Houdini, for the one or two people on Earth who might be unaware, was a master escape artist. He was chained and put in iron boxes, handcuffed and thrown off bridges into rivers, and sealed inside water-filled glass canisters ~upside down~, and always managed to escape. He was challenged by police stations to escape the most modern cuffs, and, perhaps most famous of all, was put into straight jackets, each time only to escape, with that trademark Houdini grin...that was seemingly half-grimace.
He was just about the most popular entertainer on Earth at the peak of his career, and it was inevitable that at some point that a figure of his gravitas would break into the new medium of film. Houdini made five pictures between 1919 and 1923, and Haldane of the Secret Service was the last of these. Produced and directed by the man himself, Houdini played the stern Heath Haldane, a "sworn servant of the Dept. of justice". The setting is Chinatown ("A place not visited by sightseeing parties"), and Haldane is on the trail of the mysterious Chinese supervillain Dr. Yu, and the brutal gang of counterfeiters who murdered his father, "silent Saunders" Haldane. *
Honestly, I wish it had also been released in that format!
Apparently the Houdini films didn't take the world by storm on their release. Perhaps the world wasn't ready to see him on screen, or perhaps, in an era with so many amazing films, his were unremarkable relative to the rest of his career. Personally, I think if you take them on their own merits, guided by the uniqueness of their existence as Houdini memorabilia, they have a fun magic all their own. I recommend Haldane of the Secret Service for fans of silent films, dime novels, and the legendary magician.
You can buy this film in the amazing Houdini film set by Kino quite cheaply HERE. Besides the five dramas (it has The Grim Game's existing 5-minute fragment), it contains many escape performances, as well! A MUST for any Harry Houdini/Silent film fan!
*"Silent Saunders", incidentally, is a reference to a character in a popular western novel by H. H. Knibbs, called Overland Red. Feel free to download this public domain novel here for your Kindle! It was also made into a 1920 film with Harry Carey (now lost), and also the 1924 silent, The Sunset Trail. The name also appears in the May 1923 issue of Western Story magazine, in the story, “Silent” Saunders Pays for Two. It's a very cool and varied world we live in!
This is one of my picks for the Snoopathon, a Blogathon of Spies! A nod to our Blogathon host, Movies Silently! Click the banner to the right to see some of the other blogs and their picks!
I also reviewed Robert Donat's 1943 Pulp film The Adventures of Tartu for the Blogathon HERE.