New York, Oct 5 – “No one works harder than Houdini,” declared an actor last week, which information suggested a visit to the studio where the big serial, The Master Mystery, is now in the making, with the famous handcuff king performing remarkable feats that defy the fates.
Tho the hour was early Director Burton King had already shot a scene in a Chinese club [found in Episodes 9, 12/13] which reeked of incense, grotesque idols, huge emblems and Oriental atmosphere. And be it said every stick of furniture, bric-a-brac, matting and draperies were the genuine article.
Looking thru the immense studio-two of them—and many outbuildings filled with all the paraphernalia and furnishings of costly design convinced us that the Houdini serial will eat up a good-sized fortune before it sees the light of day.
A tank lined with thick glass 12 feet high was being built to accommodate the intrepid magician. In a few scenes Houdini plays a secret service man and the adventuress, with her accomplices, are anxious to destroy the man. Here is where the location man came in and ordered us all into big touring cars, camera and director leading the way to a tall apartment house up to whose roof we pussyfooted, for the tenants were curious and some were inquisitive-asking “Where’s the fire?” etc,
All the actors were in makeup and excited comment from the women on the opposite roof, who were hanging out their Monday [Sep 30, 1918] wash. No time was lost in arranging the scene [Episode 5], with the huge water tank as the principle objective, for the villains must throw him, bound hand and foot, into the depths of water and leave him to perish. According to the script these were the directions given, and a paragraph added: “But how in h—- —- is he going to get out of it?”
But Houdini smiled like the cat who had swallowed the canary, for who has ever caught him in a place from which he had not extricated himself?
Looking at the formidable sheet iron cover of the ugly tank made us shudder, Suppose this time he could NOT get out? Perish the thought. But his left wrist was in bandages the result of a fall while making a scene [Episode 1] which caused a severe dislocation.
“Now let’s rehearse a bit,” ordered the director, and the beginning of the scene was gone over, with Miss Britton in yellow satin and black fox furs, leading the cutthroats up the stairs. All was bustle and excitement, with Mr. King shouting: “You do this,” “You remember that,” “Action over there,” Move quick,” “Ye Gods do you think this is a funeral?” And then they had to go all over it again and the plate was marked N. G., for a cook on the opposite building had loomed forward in the focus of the camera, spoiling the scene.
Finally Houdini, roped and helpless, was carried up a ladder and thrown into the dark aperture of the big tank. “Keep it up,” called the director, as the camera ground rapidly,” “nail down the cover”-Bill, move faster keep going—speech—hurry—now let him…down, Joe—Miss Britton, make them follow you—righto-good-stop.”
That scene was over, but the great Houdini was wallowing in the rising water with hands tied behind his back and the cover nailed tight.
Cold chills crept over us as we waited. Supposing he were DROWN? “Shoot” came the command, and in breathless suspense we waited. Suddenly the cover was flung off the top of the deathholding tank, and Houdini dripping wet, his hands free from the ropes, and raced madly after the conspirators.
He had done the trick.
Yet they say a screen star’s life is not a strenuous one!
Source: Billboard October 12, 1918
Image courtesy of Kevin Connolly
Here are my notes from the UCLA archive of The Master Mystery that describe the Water Tower Escape footage (which doesn’t exist on The Miracle Factory, Kino, and McIlhany archives):
- Water Tower is filling up with water and Harry Houdini (HH) is unconscious.
- HH wakes up when the water hits his face
- HH frees his feet first and places them on ladder for leverage.
- HH frees hands and starts getting rope off body.
- HH’s head is underwater and then he turns his body and you see his head coming out of the water but the rope is still around his neck tied to pipe.
- HH tosses and turns and gets rope off his neck and starts climbing ladder inside the tank
- HH opens lid and goes down ladder on outside of tank.
Special thanks to Kevin Connolly for allowing me to share the image of the Water Tower Escape from his personal collection.