Houdini: The Movie Star
DVD | Box Set
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By the year 1919, Harry Houdini was known throughout the world as a master magician and escape artist. Having conquered the stage, he set out to rule the screen, appearing in a series of thrillers built upon his almost supernatural powers. Culled from film archives and private collections, this Kino DVD set includes all of Houdini s suriving films as an actor, rare footage of actual handcuff and straitjacket escapes, and a wealth of historical information. Includes: THE MASTER MYSTERY (1919, 238m, Color Tinted) TERROR ISLAND (1920, 55m, B&W) THE MAN FROM BEYOND (1922, 68m, Color Tinted) HALDANE OF THE SECRET SERVICE (1923, 84m, Color Tinted) THE GRIM GAME (Fragment, 1919, 5m, Color Tinted) - SPECIAL FEATURES INCLUDE: Filmed records of Houdini escapes (ca. 1907-23) - Audio recording of Houdini speaking (1914) - Excerpts from the NY Censor Board files - Slippery Jim, a 1910 Houdini-inspired comedy - The illusion Metamorphosis performed by Houdini s brother Hardeen and others.
- Filmed records of Houdini escapes
- Audio recording of Houdini speaking
- Excerpts from the NY Censor Board files
- The illusion "Metamorphosis" performed by Houdini's brother Hardeen
- Multiple Image Galleries
- New film notes
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For the first time in the lives of American Baby Boomers, we can see Houdini's entire, surviving legacy on film.
This is one heck of a story!
It starts with a little Jewish immigrant named Erich Weiss, the son of a rabbi -- who, even when he reached adulthood, stood 5-foot-5. At the height of his powers, dressed immaculately in suit and tie with the air of a college professor or perhaps a famous doctor -- "Harry Houdini" loved to stage public displays of his powers in the busy streets just outside major newspaper offices.
He liked to work with tall policemen, who would tower over him as they threw him into these dangerous scrapes. Seeing Houdini's little, noble form with his wise, highly cultured face set off by his perfectly knotted ties -- it is quite a jolt to watch these big bruisers encircle him. They actually toss him to and fro as they pull the restraints as tightly as possible around his body.
This all contributes to the awesome wonder of Houdini's escapes.
Yes, it's true: Houdini also was famous as a magician and everyone knew that his theatrical shows were illusions. There's a little of that in this set, but not much.
It was Houdini's amazing physical accomplishments on land, in the air and under water -- real, life-and-death threats to the man himself -- that made him world famous.
Those accomplishments include his cinematic career. These films display Houdini at the peak of his power, shaped by his sheer force of will, physical training, personal charisma and a clever understanding of the psychology of his foes.
Remember that Houdini died in 1926, before the "sound era" in Hollywood. So all of these films are silent (with musical scores, of course). And the longest film really is a nearly forgotten genre: the weekly serial.
If you've never seen a Hollywood serial, then you're in for a treat. They weren't called "cliff hangers" for nothing! The genre later was perfected through the 1930s and 1940s until it eventually spilled over into network television series. It's the concept behind the hugely popular "Indiana Jones" and "Star Wars" series.
In this Houdini collection, the 1919 serial "Master Mystery" clocks in at nearly four hours for all of the serialized episodes. And, it's a great showcase for Houdini's physical abilities.
If you're a real Houdini buff, fascinated with his later work on debunking psychics while also exploring life after death, then "The Man from Beyond" is a revelation. It's a story of a man, entirely frozen in ice in a ship-board disaster, who many years later is discovered, revived, brought back to civilization -- and must come to terms with this strange transformation beyond death itself. Houdini clearly put a lot of creative effort into this film, including beautifully designed title cards. But, frankly, it's a little slow sledding for modern viewers. There's more mature artistry here - less Houdini-style action.
