The Master Mystery, Happy Anniversary! 97 Years Strong!



This partly lost, mostly there gem of a thriller has a “here, there and everywhere” opening date, of which I will attempt to settle upon one in this short article. This film provides a luxuriant offering for science-fiction and mystery buffs of all ages and demonstrates the charisma that was resident in Harry Houdini, the star of this landmark serial…


On Thursday morning, November 7, 1918 at the Strand Theater (1579 Broadway, New York City), the first five episodes of The Master Mystery, were shown in a special trade showing. Harry Houdini attended, seated in a stage box. From the report in Brooklyn Life, Mr. Houdini’s performance in the serial was validated by the applause from the audience and by the number of times the crowd came to their feet with each astounding escape in the picture.[1] The review seen in the November 16, edition of, The Billboard, glowed, rhapsodized, and thoroughly encouraged, the exhibitor, of the film’s possibilities at the box-office.[2] On Saturday, November 30, 1918, filming was complete on, The Master Mystery; this was the first time that a serial was finished prior to its official release.[3] Within days of the completion of the series, Grossett & Dunlap announced that they would soon publish the movie-book tie-in.[4]



By Christmas time, the serial made its bow in Pennsylvania, in Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.[5] Yet the official, initial viewing of, The Master Mystery, was at the St. James Theatre, in Boston, Massachusetts on Monday, November 18, 1918.Harry Houdini made fifteen personal appearances during that first month of release for Master Mystery, including the first installment in Boston.[6] Why did Boston receive the premiere of, The Master Mystery? The film’s producer, Benjamin A. Rolfe, while born in New York, had adopted the area as his home; at his death he was buried in Walpole, Massachusetts, some twenty-five miles southwest of Bean Town.

Boston_Post_ Boston, Massachusetts Sun__Nov_17__1918_

Boston Post, Boston, Massachusetts, November 17, 1918


I believe that I have found the reason that began our popular-modern misunderstanding of the premiere date of, The Master Mystery on March 1, 1919.[7] By that date in 1919, the territory representatives for the series were holding Trade previews in the western States, for impending release, but nowhere in that news item is a serial-premiere mentioned.[8] But, the Moving Picture World reported that episode one would be seen on March 1, 1919 in Chicago;[9] this is the only link that I can find to the incorrect statement that Master Mystery opened in March of 1919. The published evidence speaks volumes to the contrary of a March 1, ’19, premiere for the Houdini thriller, with the specific reference of the first trade show occurring on November 7, 1918 and the multiple contemporaneous sources making clear the much earlier Christmastide general-availability for exhibitors.



Film Fun December 1918

Film Fun December 1918

Picture-Play Magazine March, 1919

Picture-Play Magazine March, 1919


Harry Houdini, at one point in our history was every boy’s hero, (magician, escape artist, movie star), a robot, (first portrayed in film?), “The Madagascar Madness- Gas;” all these elements coming together for a serial that is (albeit incomplete) an E-Ticket ride! And the best news is that you can see it, even though it has been nearly one-hundred years since its opening; and better news still, that you may you see it, for it is accessible for your home viewing pleasure. The Master Mystery is available on DVD as part of a 3 disc set from Kino; albeit at an exorbitant price.[10]






By C. S. Williams



[1] Billboard, November 16, 1918

Brooklyn Life (Brooklyn, New York) November 23

[2] Billboard, November 16, 1918

[3] Billboard, November 30, 1918

Wid’s Daily, December 3, 1918

[4] Wid’s Daily, December 3, 1918

[5] Evening News (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) December 24, 1918

Gazette Times (Pittsburg, Pennsylvania) December 25, 1918

[6] Boston Post (Boston, Massachusetts) November 18, 1918

Ottawa Journal (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) December 28, 1918

[7] Indeed, on the release date page for, The Master Mystery on the Internet Movie Data Base, it details each episode’s opening through May 1, 1919.

[8] Moving Picture World, March 15, 1919

[9] Moving Picture World, March 15, 1919

[10]The following is a copy of the description: The Master Mystery (1919, 238m, Color Tinted), Terror Island (1920, 55m, B&W), The Man From Beyond (1922, 68m, Color Tinted), Haldane of the Secret Service (1923, 84m, Color Tinted), The Grim Game, (Fragment, 1919, 5m, Color Tinted). Special Features Include: Filmed records of Houdini escapes (ca. 1907-23) – Audio recording of Houdini speaking (1914) – Excerpts from the NY Censor Board files – Slippery Jim, a 1910 Houdini-inspired comedy – The illusion Metamorphosis performed by Houdini’s brother Hardeen.


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