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THE MASTER MYSTERY (1919)
Article #495 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 7-23-2002
Posting Date: 12-16-2002

When an executive in a business that makes its money by buying inventions and holding them from production gets stricken with conscience, he is poisoned by his partner, and a power struggle for the company ensues.

I'm beginning to get the impression that there was a greater variety of serial plots during the silent era than there was during the sound era; in fact, the above description doesn't sound like a serial at all in some ways. Not to worry; there are plenty of serial-like thrills on hand, especially as one of the main villains is a robot (called an automaton; this was before the word "robot" was coined). In fact, "cyborg" may be a more correct term, as the story implies that the mechanical man is the housing of a human brain; the actual truth of the matter remains a secret until the end of the story. The real novelty of this serial, however, is the presence of Harry Houdini as the hero (the serial was also referred to as "The Houdini Serial"). This would be just ordinary gimmick casting except for the fact that the serial makes good use of Houdin's abilities as an escape artist by making them the centerpieces of the cliffhangers. There are no cheats here; they revolve around seeing Houdini actually escape from the bonds that hold him prisoner. This is a wonderful idea, even if it gets a little repetitive. There are a few flaws here; there are too many moments where the heroes stupidly trust untrustworthy villains ("I've decided to turn over a new leaf. If you visit me at this address, I will turn evidence over to you!"), and the middle gets pretty muddled, though the latter problem is at least partially the result that the serial does not exist in its entirety. It was originally 15 episodes; the copy I have claimed it has been edited into eleven episodes, but I only count ten, and the number of the last one is nine, so go figure. At any rate, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses here, and I enjoyed this one quite a bit.

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