Tickled by Canary Feather’s account of being an accompanist for silent movies, I was in the mood for another non-talkie. The term may be unhappy in its connotation of lack, yet seems preferable to “silent movie,” considering that, prior to the late 1920, the sound for motion pictures was supplied by those playing the piano or the organ; even sound effects artists and entire orchestras were not unheard. Having had my fill of non-talkie comedy of late, I chose a melodrama likely to wear out the most resourceful and nimble-fingered of pianists: The Master Mystery a 1919 thriller underscored by Stuart Oderman, whom I have often heard and seen playing the piano to movies screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Intolerance, Grandma’s Boy, and Caligari—Lillian Gish biographer Stuart Oderman has articulated them all.
In the case of The Master Mystery, the pianist must have been relieved that his accompaniment was being recorded, rather than performed live. However fragmentary, the film still runs an epic 238 minutes. With an attention span shortened by broadband and a clock ticking down the last minutes of the day, I was resolved to take in this thriller as it was conceived; that is, as a weekly chapter play.
From the first instalment, I expected little more than an exposition, an introduction of the main characters, and the obligatory cliffhanger. After all, The Master Mystery stars the famed escape artist Harry Houdini (previously encountered on a boat about to go over Niagara Falls).
Now, I pride myself in not readily throwing in the remote control; but The Master Mystery, with its secret identities, its corridors and hidden caves stalked by an pre-RUR automaton, and its cases of Madagascar Madness—proved too complex to master at that late hour. The opening title card should have been ample warning. The “Foreword” reads:
International Patents, Inc., is a firm whose vast fortune has been made by inducing inventors to trust the marketing of inventions to their care and after obtaining sole rights—they suppress the manufacture of these inventions—much to the financial gain of the owners of already existing patents.
However intriguing, this is hardly the most effective way of opening a chapter play. We have not yet been introduced to any of the characters, but are confronted instead with a corporation and with legalities not quite the stuff of melodramatic action. Equally frustrating is the introduction of characters by indirection, that is, as a name on a title card not referring to the character shown. The secretary of businessman Peter Brent, for instance, is identified as being “secretly in the service of Balcom,” before we are shown the latter.
My own shortcomings aside, was it writerly ineptitude that caused me to get lost in the muddle? Was it owing to the fragmentary state of the surviving print, segments of which have been “rearranged” to create the “illusion of completeness”? Or was it, perhaps, all part of a shrewd design? I was determined to fill in the blanks with whatever notes I could find. Notes? How about an entire book!
In May 1919, Masters of Mystery was published as a novelization co-written by Arthur B. Reeve, one of the scenarists credited as the “authors” of the serial. Yes, viewers lost in the maze from which only Houdini could extricate himself, were promised a key to it all in the form of a published book, replete with stills from the film. I wonder just how many resorted to a purchase in hopes of mastering this Mystery?
Here is how the opening title card is translated into some semblance of a narrative:
“I will see Mr. Brent,” insisted the new-comer, as he pushed past the butler. “Mr. Brent!” he cried, advancing with a wild light in his eyes. “I’m tired of excuses. I want justice regarding that water-motor of mine.” He paused, then added, shaking his finger threateningly, “Put it on the market—or I will call in the Department of Justice!”
Brent scowled again. For years he had been amassing a fortune by a process that was scarcely within the law. For, when inventions threaten to render useless already existing patents, necessitating the scrapping of millions of dollars’ worth of machinery, vested interests must be protected.
Thus, Brent and his partner, Herbert Balcom, had evolved a simple method of protecting corporations against troublesome inventors and inventions. They had formed their own corporation, International Patents, Incorporated.
Their method was effective—though desperate. It was to suppress the inventor and his labor. They bought the sole rights from the inventor, promising him glittering royalties. The joker was that the invention was suppressed. None were ever manufactured. Hence there were no royalties and the corporations went on undisturbed while Brent and Balcom collected huge retainers for the protection they afforded them.
Thus Brent Rock had come to be hated by scores of inventors defrauded in this unequal conflict with big business.
While the perfunctory prose suggests that the book is not always better than the movie, I was at least caught up with the story and prepared to follow Houdini as he gets in and out of scrapes to a score by Stuart Oderman . . . next week.