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Kino on Video presents
Houdini the Movie Star (1919-1923)

"After all you have escaped from, I wonder if anything can ever hold you."
- Eva Brent (Marguerite Marsh) in The Master Mystery

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: April 08, 2008

Stars: Harry Houdini, Marguerite Marsh, Lila Lee, Jane Connelly, Gladys Leslie
Other Stars: Charles E. Graham, Jack Burns, Ruth Stonehouse, William Pike, Edna Britton, Irving Brooks, Jack Brammall, Eugene Pallette, Wilton Taylor, Edward Brady, Rosemary Theby, Nita Naldi, William Humphrey, Richard Carlysle
Director: Burton L. King, James Cruze, Harry Houdini

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (thematic material, violence, drug references)
Run Time: 07h:30m:41s
Release Date: April 08, 2008
UPC: 738329056322
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- BB+B+ B+

DVD Review

Escape artist and magician Harry Houdini was one of the hottest tickets in vaudeville. Never content to rest on his laurels, however, Houdini was always alert for something new to increase his fame and fortune. One of the tactics he tried was the early movie industry. One of his escapes was filmed as early as 1901, though that appears to be lost. As the narrative feature film and the serial began to take hold, Houdini tested the waters with a series of dramatic roles. This set collects virtually all of Houdini's surviving film appearances, though only one is known to exist in complete form. Kino has done what they can to fill in the blanks with varying degrees of success.

The Master Mystery (1919) 3h:39m:01s
"That candlestick is the cause of the Madagascar Madness!
--Quentin Locke (Harry Houdini)

Houdini's first theatrical effort was a serial from the creator of The Exploits of Elaine. The serial form was well suited to Houdini's talents, since he would invariably end each episode in some inextricable predicament, from which the audience could see him escape the next week. The story centers on Houdini as Quentin Locke, undercover antitrust investigator for the Department of Justice, who has infiltrated the International Patents Co., run by Peter Brent (Jack Burns) and Herbert Balcom (Charles E. Graham). This firm buys up patents to suppress technology for its own mysterious ends. When Brent starts to get a conscience, Balcom arranges for him to succumb to a laughing madness. Soon Brent's daughter Eva (Marguerite Marsh) is in danger as well, and her sweetheart, Locke, must fight to protect her while Balcom's gang of thugs attempt repeatedly to kill him in various deathtraps. Among the items at their disposal is Q the Automaton (several years before R.U.R. would make "robot" a household word).

The full fifteen-chapter serial originally ran over five and one-half hours; large chunks of five or six episodes are now lost so the running time is about four hours all told. There are explanatory text screens that make one impatient for some splendid stunt work that has vanished to decomposition over the years (though one involving a steaming vat of acid can be found tucked away in the bonus materials) The missing footage doesn't help matters any since some characters (notably De Luxe Dora, played by Edna Britton) seem to be important but never actually do much of anything. Even in the surviving portions, the editing is peculiar enough that it's difficult to follow the film at times. The performances range from bland to wooden, though Ruth Stonehouse as Zita Dane, Brent's treacherous secretary acquits herself reasonably well. But the main attraction is certainly Houdini's escape work, and he does some fun and interesting stunts that show off his prodigious strength and abilities pretty well. One scene that purportedly features him wrapped in barbed wire, however, is clearly a fake (the barbed wire never so much as snags his clothing), making one wonder just how much of the escapes are accomplished through cinematic trickery rather than Houdini's skills. Serials were never meant to be watched in one sitting, and the tedium of the story and the repetition becomes highly tiresome even in this somewhat abbreviated form.

Terror Island (1920) 00h:55m:06s
Whatever gave you the idea that I would have dealings with a crook?
--Harry Harper (Harry Houdini)

Houdini's second feature was probably his best. Directed by veteran James Cruze, it offers some decent thrills though the acting is still iffy. At least there's a decent adventure story and a brisk pace. Houdini stars as philanthropist/inventor Harry Harper, who has invented an undersea boat designed to salvage wrecks. When he learns of the Hawk, a ship sunk during the Great War while carrying diamonds from South Africa, he yearns to test out his invention. The chance comes his way with Beverly West (Lila Lee), who has come into the possession of a map to the Hawk, and who also wants to rescue her father who has been taken prisoner by savages who mean to sacrifice him if their skull-shaped pearl is not returned to them. But her nasty uncle and cousin Guy (Eugene Pallette) and Job Mordaunt (Wilton Taylor) mean to steal the map and get the diamonds for themselves. Along the way the savages of the South Seas are both greedy and determined to have their sacrifice one way or another.

There are several witty turns in this feature, and the device of the undersea boat is put to reasonably good use. The loss of two reels is lamentable since the first section hardly seems related to the latter portion. There are some very effective compositions on view, such as the sight of Beverly surrounded by spears as the natives force her into a safe to be thrown into the ocean. There's also some interesting underwater photography. Unfortunately, most of Houdini's escape work came in the missing reels.

The Man from Beyond (1922) 01h:07m:00s
Uncle says you are from the great beyond, of which we know very little, and that yours is the strangest case on record."
Felice (Jane Connelly)

During the course of the 1920s, Houdini became increasingly interested in spiritualism, life after death and reincarnation. These interests are reflected in The Man from Beyond, a strange little yarn that has long been the most accessible of Houdini's films. Although originally seven reels in length, it was condensed down to six, and it is only this shorter version that survives.

