Director: Burton L. King
“A gruesome sight -– this figure stark and stiff within its icy tomb – its features frozen in a snarl of hate”
An Arctic expedition discovers a grounded ship, and in it a body entombed in ice... sound familiar? No, it's not some forerunner of The Thing but escapologist extraordinaire Harry Houdini, in his first self-produced picture. Expect death-defying stunts, hair's-breadth escapes and some ideas on transmigration of the spirit borrowed from his friend Arthur Conan Doyle...
Dr Gregory Sinclair and François Duval, the last survivors of an ill-fated Arctic expedition, stumble across the century-old wreckage of a sailing ship named the Barkentine. The ship's first mate Howard Hillary, is discovered on deck encased in a block of ice. The two men cut Hillary free and miraculously manage to reanimate him.
|Francois (Frank Montgomery) releases Howard|
Hillary from his icy tomb
Dr Sinclair brings Hillary home to New York, where they find Sinclair's neice, Felice Strange, about to marry Dr Gilbert Trent. Hillary breaks up the ceremony, believing this Felice to be his own lost love. Trent immediately has Hillary committed to an insane asylum, though Felice calls off the wedding anyway when she learns that her father, Dr Crawford Strange, has gone missing. Hillary soon escapes from the asylum and is reunited with Felice, who reveals the truth that Dr Sinclair had kept from him -- that he had been trapped in suspended animation for over a century. Undaunted, Hillary convinces Felice that she is the reincarnation of his fiancée, and that fate has sent him to help her find her missing father.
Hillary discovers that Trent himself has been holding Dr Strange captive in a scheme to acquire Felice's inheritance, and with the aid of François and his accomplice Marie Le Grande is now attempting to frame Hillary for Strange's murder. François soon cracks and confesses to the deception; but as Hillary brings Dr Strange to safety, Trent kidnaps Felice, intending to drug her and force her into marriage. A chase leads Hillary to engage Trent in a deadly clifftop battle while his reincarnated lover drifts towards the brink of Niagara Falls...
|Harry Houdini, publicity photo c.1920|
Houdini's movie career was essentially the by-product of a floundering business venture in film-processing. During the 1910's, the "self-liberator" was at the height of his fame, but this brush with the fringes of the industry convinced him that film production was a way of developing his public image on a much grander scale than was possible through personal appearances alone. His spectacular escapes had been filmed by newsreel cameramen as far back as 1901 (with The Marvellous Exploits of the Famous Houdini In Paris) but now he decided to take matters into his own hands.
A proposed collaboration with the Williamson brothers (who had filmed the underwater sequences of Universal's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) came to nothing, but soon afterwards he joined forces with B.A. Rolfe (producer of several early Tod Browning films at Metro) and writer Arthur B. Reeve to create a serial titled The Master Mystery, released in January 1919. It was a great success, Houdini's talents being ideally suited to a form that required a weekly death-defying escape, but complications with distribution meant that the serial's profits proved as difficult to pin down as its star. Everyone sued everyone else, and the production company, Octagon Films, collapsed.
Undeterred, Houdini signed to Famous Players-Lasky for the princely sum of $2500 per week where he made The Grim Game and Terror Island, the latter of which was directed by ex-Dr Jekyll James Cruze. (Another Hyde connection is the appearance in the current film of one-time leader-astray of John Barrymore's Jekyll, Nita Naldi.) In both, Houdini's persona was a variation of the one created for The Master Mystery; a technologically-savvy man of action with a knack for getting out of a tight corner. The names are a giveaway - Harry Harper, Harvey Hanford, or the current film's Howard Hillary. It was fortunate that Houdini had no desire to stretch himself as an actor; even his biographer Kenneth Silverman admitted, "...his 'acting' consists of three expressions: pucker-lipped flirtatiousness, open-eyed surprise, and brow-knitted distress"
|Locked in a padded cell, bound in a strait-|
jacket... how will Houdini make his escape?
Houdini Films was set up in March of 1921 to allow its founder greater autonomy in choosing his film projects. Adaptations of Poe and The Count of Monte Cristo were briefly considered for production, but TMFB, with its meditations on reincarnation and transmigration of the spirit, was first before the cameras. (A further inspiration may have been Il Misterio Del Osiris, a 1917 Italian production picked up by Houdini's distribution company Mystery Pictures, which dealt with the same subject matter in an ancient Egyptian context.) An adventure yarn rather than a philosophical treatise, TMFB nevertheless ends with a quote from Doyle's book The New Revelation; "Our personal beliefs are of no importance. The great teachers of the Earth -- Zoroaster down to Moses and Christ ...have taught the immortality and progression of the soul --- reincarnation." Though it never takes sides on the issue, it is the only one of Houdini's several film projects that even attempts to tackle an explicitly metaphysical theme alongside his more familiar acts of derring-do.
|Houdini laughs in the face of frostbite as Erwin|
Connelly and Frank Montgomery look on
The picture made its debut in New York's Times Square on April the 2nd, following a live show in which the film's star reprised some of his more daring stunts. A glowing testimonial from Arthur Conan Doyle described "a story striking in its novelty, pictured superbly and punctuated with thrills that fairly make the hair stand on end." It's hard to know the extent of the public's response, as Houdini again sold the distribution rights state-by-state, and again the profits failed to materialise.
Houdini made one more film, 1923's Haldane of the Secret Service, then called it quits. His friendship with Doyle had ended after an ill-advised seance conducted by Doyle's wife Lady Jean in late 1922, where she claimed to have contacted Houdini's mother Bess. After his death from peritonitis on Halloween night 1926, Houdini's widow wrote to Doyle to reassure him that her late husband had never lost faith in the idea of an afterlife, but added; "if, as you believe, he had psychic powers, I give you my word that he never knew it..."
Post Script: For further reading
We enthusiastically recommend these recent visitors to the Manor: John Cox's site WILD ABOUT HARRY is a fascinating and exhaustively-researched exploration of all aspects of the master self-liberator's life and film career; and for a wealth of information on The Man From Beyond's forerunner The Grim Game and more Houdini ephemera, visit Joe Notaro at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence. Say hello from us!
Harry Houdini (Howard Hillary), Jane Connelly (Felice Norcross / Felice Strange), Arthur Maude (Dr Gilbert Trent), Albert Tavernier (Dr Crawford Strange), Erwin Connelly (Dr Gregory Sinclair), Frank Montgomery (Francois Duval), Nita Naldi (Marie LaGrande), Luis Alberni (Captain of the Barkentine), Yale Benner (Milt Norcross).
Story: Harry Houdini, Scenario: Coolidge Streeter, Cinematography: Louis Dunmyre, Harry A. Fischbeck, L.D. Littlefield, Alexander G. Penrod, Irving B. Ruby and Frank Zucker, Stunts: Bob Rose.
Houdini Pictures Corporation, USA
Running time 67 mins.
All of Houdini's surviving films can be found on Houdini: The Movie Star (Kino International), from which much information in this post is taken.