Monday, October 3, 2011


It was another peculiar image that sent me on a decades-long quest: Houdini fighting with a robot. It was a clunky robot, but then it was from a silent movie. It was more than man-sized, but there also was a small, doll-sized version. Sometimes it carried a candelabra.

I first saw it on Jay Ward's experiment in pre-postmodernism, Fractured Flickers. What was this movie? I longed to see it. Someday.

Later I read about it in some Houdini biographies. It was The Master Mystery, a silent serial. There was even a novelization.

Houdini plays a Justice Department agent investigating a corporation that buys patents to keep the inventions off the market in order to extort big payoffs from established businesses who would have to compete with the new technology. A top executive's brain has been “transplanted” into an “automaton” – the robot who went by the name of Candlestick Parker in Fractured Flickers!

The automaton gives orders to a gang of thugs who keep putting Houdini into complicated death traps that he can escape from rather than simply shooting or stabbing him. Not very smart – but then they are following the orders of a corporate executive.

There's also a mind-paralyzing drug that the automaton used that candelabra to deploy, a heroine and a villainess who both fall in love with Houdini, a fake fortune teller, Fu Manchu/Yellow Peril Asians, a hypnosis machine, and an idol with heat ray eyes.

Sections are damaged and/or missing, entire chapters are synopsized, and it ends with the cliff-hanger of the penultimate chapter, making it look like the evil corporation triumphs -- just why is the world still hanging onto fossil fuels?

But it's still pretty damn entertaining.

I think this is because the complete story isn't the point. The appeal of serials isn't linear. They are slices of melodrama rather than life. The plot isn't as important as the delirious effect of the stream of mayhem that keeps titillating the audience before it has to go back to life in a fracturing world.

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