Films of Harry Houdini – The Master Mystery (1919)
Cast: Harry Houdini as Quentin Locke
Marguerite Marsh as Eva Brent (Intolerance)
Floyd Buckley as Q the Automaton
Written by Arthur B. Reeve & Charles Logue
Directed by Harry Grossman & Burton L. King
Plot: Harry Houdini stars as Quentin Locke, a Justice Department agent who is undercover and investigating a powerful group. Over the course of 15 chapters, Locke has one encounter after another, resulting in him being captured and put into a wide assortment of impossible-to-escape scenarios. Along the way, there is romance with Eva Brent, a robot (referred to as an automaton), and a mysterious gas weapon known as the “Madagascar Madness.”
Personal Thoughts and Trivia: Harry Houdini’s transition to film star was easy and done primarily out of financial necessity. Houdini’s act was beginning to need a boost and bringing his exploits to film was a natural progression. It was just a matter of finding the right film. Houdini got the acting bug as early as 1901 after appearing in The Marvelous Exploits of Houdini in Paris. With a very loose plot, it is mostly Houdini appearing as himself breaking out of a straitjacket and a prison cell after being arrested for breaking up a fight between a drunk and a policeman. While very simplistic, it was effective. Unfortunately, the film is now considered lost. Two more films of his escapes were released in 1907 and 1909. While not necessarily scripted presentations, all three films showed that Houdini could be a film star.
Houdini considered himself as much more than an escape artist. Films would be a way for him to display his other talents, including inventing and criminology. He also had an interest in the supernatural, a passion he shared with author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When it came time to move forward with a film role, Houdini opted to control the production rather than turn it over to someone else. This resulted in the formation of the Octagon Film Corporation and Houdini’s first true film, The Master Mystery.
The Master Mystery was a 15-chapter serial that originally ran more than 5 ½ hours. However, with several chapters now incomplete and two chapters missing altogether, the running time is now just under four hours. Chapter one debuted on Jan. 6, 1919, in a sold-out 3,000 seat Proctors Theatre in Yonkers, New York. It received rave reviews but questions of embezzlement caused some distribution issues. Houdini would eventually sue his partners for $43,000, just one of several lawsuits which forced Octagon into bankruptcy.
Some five years later, the film was still going through distribution. However, the newly-formed Censor Board would now no longer approve of some of the content previously seen. Multiple scenes were removed, including several Houdini escapes involving barbed wire, neck strangulation, an electric chair and acid. All were deemed to be possible to incite crime. Scenes of forced kissing and a fake marriage were also removed. Thankfully, much of this still exists and has since been restored.
The Master Mystery suffers from a weak and sometimes convoluted script. It is far too long and is best seen with breaks, which is how it was originally intended. All of the escape scenes with Houdini are amazing to watch but the moments in between can be a bit of a chore to go through. However, I do recommend you watch for the pure historical nature of the content and pleasure of watching Houdini perform.
The Kino Video presentation is incredible for the age. Missing chapters or segments are described through on-screen title cards. While most of the film looks great, some parts suffer from nitrate damage. But, the fact they still exist at all helps overshadow the poor visuals. All that said, this was a good start in the cinematic world for Harry Houdini.