Houdini Pictures Corporation
Cast: Harry Houdini (Howard Hilliard), Jane Connelly (Felice Strange/Felice Norcross), Arthur Maude (Dr. Gilbert Trent), Albert Tavernier (Dr. Crawford Strange), Erwin Connelly (Dr. Gregory Sinclair), Frank Montgomery (Francois Duval), Nita Naldi (Marie Le Grande)


Dr. Gregory Sinclair and his companion, Francois Duval, the lone survivors of a doomed Arctic expedition, find an old sailing vessel in the frozen wasteland that dates back 100 years. On board, they find a man frozen in ice and rescue him. Back home, they have yet to tell the man from the past, Howard Hilliard, that he has been revived 100 years later. At the home of Professor Strange, he sees Felice Strange about to get married and believes she is his lost sweetheart, Felice Norcross. She is, however, a descendent of the lost sweetheart and identical in appearance. The appearance of Hilliard disrupts the marriage, and when the groom, Dr. Gilbert Trent expresses anger and jealousy, Felice postpones the wedding. It seems she was marrying him only as a means of helping gher search for her lost father. Trent succeeds in having Hilliard taken to an insane asylum, but he escapes, finds Felice and vows to help her find her father. Who is responsible for her father's disappearance and what is this strange attraction Felice has for this man from the past?


Entry into the movies

The fame of Harry Houdini is well-known. His name is synonymous with "magic" and daring escapes. Born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary in 1874, his family emigrated to America in 1878 when he was four years old. He apparently took an early interest in being in top physical condition because before becoming a magician, he was both a champion cross country runner and a trapeze artist. The magic act soon evolved into an escape artist act, and by the turn of the century, Houdini was performing in top vaudeville houses in the United States and touring Europe.

It was only natural that the movies would want to cash in on his popularity, and he appeared in his first film for Pathe in 1901 basically showcasing several of his escape tricks. He was special effects consultant on "The Mysteries of Myra" in 1916, and an offer to star in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" that same year did not materialize for some unknown reason.

His first real starring role was in the 1918 serial "The Master Mystery" for producer B.A. Rolfe which was successful enough for Famous-Players Lasky to offer him a contract. He made "The Grim Game" (1919) and "Terror Island" (1920) for the company. Although they relied heavily on Houdini's stunts to draw movie patrons, the films were not considered to be successful. Convinced he could do a better job than Hollywood, Houdini and his brother formed the Houdini Picture Corporation in 1921. Their first effort was "The Man From Beyond."

This picture has enjoyed mild success among collectors over the years mainly because it's the only one of Houdini's five features that has been readily available for home viewing. It's not a bad film and has a story that maintains the viewer's interest throughout the six reels - albeit with some weak areas one must simply overlook to enjoy the drama. The story angle of a man frozen for 100 years and being brought back to life is certainly an intriguing gimmick, but the story also relies heavily on the belief in reincarnation - apparently to justify/explain the ultimate uniting of Howard Hilliard (the man frozen in time) and his lost love of 100 years ago, Felice Norcross, as the present-day Felice Strange.

Discovering "The Man From Beyond"

The film opens with Dr. Gregory Sinclair and Francois Duval, the last members of a doomed Arctic expedition fighting for their lives. As Sinclair lis on the ground giving up hope, Duval notices an old sailing vessel sitting in the ice, as if frozen in time (the artwork used for the derelict ship and Arctic and backgound looks as if they came from an old Edison or Melies film). On board ship, they discover a man frozen in ice on the deck. As they search the ship, Sinclair finds a letter dated 1820 from Howard Hilliard that he wrote to his sister. In the letter, he says he shipped out because of a girl, Felice Norcross, who is on board with her father. He said they have been blown miles off course, but it doesn't matter with her on board.

Francois chips away until he is able to remove the man from the ice. It is obvious he had taken a blow to the head. They feel that they can revive him and begin building a fire and massaging him. He awakens.

He apparently begins to remember, and we see a flashback of a storm at night and a ship being tossed on the sea. He is with a girl, and they, along with a couple of sailors, area abandoning the ship on a small boat. The girl pleads for the life of her father, and the man goes back on board. It is unclear why, but he struggles with one of the sailors and is knocked out.

Back in the present with Sinclair and Duval, he immediately asks for Felice and begins running across the ship and onto the frozen tundra to find her. They bring him back to the ship and determine not to tell him the truth just yet about being frozen in time. The next scene shows them back home in the city. It is unclear whether there is a portion of the film missing to explain the transition between the scene on the ship and the scene back home or if the film simply fails to address how they made their way home. As noted, the film opens with Sinclair and Duval struggling to make their way across the frozen wasteland, without food, and exhausted to the point that Sinclair collapses in the snow.

