houdini, Coolidge Streeter. Starring: Harry Houdini, Nita Naldi, Jane Connelly, Arthur Maude, Albert Tavernier, Erwin Connelly, Luis Alberni, Yale Brenner. Cinematography by: Louis Dunmyre. Stunts: Bob Rose. Produced by Harry Houdini for Houdini Picture Corporation.