The Master Mystery

Photobombing level:  Robot.

International Patents, Inc. has a pretty good racket going: They buy up the patents from unwary inventors and suppress them. That way, any new inventions that could potentially render products patented by their client corporations obsolete never make it to the market. Naturally, thus makes for a lot of angry inventors and the empty promises of waiting until the time is right before producing their creations can only last so long. When one such inventor threatens to call in the Department of Justice, company owner Peter Brent seems willing to finally start delivering on his previously empty promises. What he doesn’t realize is that his new employee Quentin Locke is actually an undercover DoJ agent and that both he and the inventor will be stricken with “Madagascar Madness” later that night by a robot sent out by the mysterious “Q.” With his business partner Herbert Balcom now in charge and determined to keep the company’s scheme going, it’s up to Locke to both find a cure for Brent’s condition and bring Balcolm to justice. But with Q’s gang and the robot constantly interfering, this will be no easy task…

Although Harry Houdini had performed in a few short films prior to The Master Mystery, it was this 1919 serial that officially kicked off his brief career in feature films and boy does it show. Not only was it obviously written to showcase his skills as an escape artist, but the producers were clearly hellbent on reminding the viewer that it was a Houdini film. Not only do the film’s intertitles often refer to it as “The Houdini serial” rather than by the title, but so did the serial’s early publicity materials. And even when the title is given, Houdini’s name is usually placed above it in a much larger font! Getting back to my earlier comment about the serial being design to let Houdini show off his escape routines, his character is knocked unconscious and tied up a ridiculous amount of times. And while at first the villains’ motivations for doing this rather than outright kill him make sense at first (and even attempt to kill him immediately via drowning a few times), it makes less and less sense the longer it goes on. After all, why do they keep tying him up if they know he’s already escaped numerous times before? At one point late into the story, one of the henchmen actually holds a gun up to his head so they can tie him up! I kid you not. I know he’s the protagonist and needs to survive for the story to continue, but come on!

I will give The Master Mystery credit for providing some particularly amazing escapes (like when Houdini is wrapped up in barbed wire) and for allowing us to see Houdini do the stunts he was famous for. I’ll also give it credit for not lapsing into using “fake death” cliffhangers, wherein a character is clearly seen getting killed at the end of one installment but is shown to be alive (often by explaining that what we saw last time didn’t happen) in the next. It also has excellent set design and plenty of interesting locales, although it loses some points for the racist portrayal of Chinese people. Why yes, they are portrayed by white people in yellowface, however did you guess? If you’re a fan of old school robot costumes, then this is a must-see just for the robot Looking only slightly less goofy than the posters would suggest, the Automaton (as the film calls it) is the great granddaddy of the clunky robot suits that popped up in many a Republic serial. The fact that it actually marches around from location to location is only icing on the cake.

As the serial is 15 chapters and runs a grand total of 238 minutes, there is a lot of padding. There’s a love triangle between Locke, Brent’s daughter and Balcom’s son (who wants to marry her solely to secure his father’s ownership of the company). There’s also a subplot over whether or not Locke’s secretary (who is also in love with him) is a missing heir to Brent’s share of the company and it adds just as much to the story as the chapter where Locke stops his investigation in order to test out a special diving suit. It’s almost enough to make a staunch proponent of film preservation like myself feel grateful that said chapter (and other footage) is missing. Yes, I’m afraid to report that only chapters 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14 and 15 exist in complete form while all the other chapters exist as a mix of newly created text screens summarizing the events of the missing material and whatever fragments of those installments that still exist. This also means that there’s some print damage and even some nitrate decomposition issues, with some segments of episode 3 suffering so bad that it looks like the middle of the frame is constantly on fire. I also noticed that some parts (including intertitles) are cropped or windowboxed at times. But for the most part, the serial is very watchable. I know I made fun of the obvious padding and plot holes, but it’s worth watching to see Houdini do this thing (along with the hilarious robot). I also found it fascinating how business-oriented it is. Not only are the villains basically patent trolls, but part of Locke’s efforts to beat them is to try to collect enough shares of the company in order to outrank Balcolm! Just don’t try watching it all in one go. I highly recommend watching it in its intended form so that it won’t be as monotonous as it is in “movie” form.

Kino has released the film as part of a 3 disc collection called Houdini: The Movie Star, which also includes various shorts, film clips and what other feature films of his (Terror Island, The Man From Beyond, and Haldane of the Secret Service). That said, The Master Mystery will probably be the only film of interest for horror and science fiction fans. If Houdini hadn’t died before his time, I wonder if he would have been tempted to revive his short-lived movie company and film an adaptation of his “collaboration” with H.P. Lovecraft. Now that would’ve been something…

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