That aside, it is three months later, and we are now in the home of Prof. Crawford Strange who is Sinclair's brother-in-law. It is at his home that scientists are convening to determine how to announce this discovery to the world.

Felice reincarnated

There is a wedding taking place in the home that Howard observes. When he sees the bride, he believes it to be Felice and runs to her. He is restrained by the men. "What is the meaning of this? What is the man to you?" the groom demands of his bride. "How dare you ask such a question of me?" she responds. The groom walks away. She tells them to let Howard go, bravely announcing that she is not afraid of him. Howard asks why she is marrying this man - did she believe him dead? She responds, to his disappointment, that she doesn't know who he is. Once again we are confused that Howard, having existed in the present (1920) day for three months, still does not realize it is 100 years later! Certainly the environment - homes, clothing, telephones, automobiles, etc., would have required an explanation.

As the story continues, we learn that the spurned groom is Dr. Gilbert Trent, and not-so-nice guy who has called the police claiming that Howard is insane. We can only assume that Trent's stature in the medical community is such that his word alone would warrant Howard being committed to an insane asylum. Interestingly, but a little hard to swallow, is an intertitle that tells us, "Dr. Sinclair decides not to interfere in view of his plan to keep his discovery a secret until he has learned Hillary's complete story."

We then switch to a scene that provides the viewer with a heretofore unknown bit of information - Felice's father, Dr. Crawford Strange, has been missing for some time. The interchange between Felice and Sinclair, however, begins to enlighten us - especially about Dr. Trent. "Where is father?" she asks her uncle. "Why didn't he return with you?" To which Sinclair responds, "Your father? Why - he turned back when Dr. Trent wired him of your illness." Felice says she hasn't been ill, and her father never returned. In fact, Trent said her father was very ill in the northern country, and, knowing she could not go alone, she consented to marry Trent to take her there (once again, the story tests our level of believability).

At the asylum, Howard is laid on the floor, rolled in sheets and then they "turn the water on him." This scene brought about some controversy and criticism in particular from Dr. C. Floyd Haviland, Chairman of the State Hospital Commission. He complained that Howard Hillary's treatment in the insane asylum did not depict today's (1921's) treatment of mental patients . He wrote a disclaimer that Houdini agreed to use in promoting the picture that stated New York no longer has asylums, padded cells, straight jackets or treatments such as was depicted in the movie. He added that patients were treated in hospitals for mental disease and the depiction in the film was from a past era. Haviland also pushed for an explanatory intertitle to be inserted into the film. We see this intertitle just prior to the sheets and water scene where one of the guards states, "We're putting him through a little treatment they had back in the dark ages. The authorities wouldn't stand for this stuff today."

At this same time, Felice decides to go to the asylum. An intertitle tells us, "An unexplainable influence draws Felice to the mysterious stranger - telling her that he is mad, yet wanting to hear more of his story." We see Howard bound in sheets, strapped down on a mat on the floor and water spraying on him from the ceiling. However, when Felice arrives, they open the cell, and Howard has vanished.

Not to forget out antagonist, Dr. Trent is shown befriending Duval. He brings the Dr. Sinclair's gullible traveling companion to an old friend, Marie Le Grande, for help. He instructs her to use her feminine wiles on Duval to find out what went on in the Arctic - what the true story is about Howard.

Reincarnation as a publicity angle

In the meantime, Howard has inexplicably cleaned up and found a suit of clothes and is shown scaling the wall to Felice's balcony. She lets him in and tells him she went to the asylum, but he wasn't there. In a flashback, we see him wriggling from the restraints and using the sheets to climb to an upper window of the cell and escape. Carrying the sheets with him, he throws them over the high wall leading down from the asylum and makes his way to the ground.

Finally, she learns Howard's story, and he discovers his journey in time. She asks about this girl he knew and when. He believes that stormy night on the ship was only a year before until she shows him a newspaper with 1922 on it. "If I am the girl you say I am and you love me, you must find my father," she tells him. "I do love you - and I will find your father," he says.

Houdini's interest in reincarnation is tossed in as an aside in the film. In one scene, Felice asks her uncle, "Do you believe that she - or anyone who had died - could ever come back to earth again?" He replies, "That is the theory of reincarnation - a soul that passes out before it has gained its heart's desire feels the earth-call and must come back and work out its destiny." She seems delighted at this answer, getting up and almost dancing - apparently she feels she is the reincarnation of the original Felice, and her love for Howard is confirmed.

The reincarnation aspect was used as a publicity angle, as well. The movie's pressbook notes, "The theme of 'The Man from Beyond' deals with a spiritualistic subject which has attracted the attention of the greatest exponents of the spiritualistic cult, including the noted spiritualist and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. So interested in 'The Man From Beyond' was Sir Arthur that he addressed a letter of praise to Houdini." Obviously, the endorsement of someone of Doyle's stature could not go untapped.

