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 ~
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.
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.
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.