The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
HOUDINI AND FILM'S FIRST ROBOT
In 1918 Harry Houdini, conjurer, daredevil, escape artist, trickster, was perhaps the most famous man in the world. Being Houdini, he wanted more. Motion pictures were the great new artform, one with infinite possibilities and many practical advantages, not to mention that the exponentially growing popularity of movies threatened to cut the audience for his stage shows. Houdini had first encountered film in 1901 when he visited the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, built by his then hero Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, from whom he had taken his name. (Being Houdini, he would turn on him in a few years and write The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin.) Houdini was appalled to find that even at this venerable temple to magic, movies had taken over the prime evening hours while magic shows were relegated to mere afternoon spots. He quickly made a now-lost short about one of his most famous feats, escaping from prison. Contemporary movies were too small to contain Houdini, then at world-traveling peak, so he put film aside until after WWI changed everything.
Seventeen years older and facing a world economy decimated by war, Houdini's elaborate sensationalism seemed to no longer be cost-efficient. A canister of film sent through the mail was orders of magnitude cheaper than the horrendous expense of traveling magic shows, while silent films with translated title cards were just as universal as an illusion. In addition, every tiny hamlet in America and even in war-devastated Europe had a room capable of projecting a movie onto a white background, allowing Houdini’s image to appear before the entire population of the civilized world. A fever dream of ego, maybe, but it was happening to others. Seemingly overnight, the sunny skies of southern California lifted no-name vaudevillians to fame approaching his and staggering wealth. A comic named Charlie Chaplin had been in the business just over a year when he signed a contract giving him $12,000 a week, about 600 times what an average worker made.
Houdini found a suitable partner in crime: the mystery writer Arthur B. Reeve. From December 1910 through 1918 Reeve published nearly a story a month featuring Craig Kennedy, so popular he came to be called the American Sherlock Holmes. Prof. Kennedy was billed as a scientific detective, although for him science often meant super-gadgets lifted directly from the exclamation-point filled breathlessness of the Sunday supplements, the same source of astounding coming-next-year technology that drove our style of futurism and often flirted with what today we call science fiction.
Reeve, along with C. A. Logue and John W. Grey, wrote a 15-part serial to showcase Houdini. Released on film in January 1919 as The Master Mystery and later that year as a book novelization, “profusely illustrated with photographic reproductions taken from the Houdini super-serial of the same name,” movie audiences around the world did indeed thrill to the epic battles. Houdini stars as Quentin Locke, ace investigator for the Justice Department. The villains were the heads of International Patents, Inc. (IPI). In what may be the source for a conspiracy theory still extant a century later, IPI protected corporations from competition by buying and then suppressing patents for better products. Not content to let the legal system work its slow magic, the chief villain created the ultimate enforcer: a human brain transplanted into a body of steel. The title cards read:
"Do you mean to tell me that a human brain can be transplanted to a giant machine similar to this model? Ridiculous, and even if possible, it would be of no use except as a terrible engine of destruction."
"Believe it or not, I have been in Madagascar and I know!"
Madagascar! That ends all doubts. Who else was the world leader in brain transplant robot technology?
The usefulness of the robot is left is no doubt in the very next scene, where deep in the underground lair the Automaton lumbers out of the darkness carrying... carrying... carrying an unlit candelabra. All the henchmen cower properly in fear as it delicately sets the candelabra down on a table, waits until a turbaned minion lights the candles, and then... picks it up again and walks back into the darkness. (There is a method behind the madness, Madagascar Madness to be precise. The poisoned candles give off fumes that reduce the breathers' brains to helpless laughter. Why a brainy robot couldn't light the candles itself is a question better left for those scoffers who ask how Mystique can duplicate clothing.)
The wordless reaction of the evildoers is nothing compared with the prose poetry spelled out by the book when the mighty machine finally confronts our intrepid band of heroes:
Faintly now could be made out in the blackness a huge, stalking figure, having the shape of a man, with gigantic, powerful shoulders, powerful arms, a thick body, hips, and thighs that spelled terrific strength, legs and feet that suggested irresistible force.
“The Automaton!” escaped involuntarily from all lips.
My nominee for the greatest line in SF. It's all downhill from there.
Houdini must survive 14 cliffhanger endings, escaping death using his astounding physical and mental agility, achieved almost entirely through his standard repertoire of tricks. Many minutes are devoted to his writhing around in straitjackets, an effect that loses all its power and danger on a movie screen. Fortunately for the plot, Houdini's intellect is almost as keen as his muscle expansion, because from the beginning he dismisses the notion of brain-powered automata and insists that the monster is no more than a man in a metal suit. He's right, of course: the villain is beheaded, so to speak, at the end when the mask is removed to reveal his face, thus leading to endless existential argument over whether the Automaton is moviedom's first robot or not.
Other than a bad case of Madagascar Madness, though, we're left with no plausible explanation for why anyone, in Hollywood or out of it, would build a robot that looked as goofy and non-terrifying as this one to be a marauding menace. As can be seen in the newspaper ad, the head appears to be a bucket on which someone pasted on googly eyes and the mouth slit threatens nothing more than to break into a great big grin. And talk about a bubble butt - what possible rationale can there be for what appears to be a giant battery stuck sideways through its pelvic region? Audiences must have been sorely disappointed if they went to the theater looking for "A giant form three times the size of a man." as the ad promised. The Automaton is normal height; Houdini's just short. That individual episode movie poster at top is even worse; if that figure isn't a comic sidekick then The Jetson's Rosie is Godzilla.
Only the French got it right. One of their posters shows actual fangs in the downward turned mouth. That's a robot you can believe would shove an ice pick through a chained man's heart.
Although The Master Mystery received plenty of publicity, it made no money, partly due to the production company going out of business soon after its release. Houdini tried a few more movies and then gave up and went back to magic for the few years he had left in his life. The serial no longer exists in its entirety, with several episodes completely lost and portions of others missing. A 160-minute restoration has been released and, chopped into 20 pieces, is available on Youtube, although the cuts are made so that the cliffhanger endings are in the middle of segments. Part 2, in which the Automaton is first introduced, is embedded below.