Disguised as an employee of “International Patents Incorporated”, Justice Department agent Quentin Locke (Harry Houdini) is in reality a secret service agent investigating the company. Authorities believe the company is a front for a powerful cartel. They buy patents from unsuspecting inventors and refuse to market them. The conspirators want to suppress the inventions made by others and profit from their own inventions.
The company is run by Peter Brent (Jack Burns). Locke is secretly in love with Brent’s daughter Eva (Marguerite Marsh). The Vice President of the company is Herbert Balcom (Charles E. Graham). He doesn’t trust Brent and keeps a watchful eye on him. Brent’s secretary Zita Dane (Ruth Stonehouse) secretly reports to Balcom all of Brent’s actions. Balcom’s son Paul (William Pike) is informally engaged to Brent’s daughter Eva; however, he is also secretly seeing De Luxe Dora (Edna Britton) who is in on the conspiracy. Eva is none too keen on marrying Paul and is attracted to Locke.
Balcom discovers that Brent is feeling remorse and plans on releasing the patents and marketing the products. To put him out of commission one of Balcom’s other conspirators is an Automaton or robot. There is also a Dr. Q that is part of the cabal. Q has the Automaton expose Brent to a poisonous gas called the “Madagascar Madness”. The poison affects the nervous system that reacts like a permanent laughing gas. When Locke tries to find out what is going on he ends up handcuffed, tied up, and/or trussed in various ways.
“The Master Mystery” was released in 1919 and was directed by Harry Grossman and Burton L. King. It is a silent mystery serial starring Harry Houdini. I thought it was an interesting touch that Houdini’s name in the serial was Locke since his specialty was getting out of them.
The main hook of the movie is the cliffhangers. Each one is Houdini being trussed up in some way at the end and showing how he gets out of it in the beginning of the next installment. Each cliffhanger gets more intricate and nastier as it goes along. Originally some five hours long it is now pared down to somewhere around four hours, do to so much of the serial having deteriorated or gone missing. Naturally since an hour or so of the serial is missing, several of the escape feats are also gone.
The serial has gotten criticism for the plot being repetitive and thin. In case you don’t know by now, pretty much all serials are. But as far as cliffhangers go, being chained, put in a trunk and shoved into the ocean is far more of a nail biter than jumping from a moving car. It’s a fun and interesting little production. Seeing little troll-like Houdini as a hero and leading man is strange but, hey, he deserves to get the girl after all that work. Not to mention that there is a lot of robot in many of the episodes which adds more fun to the serial.
A novelization of the serial was done by John W. Grey and Arthur B. Reeve, who also co-wrote the script. The novelization was published in 1919 and contained many stills from the film.
Of the original 15 episodes 13 survive in the UCLA Film and Television Archives. The two installments that are basically totally missing are chapters four and ten. They are presumed lost. The Kino Video version contains chapters 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14 and 15 in complete form and fragments from chapters 3, 4, 5, 6, 10 and 11.
CHAPTER TITLES: (1) Living Death; (2) The Iron Terror; (3) The Water Peril; (4) The Test; (5) The Chemist's Shop; (6) The Mad Genius; (7) Barbed Wire; (8) The Challenge; (9) The Madagascan Madness; (10) The Binding Ring; (11) The Net; (12) The Death Noose; (13) The Flash of Death; (14) The Tangled Web; (15) Bound at Last or The Unmasking of the Automaton.