Are you glad to see me, or is that a carburetor in your pocket?
In 1919, magician and showman Harry Houdini signed an agreement to star in a 15-part thriller serial called The Master Mystery. It was not, as you might expect, solely an excuse to showcase Houdini’s extraordinary abilities as an escape artist, though there are plenty of scenes in which Houdini is obliged to writhe out of handcuffs. There are also some actually fairly decent science fictional elements in the story. While the metal man in the picture shown here is sometimes described as the first robot depicted on film, it would be more accurate to describe “the Automaton” as a cyborg.
The plot revolves around a pair of wealthy businessmen, Balcom and Brent, who buy patents from inventors and then suppress their inventions so as to avoid upsetting the status quo. Houdini plays Quentin Locke, an agent of the Justice Department sent to spy on Brent. He discovers that Brent has begun to feel pangs of guilt for his part in the racket. Brent’s partner Balcom takes steps to ensure that Brent won’t cause trouble. He summons the Automaton to do his dirty work!
The Automaton, supposedly, was created in Madagascar by putting a human brain in a super-powered metal body. Why Madagascar? Maybe it sounded exotic. The Automaton has a subterranean lair in some caverns under Brent’s mansion, with access (via secret passages) to just about every room in the house. The Automaton also commands a gang of minions, circa 1919: they wear plug caps and sweaters like the Weasels in Disney’s Mr. Toad. Their business is to cringe and fawn before the Automaton and to come up with various sadistic perils in which to place Houdini’s character. Never once does it seem to occur to any of them that they might simply shoot Quentin Locke. No, they tie him up and dangle him over pits of acid, drop him in the sea, tie him to a torturer’s wheel, arrange for him to be thrown into a fire-pit as an offering to a Chinese fire demon...
All the effective villainy is reserved for the Automaton. Having apparently decided that if you want anything done right, you have to do it yourself, it is the Automaton who substitutes a candelabra full of poisoned candles (I’m serious) for an identical but harmless one and then cuts the electricity to Brent’s mansion. Brent lights the candles. They diffuse a poisonous smoke as they burn. The poison causes Brent to descend into a state of giggling idiocy known as the Madagascar Madness, in which he remains until the last reel of the film.
Most of the rest of the plot involves Balcom’s attempts to coerce Brent’s pretty daughter into marrying Balcom’s gangster son, in order to force her to sign her shares of the business over to him, with a subplot involving Brent’s secretary, who may or may not be his illegitimate daughter. Both women are powerfully attracted to Quentin Locke, of course. Sooner or later people notice the Automaton sneaking in and out of rooms in the mansion and we get perhaps the first instance of the heroine-menaced-by-inhuman-monster scene. Anyone fond of early pulp crime thrillers will enjoy Balcom Junior’s rendezvous with his gun moll, Deluxe Dora, at the Black Tom Club. A couple of ancillary villains join the fun in the persons of an astrologer with dubious credentials and the Madagascar Strangler (the scriptwriters must have just liked the word. Madagascar! ). There is also a fairly neat demon statue that shoots something like laser beams from its eyes.
Alas, the same cannot be said for the Automaton. All the advertising posters for The Master Mystery depict the Automaton with glowing eyes, but the actual robot costume merely has big google eyes like the hard sugar sort on cheaper varieties of chocolate Easter bunnies. Worse still, the Automaton turns out not to be a supercriminal’s brain in a robot body after all. The man in the suit (come on, you knew all along it would turn out to be a man in a suit) is actually Balcom Junior, though the suit does apparently give him super-strength and the ability to electrocute people by shooting lightning bolts from his fingertips. So in the end we’re talking something more like a proto-Iron Man.
Given Houdini’s mega-celebrity status, it’s curious that his films have barely survived. Two episodes of The Master Mystery have been lost, others exist only in fragments, and it’s the most complete of his existing work. You’d think some time-traveling bunch of cinephiles would have secreted away a few complete prints, but apparently not. Kino has presented a handsome DVD package with as complete a restoration as could be managed, at least. A word of warning, though: if you’re going to sit through this thing, make yourself an extra-large tub of popcorn, because it’s over four hours long. Even an Automaton would need a bathroom break after the third hour.