450 minutes (three-disc set), $39.95
Late in the American 19th century, when re-invention was all the rage as destitute Europeans made their way to New York in search of new identities and new prospects, the idea of the self-made man was one that practically vibrated with possibilities. Fame, acclaim, an assortment of newly available trades, ingenuity, business acumen and even genius were just waiting to be seized, as though mere ambition and desire were enough to secure dreams, no matter how farfetched. Out of this entire generation of self-made men, few rivaled the Hungarian-born Jewish immigrant Erich Weisz when it came to fashioning a persona. He created a personality full of larger-than-life ticks, quirks and ego that ultimately became not only a bona fide identity, but a character, a brand signifying that marvelous sense of the spectacular that came to be associated with the him. Weisz was arguably the 20th century’s first multimedia hero.
The man that Erich Weisz became was Harry Houdini—magician and escape artist extraordinaire and pop culture renaissance man; a walking concept, really. Showman, scholar, aesthete, huckster, spiritualist debunker, athlete, contortionist, writer, Houdini was the sort of autodidact who believed that no realm lay beyond his mastery. And once mastered (or at least believed to be mastered) any pursuit was one in which the natural born careerist could stake out new glory for himself.
Everyone wanted in on the Houdini spectacle. In an entertainment world without CGI, you would have been hard-pressed to find a more compelling blend of the macabre, the deadly and the fantastic than what Houdini pushed on audiences all across the country. Unless you happened to witness a natural disaster, or the Titanic going down, or the horrors of the front, Houdini would have been your version of “a galaxy far, far away.” Escape from a straitjacket while dangling upside-down from a crane above a city street? It can be done. Or how about freeing oneself from a safe plunging to the bottom of a river? Mere trifles for the mighty Houdini. People loved this kind of showmanship in the same way we love watching presentations today like the crab fishing show The Deadliest Catch, one of the most successful reality shows of all time. Both flirt with legitimate danger, and both are underwritten by some kind of vague educational precept to assuage whatever voyeuristic guilt a viewer might have in watching a performance in which one of the participants might actually die.
Houdini was in his heyday from 1907 or so until his health, and his physique, started giving out in the early 1920s. Even then, however, Houdini was a one-man gang, a self-styled creation jam-packed with contradictions and vaulting ambition. Even Lady MacBeth probably would have found him refreshing if her spirit had ever turned up backstage at some Middle American theater for one of Houdini’s post-performance séances.
Every adult American (and not only Americans) knows who Houdini is, like everyone knows Mickey Mouse or P.T. Barnum. They know Houdini the magician and invincible daredevil who inspired David Blane and Penn and Teller. But few people think of him as a full-on movie star. He was indeed an actor, as well as a writer, director, stunt man (for himself), producer and marketing man. Granted, he couldn’t act beyond a few trademark grimaces and angsty hand gestures, but Houdini was a showman who realized more than most that the movies, above just about anything else in early 20th-century America, catered to our deepest fantastical whims. An audience sitting together in darkness, staring rapturously at a silver screen and the flickering magic upon it? Houdini, the greatest illusionist of them all, absolutely had to stake this territory out for his own.
Thanks to KINO’s recently released three-disc set, Houdini: The Movie Star, modern audiences can now get comfortable in their own home theaters and watch Houdini make his grand march on the silver screen. You can gaze on the first age of the celebrity-turned-film hero who paved the way for Frank Sinatra, Elvis (for a while, at least), Will Smith and others. The collection is a curio that acts as a prism, bringing together nascent 20th-century pop culture, multimedia exploration and the fascination that the early cinematic milieu still exudes. The collected cinematic works of Houdini go a long way to show us that the distance between the vaudeville ticket counter and the queue at the latest Industrial Light & Magic-created summer blockbuster isn’t as far as you might have thought. For every era loves its spectacles, even if they are destined to be shown up by the spectacles of tomorrow.
The set includes all of Houdini’s extant film work of watchable quality that survives. Some films are lost to time, such as The Grim Game, from 1919, which was reduced by an accidental, nitrate-spawned fire to only a five-minute fragment of usable film for this release. But fear not, because you get another serial from the same year in The Master Mystery, an endurance-testing four-hour film not likely to make modern cinephiles rue the loss of several episodes that would have added on another hour and a half.
