The Master Mystery (1919)

by popegrutch

To wrap up this year’s October review of chilling movies, I’m going to look at this serial starring no less a person than Harry Houdini. Once again, it’s not exactly a horror movie – it’s more of a crime serial ala Louis Feuillade – but it has madness, a robot, and lots of creative death-dealing situations for the hero to get out of, so I’m including it.

Our story begins in the home of Peter Brent (Jack Burns), the President of International Patents, Inc, a company whose nefarious scheme is to buy up the patents for new inventions from lone geniuses and keep them off the market – benefiting those who own existing patents by preventing free competition. Unbeknownst to Brent, one of his employees, Quentin Locke (Houdini) is actually an agent of the Dept. of Justice, investigating on the grounds of the Anti-trust Act, and he has wired Brent’s home for sound (most of the first shots we see of Houdini are his reactions to conversations other characters are having in other rooms, which can be a bit confusing). Locke is of course secretly in love with Brent’s daughter Eva (Marguerite Marsh), and Brent is actually having second thoughts about the whole scheme for her sake. Enter the real villains of the movie, Herbert and Paul Balcom (William Pike and Charles E Graham), a father-and-son team who hope to take over the company (the father) and marry Eva (the son). They also have collaborators in the form of a secretary named Zita Dane (Ruth Stonehouse) who is secretly in love with Locke and a lady-of-leisure with the unlikely moniker of De Luxe Dora (Edna Britton) who “dominates” Paul.

All of this intrigue is set up in a rather confusing first five minutes or so, but things start to get really intense when Brent suddenly develops the “Madagascar Madness” by hanging out alone in a room with a laughing man so long he starts laughing maniacally himself. The other laughing fellow has brought Brent a model for a rather goofy-looking robot (or “automaton”) that is designed to house a human brain. The audience learns that such an automaton is already at work in the caves beneath the house and it has somehow recruited several “emissaries” (low-level thugs, some of whom wear turbans…because…Madagascar…I guess…) to do its bidding. The automaton cuts the lights to the mansion and sneaks clunkily around the corridors with a candelabra. These candles, which Brent takes unknowingly, are what spreads the Madness.

Not quite as frightening as Sam, the Sesame Street Robot.

Anyway, that’s the set up for a pretty typical serial which resolves in the end with a lot of unexpected revelations (some of which are telegraphed several episodes too early) and bizarre coincidences. Most of the rest of the “plot” centers around Locke and Eva getting captured by the “emissaries” and being put into some kind of death trap by the end of each episode and from which they escape at the beginning of the next one. Not surprisingly, the script takes advantage of Houdini’s known skills at escaping and gives him opportunities to show his talents each week. He gets out of shackles, handcuffs, ropes, an electric chair, and a straightjacket. He is dangled over a vat of acid, left on the ground tied up while acid flows towards him, put into a noose, and strapped to a wall by ropes that can be tightened gradually from behind the wall. This was my first chance to see Houdini’s act, having heard about it pretty much all my life, and it surprised me in a number of ways. For one thing, I always imagined his escapes were by very controlled muscular actions, but what we see here is mostly him thrashing around wildly until a rope breaks or a hand slips out. It looks almost like luck, though I admit I’m not sure I could do it. Actually, the most skillful-looking thing he does is to pick the lock of the door where the madmen have locked themselves in. Anyway, Houdini doesn’t disappoint as an escape artist, but he could have used some acting lessons. His face is stonier than Buster Keaton’s throughout a lot of the film, and all he seems to know how to do is “look intense” and “look intenser.”

Madness in bloom.

The villains leave a certain amount to be desired as well. It’s made obvious to the audience that the automaton is “really” one of them in disguise early on, and given the limited range of choices, it’s not much of a surprise when we find out which one. The writers also seem to have been a bit confused about where Madagascar is, or else they figured the audience wouldn’t know. Apart from the turbaned “emissaries,” we see a temple which is adorned with both a Buddha and some kind of Hindu demon, and when Houdini infiltrates the gang, he basically puts on Chinese garb and does a stereotypical hunched-over walk to communicate his new ethnicity. I believe we also see Asian-style ideograms on the walls. In short, the movie manages to offend several ethnic groups, but never actually connects to Madagascar in any meaningful way. This may be the first movie to give a gang of criminals a giant robot for an ally, but their cause isn’t helped much by the googly eyes and the big nose on the face of the automaton. The mad scientist is wearing a beard so fake it looks like something Keystone Studios would have used.

The most interesting thing about the villains is their plot to promote profits by stifling new patents. This movie, produced independently, came only a few years after the courts finally struck down the Edison Trust. It seems likely that the film makers were commenting, at least a little, on the rise of Hollywood and the increasing artistic and scientific innovation in their industry since that time. In that sense, making the bad guys into “International Patents, Inc.” looks like a dig at Edison and their now well-known tactics for dominating markets through patent control.

One final point of interest is that this movie was reconstructed from re-edited versions that had been released in later years, in part using records of the New York Office of Censorship to figure out where sequences belonged. The Kino DVD includes a list of the cuts they asked for in 1924, and pretty much every one of the cliffhanger endings would have been ruined by them. Even showing the lockpicking sequence supposedly would “tend to incite to crime” and many of the attempted executions were “inhuman.” I can only imagine what they’d have done to Fantômas! Luckily we live in less enlightened times and can enjoy all of the vicious criminal schemes.

Director: Harry Grossman & Burton L. King

Camera: William A. Reinhart

Starring: Harry Houdini, Marguerite Marsh, Jack Burns, William Pike, Charles E. Graham, Edna Britton, Ruth Stonehouse

Run Time: 15 episodes, generally 2 reels long. Comes to just about 3 1/2 hours altogether.

You can watch most of it for free: here.