The story picks up in pace at this point and works to an exciting conclusion. Dr. Trent, through Marie, convinces Duval to lie that Howard killed Dr. Strange on the expedition. Trent kidnaps Felice. Some exciting elements that are to come include Trent attempting to inject Felice with a drug so she'll marry him, and Howard's daring rescue of Felice before she goes over Niagara Falls. Film notes with the Kino DVD release state, "Houdini did, in fact, perform his own feats of daring. In shooting the swim above Niagara Falls, Houdini was attached to a steel cable to keep him from being swept away."

". . . about the grade of a serial"

Variety (April 7, 1922) praised the stunts but panned the story. "It is a five-reeler of about the grade of a serial built along lines of candid melodrama, but aspiring to higher appeal through its spiritual import, which deals in a rather stumbling way with the problem of the hereafter. The two things don't go together." The reviewer continued, "Taken as a frank melodrama, it has a whale of a punch. Houdini does a sensational rescue of the heroine in the Niagara rapids, and it has a kick that would carry any audience with it . . ." but he adds, "It is a veritable whale of a stunt and would have made the picture if the surrounding story had backed it up and led to it properly. The trouble is that the presumption of high literary meaning in the rest of the story is all bosh."

The New York Times (April 4, 1922) said, "Houdini fighing the rapids of what is said to be and certainl looks like Niagara River, Houdini climbing the outside wall of a building, Houdini releasing himself fom binding cords and sheets, hHoudini struggling with another man on the edge of a precipice - such things provide what interesting stuff there is in 'The Man From Beyond' . . . IT is a stunt picture, but the trouble is it is not all stunts. It tries to be a dramatic composition and doesn't succeed."

Harrison's Reports (April 15, 1922) boldly claimed the picture to be a winner. "A truly remarkable picture and one that is a genuine 'thriller;' it is entirely different from any production heretofore attempted. . . Mr. Houdini is so well-known as a matchless public entertainer that his picture, fascinating because of its uncanny, supernatural atmosphere, should give one hundred per cent satisfaction wherever it is shown."

No charisma, lackluster

Houdini simply fails to satisfy as a dashing hero. The 48-year old escape artist had the reputation to draw audiences, and no doubt there was the appeal of seeing the great artist perform his amazing stunts especially to those who could not see him in person. Although he does a competent job, the screen charisma is not there.

Pat Connelly, a virtual unknown, plays Felice. She appeared in only one other film - Buster Keaton's "Sherlock, Jr." (1924). She, too, provides a rather lackluster portrayal. Her indignation when Dr. Trent questions her relationship to Howard Hilliard at the wedding lacks emotion. Not much more can be said for her scenes with Houdini. It is interesting that she was the wife of Erwin Connelly who plays her uncle, Dr. Gregory Sinclair, in the film. The two had appeared in vaudeville together, and he was with her in both her films appearances, as well. There is little information on her other than she died after a nervous breakdown in 1925 at age 42. Erwin Connelly can be seen in three Keaton features from the early twenties, Pickford's "Kiki" (1926), Valentino's "The Son of the Sheik" (1926), "The Winning of Barbara Worth" (1926) with Ronald Colman and Vilma Banky and several other films. A charming portrayal as Bessie Love's father in the minor comedy "Rubber Tires" (1927) indicates he had a real knack for subtle comedy. He died in 1931 at age 52.

By the way, the forever intriguing Nita Naldi plays the role of the seductress Marie Le Grande (what a name!) and, although brief, meets the requirements of the part to perfection - as always.

The DVD version reviewed here was released by Kino International and provides a good quality picture with occasional minor scratches and an excellent piano score by Jon Mirsalis. The story is hokum, and the acting of the leads is lacking, but it is, after all, the great Houdini, and the stunts - particularly the Niagara falls rescue - are exciting. No, it's not great art, but it IS great fun!

On a side note:
On the day the movie was to premiere at the Times Square Theatre in New York, someone realized that the Houdini Motion Picture Company had not received a license from the Motion Picture Commission which was required in New York state. A desperate letter signed by Houdini himself, noted that thousands of dollars had been spent in advertising, attendance was by invitation only, and no admission would be charged. This seemed to satisfy the Commission, and that one evening's screening was approved. Also, originally seven reels, the film was edited down from seven reels to six reels before release (although in contradiction to this, Variety review referred to it as a "five-reeler.")

Author John Baxter in Stunt: The Story of the Great Movie Stuntmen (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974), said for the filming of the Niagara rescue, which took place in May, 1921, "director Burton King built a leather harness sliding on a cable that let Houdini swim through the foaming water with ease."

The snow scenes were shot at Lake Placid.

Copyright 2008 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.

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