The gem here - and you'll need to get past the early-Hollywood convention of picking exotic-looking minority groups as stock villains - is "Terror Island." This is a rare feature film, some of which is missing and is replaced by explanatory text - but what's been preserved is stunning. Houdini plays a close-to-superhuman scientist who performs amazing feats under water, suspended in the air, high on a mountain - and winds up both marrying the true-hearted girl and helping orphans as well.
Perhaps the most haunting footage in the entire set is a series of film clips of Houdini's public escapes. If you're a teacher or student interested in 20th-Century cultural history, those clips alone are worth the price of the set.
These have been all but lost to most movie goers for nearly a century. Now that Kino has brought them back to life so vividly - and conveniently - for all of us, it's a must-own set for those of us who love cinema. And, in this case, the haunting story behind Houdini and these films should fuel a lot of intriguing discussion.
Intending to capitalize on his fame as an escapist, his first film venture featured such escape stunts prominently, namely in almost every episode of the 15-part serial, "The Master Mystery". Missing a few episodes, it is still four hours worth of viewing in this set and has explanatory notes to fill the gaps, as well as excellent general notes about Houdini and his career, stills and other great bonus material. The serial is not unlike the action-packed adventure serials popular at that time, such as "The Perils of Pauline" in which the hero or heroine must get out of a dangerous situation in every episode until the mystery of the criminal masterminds is finally solved. In "The Master Mystery", Houdini tries to solve a criminal case, but is repeatedly caught and then either wrapped in barbed wire, tied into an electric chair and many other tight situations, as well as being stalked by a dangerous robot or `automaton'. Needless to say, he frees himself from every such evil and torturous device with apparently sheer determination, together with considerable physical strength and dexterity, rather than any special effect or trickery.
After the success of this serial in 1919, Houdini played very similar straight-faced action hero roles in feature films, solving crimes and mysteries and getting the girl in the end. While generally standard action-adventure films, each one is different and features a certain interesting theme, such as "The Man from Beyond" which I found most intriguing for its concept about coming back to life in another time. In this setting, Houdini has been frozen in a shipwreck in the Arctic for a hundred years, but is brought back to life and finds a girl he believes is the reincarnation of his beloved from a century ago. There are also special, thrilling stunts and action scenes, once again highlighting Houdini's escapism feats. The last film Houdini made, "Haldane of the Secret Service" had less stunts and feats, and emphasized the story of a clever counterfeiting racket which Houdini is determined to solve while also winning the girl. Although standard fare, the films are all entertaining and interesting, and each one has a different musical score; piano, organ or orchestral, with overall good picture quality throughout. Houdini himself may not look the part of the typical action hero because he is neither particularly tall, muscular nor handsome, nor does he demonstrate any special acting skills, but his character does grow on you after a while. Among the bonus material I found a few gems I really enjoyed, such as a 1910 French Pathe comedy based on Houdini's feats, only comically exaggerated by the use of unusual special effects and film trickery, which was common in the very first years of moving pictures. There is also a short audio track of Houdini introducing one of his famous acts, as well as other short film footage of his various stunts, mostly getting out of a straitjacket while hanging by his ankles high above a busy street. Overall, it is a charming glimpse back into the past to see a legend close-up in silent films, and maybe this set fulfils Houdini's theory or plan to come back from the dead - one way or another!
While the films are terrific, true gold is contained in the extras. Here we have loads of real footage of Houdini's street escapes, including some incredible footage of Houdini doing bridge jumps in his prime (circa 1903). Also, the written films notes are very well done, and are as complete as any section on Houdini's film career as can be found in any of the major biographies. In fact, they are more complete. The account of Houdini's battle with the New York censors over 'The Man From Beyond' is something I had never heard before.
THANK YOU Kino for this great gift to all magic and silent movie enthusiasts. Here's hoping one day you find a complete print of 'The Grim Game' so you can complete the collection.
Most recent customer reviews
It is a silent movie and it is very slow to watch. It is also made in segments as in the old Saturday afternoon serials.Read more