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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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!
In the KINO set, there is a great deal of footage I've never seen before, and this is Houdini's Ghost speaking. One bit of film shows Houdini running through a park in Paris. Two pairs of handcuffs are locked on his wrists. He stops at the wall outside the Paris morgue, strips off his clothes to his boxer trunks, then climbs a gate and stands atop of the wall of the morgue. Then he jumps into the river Seine.
He surfaces a couple of times before he frees himself from the cuffs, then, he swims to the opposite shore where men are waiting for him. They throw a coat over his shoulders and hustle him into a car which drives away, pursued by four French policemen who look very much like Keystone cops.
Here's the point: in 1909, Houdini starred in a 10 minute Pathe short. I have never seen the opening sequence, but some private collectors do have it and I have been told that Houdini is seen on a street in Paris. He observes a Parisian policeman arresting a drunk. Houdini protests the treatment of the drunk and is arrested himself. The next segment I have seen. Houdini is taken inside the police station and tied to a chair. A policeman sits in a chair nearby and dozes off, and Houdini escapes from the ropes and ties up the sleeping cop.
I've also seen the next segment in which Houdini is strapped in a straitjacket and locked in a padded cell. He escapes. Apparently, what follows is the piece of film in the KINO special features in which Houdini, handcuffed, jumps into the Seine. To my knowledge, all these segments have never been put together, or rather, put back together.
There are two shots missing from the Paris Seine footage in the KINO set. One is a close-up of the cuffs on Houdini's wrists as he stands atop the wall. The other is the actual shot of him jumping into the water. The missing shots are acknowledged in the DVD. I happen to know where those two shots are. They were used in a BBC documentary on Houdini back around 1976. I remember the filmmakers insisting on first-generation footage. Somebody cut those shots from the Paris footage to be used in the BBC documentary, and they never got put back.
Likewise, there is footage missing from "the Master Mystery." We see, for example, Houdini placed in a packing box and thrown off a pier. An inserted title card explains that Houdini escapes underwater. Well, the underwater shot was also used in the BBC documentary. And also never replaced.
Probably the man responsible for scattering so many elements of the "Master Mystery" to the four winds was Ray Rohauer, who can also be thanked for removing three chapters out of the 15 chapter Serial, and losing them. At one time, Houdini performed approximately two escapes per episode. Many of them are now missing. A particularly unfortunate loss was of a chain escape Houdini performed. I also missed seeing a scene in which Houdini is locked in a jail cell. He stares at the keyhole and we get an x-ray view of the lock as his mind causes the bolt to open.
This lost Houdini footage may still exist in private collections. What must happen is that collectors must unselfishly help to gather the distaff elements together. In the KINO Houdini DVD set, are five minutes of the feature length Houdini film "the Grim Game." Actually, an hour long version of that film still exists and a man who considers himself Houdini's greatest fan has been sitting on it for 50 years. Incidentally, while collectors hoard their Houdini film footage, it is dying.
In 1976, a film archive, Sherman Grinberg, screened about an hour of Houdini footage for me when I was technical advisor on a TV movie about him. A couple of years later, I tried to get another screening, but, the nitrate film had shrunk and would be too expensive to try to salvage. When the director/writer Mel Shavelson went to Houdini collector Larry Weeks to look at some very rare footage, they found that quite a bit of it had degenerated to a volatile goo.
I have a special perspective about this lost Houdini footage. Back in the late fifties, I saw the entire 15 chapters of Master Mystery twice and each chapter was complete and intact. We are losing these films almost faster than anybody can rescue them, but, we all should make an effort to save every scrap of film we possibly can.
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