An Hour With Houdini in His Thrilling Serial of Breathcatching Stunts

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):

  1. Water Tower is filling up with water and Harry Houdini (HH) is unconscious.
  2. HH wakes up when the water hits his face
  3. HH frees his feet first and places them on ladder for leverage.
  4. HH frees hands and starts getting rope off body.
  5. 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.
  6. HH tosses and turns and gets rope off his neck and starts climbing ladder inside the tank
  7. 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.

Book The Houdini Serial that was shown 99 years ago

In my last 2 posts (Nov 4 and Nov 11), I shared two color ads announcing different release dates for the Houdini Serial that premiered 99 years ago today:

What I didn’t share was the reverse side of these ads telling you to book the Houdini Serial (The Master Mystery):

I also didn’t share that it was shown at a special trade show on November 7, 1918 at the Strand Theatre in New York City before it officially premiered in Boston on November 18, 1918.

Houdini Serial to be released on Armistice Day

The Houdini Serial, The Master Mystery, to be released on November 11th (Armistice Day) as opposed to November 4th, according to the following ad (Oct 26) from Motion Picture News:

As it turned out, the first showing of The Master Mystery was November 18th, 1918 in Boston.

That said, production plans have been shattered by the epidemic and the war.  Peace means profits according to the following ads (Nov 16, Nov 30) from Motion Picture News:

Armistice Day (which coincides with Remembrance Day and Veterans Day, public holidays) is commemorated every year on 11 November.  Please honor and remember those who have served in the Armed Forces.

Houdini Historic Film Footage on Two Tapes

If you don’t own the Miracle Factory and Kino DVDs on Houdini, you will definitely want to check out the Houdini Historical Film footage (taken from high quality 35MM nitrate originals which no longer exist) found on the following two tapes:

“The Master Mystery” Give-Away Booklet

While going through my closet the other day, I came across this remarkable 6 page give-away booklet to promote “The Master Mystery”:

Front and Back Cover

Pages 1 and 2

Pages 3 and 4

Pages 5 and 6

I picked this up for 50 cents when I visited the Houdini Historical Center in 1998.

While this is not an original, Mega Houdini collector Kevin Connolly does own an original which he shared last year with members of his Conjuring History Facebook group that made my jaw drop.


Catchy Novelty Used For Houdini Serial

 According to the Exhibitors Herald and Motography May 3, 1919:

An advertising novelty that has caught the fancy of the theatre-goer and has therefore been the means of gaining no little amount of attention in behalf of the production it exploits is the invisible ink herald manufactured as an accessory to advertise the appearance of Houdini, the handcuff king, in “The Master Mystery,” the super-serial produced by  B.A. Rolfe for Octagon Films, Inc.

A sheet of paper but four or five inches in size, this novelty herald contains no visible ink advertising copy beyond the question, “Can you solve the mystery?” printed at the top of the sheet, and a footnote printed at the bottom instructing the processor to hold the sheet over the heat for a short while.  When these instructions are carried out the heat brings to the surface a scene from “The Master Mystery”, picturing Houdini caught in the coils of the villians of the story, together with the following reading matter: “How does he escape? See Houdini in B. A. Rolfe’s super-serial, ‘The Master Mystery.’”

On August 12, 2016 Chuck Romano did an excellent blog, Houdini – Movie Marketing – Part 2, where he noted:

  • Motion Pictures News also mentioned this clever novelty
  • Collectors can only dream if one of these rare pieces of Houdini ephemera still exists

At the time, I commented that A Master Mystery Hold-to-Light Mystery sheet does exist.  One (Lot 131) sold at Potter & Potter Auction on April 9th 2016 Auction for $325.

131. Houdini, Harry. The Master Mystery Hold-to-Light Mystery Sheet. New York: B.A. Rolfe, [1919]. Promotional novelty advertisement (4 1/8″ x 5 1/4”) for the Houdini serial, revealing an illustration of Houdini held captive by two men, upside-down in chains, and captioned “How Does He Escape?” when held over a heat source. Creases, corner tear upper left.

Well, apparently another one of these rare pieces (seen at top of this post) has surfaced and was part of a lot of Houdini Memorabilia on eBay that sold for $45.  Congratulations to the winner.

See Houdini Escape while underwater on his Birthday!

H A P P Y  1 4 3 r d  B I R T H D A Y ! ! !

On Houdini’s Birthday in 1919, you could see him escape from shackles while under water in the Third Episode of “Master Mystery”.  Today, all you can see is Kino’s George Eastman House footage which is incomplete and suffers from severe nitrate damage.

That said, we know what Harry is wishing for on his birthday:

“Please release a complete version of “The Master Mystery” with all of its episodes complete” [Image:Missing scene from “Terror Island”]

We know Master Mystery is possible, not so sure about Terror Island:

May HH wish come true.  HBD HH!


Ottawa Manager Uses Horse Race to Boost “The Master Mystery”

According to the Exhibitors Herald and Motography Canadian Film News:

Manager Archie Laurie of the Strand Theatre, Ottawa, put over a neat stunt on the occasion of the presentation of the first episode of “The Master Mystery.”  Laurie seized the opportunity to secure considerable publicity by reason of the fact that a horse named “Houdini” won a race at New Orleans on the first day of the run, Monday, March 10 [1919].  The horse was a 10 to 1 shot, which fact made the boost more interesting.  He got in touch with the sporting editor of The Ottawa Journal, who readily consented to feature the winning of this horse in the report of the races.  The newspaperman also referred to the horse as “The Master Mystery” and then used a portion of his comment column to tell how a local race track devotee had cleaned up a pile of money by noting that Houdini was being featured at the local theatre on the same date as the horse was scheduled to run at Jefferson Park track down South.  As a result of this publicity, all the sport followers around town were talking about the hunch which the Strand Theatre had provided.

Laurie clipped the race report and the sport comment from the paper and placed them in a large frame in the theatre lobby.


The Master Mystery Book Display Aids Serial Exploitation

Book Display Aids Serial Exploitation

A source of advertising which is creating a great volume of public interest in “The Master Mystery,” B.A. Rolfe’s super-serial starring Houdini, produced for Octagon Films, Inc., is the method employed in exploiting the novelization of the story published by Grosset & Dunlap.  The book was written by Arthur B. Reeve and John W. Grey after the scenario created by Arthur B. Reeve and Chas. A. Logue.

Through its distributing agencies, Grosset & Dunlap is placing the novelization of “The Master Mystery” in the book stores of every city where the picture is being shown.  Each shipment of books made by Grosset & Dunlap is accompanied by a suggestion for window display consisting of an attractively arranged lay-out of the books, embellished by the use of a quantity of 11×14 and 22×28 lobby photos.

So that booksellers will co-operate with the exhibitor and make the display at a time mutually beneficial, Grossman & Dunlap does not furnish the lobby photograph embellishments, but advises each of their customers to apply to the nearest theatre showing the Houdini serial for them.  As a consequence, the exhibitor is brought into actual contact with the book dealer with the result that both co-operate to the benefit of all concerned.

[Exhibitors Herald and Motography March 29, 1919]