The Master Mystery serial was Houdini’s first full-fledged cinematic venture, following some newsreel-type shorts that featured some of his escape acts. For the first time, we have Houdini the actor-cum-auteur, in the sense that his presence is the sole reason for the undertaking, a serial-as-magic-tour-de-force venture. Houdini stars as Quentin Locke, one of the few times he would have a name that wasn’t a stand-in for his own, like Harry Harper in Terror Island (1920) or Heath Haldane in Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). The work finds him deep in Teddy Roosevelt trust-busting mode, trying to undercut a gang that makes its profits by buying up patents and cornering the invention market. They are aided, as all such gangs are, by a murderous creature, billed as the “Automaton”, a man in a metal diver’s suit who portends such FX wonders as the title creature, with his ape suit and diving mask, from 1953’s Robot Monster.
As for the plot: Houdini gets captured and then escapes—over and over again, like he’s giving you a visual record of his magician’s résumé. Of course, rather than cudgel the elusive Locke to death, the rolling squads of henchmen do their bit to set up some Grand Guignol-style execution scene, after which they depart the premises so Houdini can repeatedly extract himself from his latest torture cell.
It’s not the smoothest screening experience, but the early serials never were. They tended to be clunky affairs, and endlessly padded ones at that, which was really the basis of their identity. Without the padding, they’d be proper features, not something you returned to, week after week, just so you could see what new bits had been added. But plot wasn’t Houdini’s main concern in a work like The Master Mystery. There were some nods to the topical issues of the time—politically, with the anti-trust theme, and even cinematically, with some of the sets aping the aesthetic of German expressionism then in vogue. But what Houdini was peddling was spectacle, the illusionist as a dramatic entity unto himself. He could be isolated from context, from narrative, from everyday life, so long as he was free to blow your mind by bringing a visual reality to what ought to have been entirely fanciful—precisely like the idea of a man who couldn’t be killed—which, of course, was the essence of cinema’s charm from the start. Houdini simply extended the paradigm several steps further.
Terror Island was shot on Catalina Island, off the California coast, and is commonly viewed as Houdini’s most cohesive film: a tight 55-minute feature recalling the adventures of Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, with some swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks fare thrown in around the edges. Once you had seen the full range of Houdini’s escape act—that is, if you’d sat through The Master Mystery—there was no need to trot out every last trick. Thus the film could concern itself with an actual plot.
Unfortunately, Houdini’s cinematic skills, such as they were, didn’t translate well in a fast-paced action thriller. He is consistently awkward within the frame, resembling an especially barrel-chested version of Hermes, like some colossus of a man who had been squeezed down by all of the tight spaces in which he’d so often found himself confined. But the idea of action-adventure films would have been fresh and new for most 1922 audiences, so the film no doubt worked in its time.
Houdini, for his part, often carried himself on and off the set as though he didn’t give a damn, as if he thought maybe the whole movie gig wasn’t worth it after all. Throughout his pre-film career, he’d been able to communicate his act, his persona, his very celebrity again and again. But the movie medium wasn’t amenable to ambition alone, something upon which Houdini had always relied. His solution: dig down and get personal.
Houdini loved causes, and one of his favorites was spiritualism, a pursuit that his close friend Arthur Conan Doyle treated as religion. The two would eventually have a falling out when Doyle claimed to have made contact with Houdini’s beloved late mother, but only after Doyle had gotten annoyed with Houdini because he believed the illusionist was indifferent to the powers of the occult. (Doyle contended that it was the source of Houdini’s talents.) Sherlock Holmes would’ve been aghast, with Watson moved to burn his notes on “The Curious Case of Messrs. Doyle and Houdini.” But these were heady times, and Houdini attempted to work through some of his spiritualist ideas with films like The Man From Beyond (1922), a mostly traditional love story about a man being reunited with his better half after being thawed from the polar ice and catapulted like Rip Van Winkle from the 19th century into the bustle of the Jazz Age.
The film is a pictorial wonder in its own way. The sets reproduce the polar landscape with a haunting, ethereal, almost lunar glow, like a purgatory within the context of the film. Our besotted lover escapes his strange limbo and claims his love. The parallel to Houdini, an entertainer from a earlier age confined to the deep recesses of near-forgotten cinema, is too apt not to note. Even modern cinema has decided that there might yet be fresh material in revamping Houdini’s spiritual proclivities: The recent Guy Pearce/Catherine Zeta-Jones vehicle, Death Defying Acts, gives us a “what if” take on the magician’s interests to poke fun at long-held truths.
Houdini’s films nevertheless work in our age, in a way. For most of us, Houdini is a legend, an historical marquee, a stand-in for an entire frenetic age. But aside from the occasional still photograph or the brief sepia video clip, we have never really seen him move, gesture, or look back at us. Now we can. Houdini still lives. If that’s not magic, what is?