Houdini stars as Howard Hillary, a man frozen in the Arctic in 1821 and revived a century later. Brought back to civilization, without being informed of the lapse of time, Hillary disrupts the marriage of Felice Strange (Jane Connelly), believing her to be his lost love Felice Norcross. Hillary's claims get him not only committed to an insane asylum, but charged with the murder of Felice Strange's father. Of course, being Houdini, he cannot be held in either place long.

This picture doesn't have a very good reputation, though it does offer some fun sequences. The most notable of these are a bit of Houdini as a human fly clambering up and down buildings as he makes his escape from the asylum, and a thrilling climax as he attempts to save Felice from going over Niagara Falls. The editing-down process seems to have done quite a bit of harm to the picture, since it doesn't flow very well, and although only Nita Naldi gets a character credit, she's barely in the film.

The Grim Game (1919) 5m:38s

Houdini's first feature film is believed to exist today only as a 5m clip of footage. Originally intended to be a rescue between two biplanes, in the process the two planes collided and plummeted to the ground. Houdini maximized the publicity value by claiming that it was he on the plane, although it was actually a stunt man.

Haldane of the Secret Service (1923) 01h:23m:56s
"You mean that someone in there has just been shot?"
--Heath Haldane (Harry Houdini)

Houdini's final film is certainly odd in that it features almost no escapes of any kind; the one threat it offers (Houdini lashed to the spinning water wheel of a mill) is resolved when the wheel comes off. Perhaps this was an indication of Houdini's growing dissatisfaction with his escape work and desire not to continue doing the same things over and over. Unfortunately for him, that's exactly what his public wanted, and this picture was a dismal failure.

Heath Haldane (Houdini) of the Secret Service is on the trail of a counterfeiting ring. The track leads to young Adele Ormsby (Gladys Leslie) who seems entirely innocent, but also involves a stolen Chinese idol, a mysteriously cancelled wedding, narcotics smuggling and the nefarious Dr. Yu, a shadowy criminal genius plainly based on Dr. Fu Manchu. It's regrettable that Houdini wasn't a better actor, because he can't really pull off the role. The best part of the movie is Leslie's wide-eyed ingenue, who is appealing enough to make this at least vaguely watchable. Politically incorrect content is the order of the day.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Many of these films survive only in single prints, so the source print quality will be haphazard at best. Spots, scuffs, flicker and various issues are common, but cannot be held against the disc producers in any serious way. The transfers are more than adequate, with no sign of ghosting or artifacting. Some of the films, such as The Master Mystery and Terror Island have quite nice greyscale and texture present; Man from Beyond exists only in 16mm and accordingly is lacking in detail and tends to be contrasty. On the whole, the quality of the other pictures is a shade above the usual silent film material.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(music only)no

Audio Transfer Review: Stuart Oderman's piano score for The Master Mystery sounds rather thin; like the serial it supports it tends to be rather repetitive and frequently it doesn't support the main action terribly well. Clark Wilson offers a solid organ score for Terror Island that has nice resonance. Jon C. Mirsalis' excellent piano score for The Man from Beyond is the best-recorded of the selections here, with nice immediacy and presence. Finally, the synth scores by Ben Model for The Grim Game fragment and Haldane sound adequate and are at least imaginative.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 48 cues and remote access
Production Notes
12 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Boxed Set
Picture Disc
3 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Image galleries
  2. Short film Slippery Jim (1910)
  3. Audio of Houdini
Extras Review: Kino has assembled a very nice set of extras to complement these films. Disc producer Bret Wood contributes a lengthy set of production notes across the three DVDs, which give a good overview of Houdini's cinematic career. They also solve once and for all the mystery of The Soul of Bronze (1921), a film often erroneously included in Houdini's filmographies, but which doesn't in fact feature him at all. Most of the movies also have their own image gallery, featuring posters, stills, lobby cards and glass slides galore.

Several of Houdini's pictures ran into censorship trouble; The Master Mystery on its 1924 rerelease in particular had to be heavily cut in order to mollify the New York state censor, and in the process virtually all of the escape work had to be removed or snipped. A 6m:12s featurette explains the cuts demanded while showing clips of the cut material where it still exists. A text version of the censor report for Man from Beyond is also included, prominently featuring a ludicrous demand from the New York state hospitals that a disclaimed be added that straitjackets were no longer in use in their insane asylums (never mind substantial evidence to the contrary).

Disc 3 offers more Houdini footage, with eleven escapes from the period 1907 to about 1923 being documented. There's also a performance of one of Houdini's more celebrated tricks, Metamorphosis by his brother Haldeen. The French short comedy Slippery Jim (1910) is based on Houdini's escapes and is modestly entertaining. Finally, after seeing so much silent Houdini, you might be interested in hearing his voice. Kino cooperates by reproducing the audio of a 1914 wax cylinder recording made by Edison of Houdini introducing one of his tricks, which demonstrates that Houdini appropriately enough sounded rather like a carnival barker. It's a gratifying package that rounds out the set very nicely.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

While Houdini wasn't exactly a thespian, and his choice of scripts was lamentable, viewers will most likely be interested in his escapes, and there's plenty of material on display here. It seems Kino has collected virtually all the film of the magician in one handy set for the historical record, and the transfer is solid even if some of the source materials are less-than-pristine.


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