The Sunday Intertitle: Not Even Eternity

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Harry Houdini co-wrote and produced and starred in THE MAN FROM BEYOND in 1922. It uses the same frozen-alive plot idea as CAPTAIN AMERICA and BUCK ROGERS, with Houdini frozen at sea after being abandoned by unsympathetic skipper Luis Alberni (Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis from EASY LIVING). Fortunately for him, the first woman he meets strongly resembles his lost love, and may in fact be her reincarnation. HH drops in a bit of product placement for his sparring partner at the time, Arthur Conan Doyle ~

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This exploration of mystical hooey is played straight-faced by Houdini, though he never really credited the supernatural and would set up shop as a professional debunker. Elsewhere in the plot he gets to perform some escapes, though not particularly gripping ones to look at (serial THE MASTER MYSTERY has his best screen getaway). Still, it’s exciting to be able to see the escapologist in action, even if he’s just squirming free from wet bedsheets via a display of scientific wriggling, or stopping a boat going over Niagara by the simple expedient of climbing out and keeping one foot on the bottom.

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Oddly, Houdini’s acting seems to have regressed slightly since THE MASTER MYSTERY, in which he’s quite credible. Maybe because the plot this time requires him to display instability, uncertainty and pathos, a certain self-consciousness has set in. Disappointingly too, Nita “tits out” Naldi as the film’s resident femme fatale, doesn’t get to vamp him — that might have shaken him loose. I guess Naldi is the only woman to have worked opposite both Houdini and Barrymore, and under Hitchcock (twice). It’s always fun to see her, and to think of her getting them out at parties, as was her custom.

BEYOND has been described as “generally intact”, and it’s certainly in better shape than THE MASTER MYSTERY (missing whole episodes), TERROR ISLAND (minus two vital reels) and THE GRIM GAME (completely lost apart from one tantalising fragment). Houdini’s film oeuvre was not treated kindly by time. In fact, despite his movie activities being all washed up years before his death, Houdini’s brother and fellow magician Theodore Hardeen had preserved prints and negatives faithfully. But a fire inspection alerted him to the dangers of keeping nitrate stick in his home and he was forced to surrender everything to the garbage collectors. So we’re lucky anything has survived — what’s left of THE MAN FROM BEYOND comes from 16mm reduction prints, which make the night scenes impenetrably dark, and the story jumps around owing to what appear to be at least a few lost scenes.

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So this seemed a fitting film to close out Shadowplay’s participation in the Film Preservation Blogathon — a naive early science fiction fantasy, and a film which has survived the ravages of time (just barely), like Houdini’s protagonist, to stand shakily before us in a new century.

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11 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Not Even Eternity”

  1. Guy Maddin should remake this.

  2. Maddin says he’s giving up on the old-movie kind of thing he’s been doing and is branching out. Seems crazy to me at this late stage, but I wish him well!

  3. John Hinson great nephew of Bess and Harry Houdini Says:

    They are remaking all different movies, they should do all 5 Houdini movies.

  4. I like the period atmosphere and glimpse of an earlier tradition of filmmaking, so a straight update wouldn’t interest me so much, but I’d love to see The Master Mystery done again with its innocence preserved. But I don’t know who you could get today who could do what Houdini did.

  5. […] Harry Houdini does a Buck Rogers and reanimates 100 years after his death in THE MAN FROM BEYOND, a film which has barely survived the ravages of time. “Not even Eternity can hold Houdini…” https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2015/05/17/the-sunday-intertitle-not-even-eternity/ […]

  6. Matt Blanchette Says:

    I’m surprised you don’t know that “The Grim Game” has been FOUND. Intact. :-D

  7. That’s EXCELLENT news! “Not even Eternity can hold Houdini.”

  8. DBenson Says:

    Tidbit from somewhere I can’t remember: When on tour overseas, Houdini would shoot generic second unit footage of himself walking the streets of famous cities, looking purposeful and going through doors. Then he’d edit these into his movies to make them look more expensive. An intertitle would announce the villain’s trail led him to, say, Paris. We’d see him in long shot on a real Paris street. Then we’d get him in medium shot, opening a door that admits him to a windowless interior for the remainder of the Paris sequence.

    Don’t know if he was ever as opportunistic as Sennett, who’d grab footage of actual events — most famously the draining of a reservoir — and build a film around it. Sounded like Houdini shot stuff that could be plugged into any context.

    The problem with magicians on film is that filmmakers tend to cheat and give us special effects instead of actual stage illusions. It’s one thing to present a character as supernatural and realize his powers with effects. It’s something else to present a character as a real-life stage illusionist and use effects to represent patently undoable “tricks” (like shrinking Stan Laurel in “A Haunting We Will Go”). And the corollary is that actual illusions in front of a camera are all too easy to dismiss as effects and editing.

    A serial of the comic strip “Mandrake the Magician” offered Mandrake wowing sophisticates with a coin stunt from a kid’s magic book. Some very minor slight of hand is obviously the work of a double, since the performer’s head is cropped out or, by elaborate plot contrivance, covered by a ski mask.

  9. Welles’ magic tricks always seem magical to me, even when he uses cuts in F for Fake. It’s more his personality. In For the Boys he pulls of special effects gags impossible on a stage and for once makes the effect charming, purely by his hilarious insouciance.

    I haven’t seen examples of this Houdini techinique, that I can think of. Maybe The Grim Game will confirm it.

  10. I wondered why the doctor didn’t tell Houdini he had been frozen for 100 years. Houdini’s character didn’t seem surprised to see automobiles and other modern inventions. I wasn’t impressed by the leading lady.

  11. Houdini just thought, “New Jersey, huh? I guess they’re way ahead out here.”

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