(2/10) In a nutshell: Harry Houdini is frozen in ice for a hundred years, and is too busy longing for love and escaping from danger to realise it is no longer 1820, but 1922. Houdini is charismatic, but the film derivative, and the escape acts don’t transfer well to the screen.
The Man from Beyond. 1922, USA. Director: Burton L. King. Written by: Harry Houdini, Coolidge Streeter. Starring: Harry Houdini, Nita Naldi. Produced by Harry Houdini for Houdini Picture Corporation. IMDb score: 5.6
Nearly every living human being knows the name Harry Houdini, the world’s most legendary escape artist. Less known is the fact that Houdini was also something of an action hero during the latter silent film era. In 1907 Houdini started to show films as part of his vaudeville show, and made a few short films with arbitrary plots to show off his escape acts. Once he had become America’s best paid vaudeville act and a successful businessman, he was offered to play the lead in the 20-part sci-fi serial The Master Mystery (1919, review here), which fuelled his passion for acting, and not long after he established the Houdini Picture Corporation, which produced five films, all starring Harry Houdini, and partially written by him. The films were largely unsuccessful, as the thrill of his live acts – which were the draw of the movies – didn’t translate successfully onto the screen. The problem with doing escape acts in fictional films is that in film anything is possible. If you can create a living robot, then escaping from a pair of handcuffs really shouldn’t be a problem.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the 1922 film The Man from Beyond – Houdini’s second and last foray into sci-fi, is wholly without interest. As far as I can tell, this film, which is his best remembered movie, is the first film that depicts the theory of cryogenics – that a human being can be frozen for an infinite amount of time and then awakened hundreds of years later without having aged a day.
In the movie Houdini – or Howard Hillary as his character is called – is found in a ship that froze in the Arctic a hundred years ago – and it is now 1922. Hillary is perfectly preserved in a block of ice. In a painfully long sequence, the explorers chip away the ice, warm him by the fire – and lo and behold – he wakes up and starts rambling about someone called Felice. She was a fellow passenger on the ship, that he fell in love with.
Back in the States Hillary doesn’t realise he has been asleep for a hundred years. This is where the film starts getting silly. All the way until the final third of the film Hillary believes it is 1820. He apparently doesn’t realize that there are no horses pulling the cars that shuttles him around, or that there seems to be electricity everywhere, that everybody wears strange clothes and that basically the whole world has had a complete make-over.
But of course this façade must be maintained for the basic premise of the film to work. What happens is, basically, that he meets Felice’s doppelgänger, who also happens to be called Felice, and is convinced she is his girlfriend. The only problem is that he meets her at her own wedding to another man and starts raving. Felice is, naturally, the descendant of Felice, and she is blackmailed into marrying a rich and shady man in return for him helping her to find her father who has disappeared. It turns out her father has been kidnapped because of something and apparently by the man that Felice is supposed to marry because of something and … well it really doesn’t matter. The thriller element is very standard fare, stiffly acted, badly explained and not very interesting. There is also the love story between Felice and Hillary, which is also pretty basic melodrama fare, ending in a strange conclusion about reincarnation. Houdini himself was sure of the afterlife and believed in reincarnation. What this film is really about, though, is Houdini climbing walls, escaping from a torture chamber, getting into fisticuffs and replicating one of his most famous acts – escaping the Niagara Falls.
The problem, as mentioned before, is that in a fictional setting Houdini’s real-life escape acts come off as unimpressive. The famous Niagara Falls escape is basically shots of Houdini swimming around and he never seems to be in any real danger of going over. Most of the things in the film were already being done by actors like Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks, but with special effects and a lot more inspired filming and directing – where one could actually feel a sense of danger and thrill. Danger and thrill is exactly what is missing from this film. What Houdini has done is basically surrounded himself with passable bit part actors and industry professionals, that pull off a passable thriller-melodrama with sci-fi elements. Houdini is charismatic as always, but no great actor. But the sheer physicality of his presence brings a bit of magic to the film. One fun exception from the mediocrity is that one of the bit parts is played by Nita Naldi, one of the silent eras most famous vamps (Houdini must have been a personal friend to get her in this movie). She got her breakthrough playing opposite John Barrymore in the famous (and one of the best to this day) version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1920. She is famous for appearing in several films with Rudolph Valentino, as well as in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923), and in Alfred Hitchcock’s second film as a director, The Mountain Eagle (1926).
Here’s some fun trivia: Harry Houdini was actually connected with cinema long before he started acting. Born as Erik Weisz in Budapest, then Austria-Hungary, his friends called him Ehrie, or Harry. He was a successful athlete who soon became interested in magic tricks. At first he didn’t even do escape acts, but specialized in card tricks (with little success). For his second stage name he took the name of one of his idols, the legendary French stage magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, by many considered to be the father of the modern conjuring act. Robert-Houdin opened a magic theatre in Paris called Theatre Robert-Houdin in the first half of the 19th century. After his death it was bought by another stage magician by the name of Georges Méliès, who in 1896 began his career as one of the greatest pioneers of cinematic history. Theatre Robert-Houdin became one of Paris’ first theatres to show films, and Méliès also filmed some of the earliest of his films on its stage. For his own film studio, Méliès would exactly copy the measurements of the theatre stage to create his personal and stylized brand of fantastical films.
Another fun fact: In one scene in the film, Hillary can be seen reading a book about mediums written by author Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes, The Lost World). Doyle was a devout believer in spiritualism and the supernatural, and was once famously fooled by a photograph of cut-out cardboard faeries by a stream. Houdini, on the other hand, was very much the James Randi of his time, and doggedly exposed self-proclaimed mediums and psychics for the charlatans they were. He even wrote a book slamming his idol and inspiration Robert-Houdin for publicly claiming to have psychic abilities. Houdini and Doyle would repeatedly debate the issue in public.
The Man from Beyond. 1922, USA. Director: Burton L. King. Written by: Harry Houdini, Coolidge Streeter. Starring: Harry Houdini, Nita Naldi, Jane Connelly, Arthur Maude, Albert Tavernier, Erwin Connelly, Luis Alberni, Yale Brenner. Cinematography by: Louis Dunmyre. Stunts: Bob Rose. Produced by Harry Houdini for Houdini Picture Corporation.