Thursday, November 10, 2016

Houdini's underwater battle surfaces

Houdini collector Arthur Moses recently made a terrific discovery via Elif Rongen, Curator of The EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. The screen caps below come from a 9 minute compilation of footage from a Dutch print of The Master Mystery. Among the clips is Houdini underwater in a diving suit fighting with another diver. This footage is missing from the current Kino DVD release of the film, so this is unseen Houdini here!


According to Joe Notaro, who recently made a thorough study of the missing Master Mystery footage, this scene was originally part of Episode Four: "The Test." (Not Episode Five, as claimed in the Kino explanatory cards.)

In the episode, Locke is testing a "self-liberating diving suit" with Eva's assistance. But beneath the waters Locke is ambushed by another diver. "There, under the sea, commenced a battle royal!" The villainous diver draws a knife and severs Locke’s oxygen tube (which is what we see in the Dutch clip). But Locke manages to escape the suit...Houdini style!

Unfortunately, the Dutch clip does not include the escape itself. However, Joe points out that an archival print in the collection of the UCLA Film Archives does include the full sequence. But UCLA does not allow copying or screen captures, so this is best look we'll get until someone embarks on a proper restoration.

There is another layer of interest here. Houdini invented a diving suit with a quick release mechanism for emergencies. It's said he did so "after word came to him that one of his best friends, a diver in Australia, was lost when his air lines were destroyed." Houdini shared his patent with the U.S. Navy, believing it could save lives. Newspapers at the time noted that the scene in The Master Mystery shows "a practical working demonstration" of Houdini's great invention.


Below are some of the unique title cards that appeared in this Dutch print, along with a newspaper advert from the time. Cinema Context records 23 screenings of "Houdini, de boeienkoning" in The Netherlands from August through October 1920.


Recently I learned that The Master Mystery may contain another Houdini icon that could exist in the cut scenes. I'll dig a little deeper and see what I can discover about that one. Stay tuned.

Thanks to Arthur Moses, Elif Rongen and Joe Notaro.

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