Mon
Mar 2 2009 3:01pm

Ancient Rockets: Houdini on Ice

Guys? I’m ready to come out now! Guys? I’m freezing here! GUYS?

In 1921, Harry Houdini started his own film company called—wait for it—the Houdini Picture Corporation. Last week’s subject, 1919’s The Master Mystery, had been a box office success. Encouraged, Paramount signed Houdini to a two-picture contract, but Houdini quickly tired of Hollywood and returned to New York to run his own show. The first of his solo efforts, 1921’s The Man From Beyond, involves cryogenic suspension (sort of), and as such rates inclusion into the list of Silent SF.

Besides, it’s interesting from a historical point of view, in that it was filmed just prior to Houdini’s break with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The two had met in 1920 and both shared an interest in Spiritualism. Yes, I know, Conan Doyle invented ultra-rational detective Sherlock Holmes; but a lot of grieving parents, Conan Doyle among them, got involved with Spiritualism after losing their sons in World War One. Houdini, though a skeptic, was open-minded and moreover struggling to come to terms with the recent death of his adored mother. As an accomplished illusionist himself, he had strong doubts about the veracity of most professional mediums, but he was willing to believe in life after death in principle.

The Man From Beyond was made, in part, as a tip of the hat to his friend Conan Doyle. The plot concerns a sailor who, in 1821, falls in love with a beautiful ship’s passenger. The ship is blown off-course into arctic waters. Howard Hillary (Houdini’s character, in case you hadn’t guessed) angers his captain, and winds up locked below decks when the ship is abandoned during a storm. He escapes the captain and rushes up on deck, only to be frozen into a block of glacial ice.

Flash forward a hundred years to the plight of an arctic explorer and his metis guide, the only survivors of a doomed expedition. They happen on Hillary’s ship locked in an ice floe. Going aboard, they find Hillary inside his giant ice cube. Sinclair, the explorer, goes below and reads all the documents that were conveniently left lying around in order to bring him up to speed on how Hillary got there. Duval, the guide, gets out his hatchet and chops Hillary out of the ice. Not having anything better to do, I guess, they build a fire in the stove and lean the frozen corpse against it to see how long it’ll take him to thaw. 

But, surprise! When thawed, Hillary springs to life, completely unaware that a century has passed since last he held his sweetheart Felice in his arms. His rescuers decide not to clue him in about the time passage thing and he believes the year is still 1821. Somehow or other Sinclair, Duval and Hillary all get safely back to New York. You’d think Hillary would begin to suspect something was wrong, what with all the horseless carriage in the streets, but noooo. The three walk into the mansion of Sinclair’s brother-in-law, where his niece is in the very act of being married to Mr. Wrong. Do I have to tell you her name is also Felice? Or that she’s a dead ringer for Hillary’s 1821 girlfriend? Or that she agrees to postpone the wedding when Hillary interrupts it, even though he is immediately hauled off to an insane asylum for talking crazy?

At the asylum, our hero is put into a straitjacket and locked in a padded cell. You can guess what he does next, right? There’s a lot of improbable plot back-and-forth (Hillary doesn’t figure out it’s now 1921 until his reincarnated sweetie shows him a newspaper, for God’s sake). The jilted bridegroom chases Felice into a frozen river, whence Hillary narrowly rescues her from being swept over Niagara Falls. The happy ending shows the fond couple discussing the latest work on Spiritualism by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which makes some astonishing claims. Were you aware that both Moses and Jesus believed in reincarnation? Me neither.  

The pacing is awful and the plot logic has holes through which you could sail the Titanic, but Houdini meant well. His publicity department marketed The Man From Beyond as a supernatural thriller, and one supposes Conan Doyle was flattered at the plug for his book.  Alas...

Two months after The Man From Beyond was released, Conan Doyle’s wife (a self-professed medium) offered to try to communicate with Houdini’s late mother for him. The shades were drawn, paper for automatic writing was set out, and... Houdini’s mum got on the ectoplasmophone for a chat, all right, but she wrote in perfect English, and moreover drew the sign of the Cross on the paper. The deceased lady having been a rabbi’s wife, and having moreover never learned to speak more than a little broken English, Houdini knew at once that the communication was bogus. Hideously disappointed, Houdini nevertheless kept his outrage to himself for a couple of years, out of his regard for Conan Doyle. Once the truth came out, however, the relationship between the two men froze into glacial animosity. You should pardon the expression.

I saw the Kino print of The Man From Beyond, but apparently a superior new print has been produced by Restored Serials. Maybe a few snippets of missing footage will close up some of the plot holes, but I have my doubts.

8 comments
seth johnson
1. seth
Great job. Thanks for writing this excellent piece about a movie I absolutely would never have come across.

Seth
Kage Baker
2. kagebaker
Thanks, sir! It is my pleasure to excavate the obscure, the historically significant, and the downright awful treasures of silent cinema and sit through them so you don't have to.

Next week-- Mind Control and Dr. Caligari!!!!
seth johnson
3. seth
Kagebaker,

Articles like yours have really made this website a tremendous marketing machine. This Houdini movie review is why I visit the site everyday. The Philip Jose Farmer obituary is why I bought three of his books this past weekend. Tell the bosses that the plan is working. Don't change anything.

Seth
Sandi Kallas
5. Sandikal
Please, please, please put these silent movie reviews in a book. I will never, ever get a chance to see them. (I have menfolk who control the TV.) But, if I can't see them, at least I can read about them and look at pictures.
Kage Baker
6. kagebaker
Hey, I have to pay the rent with my writing; sooner or later I'll certainly compile and expand these in a book.

But, girl! Your PC has a DVD drive, yes? You can join Netflix, can't you? Nearly all of these films are available through Netflix. While the menfolk are watching NFL games or Bassmasters, make yourself a bowl of popcorn and settle down in front of the monitor. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wince, you'll marvel.
Sandi Kallas
7. Sandikal
I'm afraid my computer is probably way too wimpy to watch movies. However, I could get a cheap DVD player for upstairs. It seems to me that Netflix might be a better deal than HBO (which we can only watch on the TV with a cable box).

When you do come out with that book, let me know. I will definitely buy it. I'm one of those readers who helps writers pay the bills because I'm addicted to buying/owning/hoarding new books and I have a crummy public library.
Athene
8. Athene
How have I ever missed this beauty? And me a silents fanatic of the Old School! I stumbled on your delightful series while searching for something else entirely. Filled with your usual rapier verbiage and sly wit, I am happy to note. I shall return, I assure you, and bring some more folks with me.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment