Long before “Seinfeld” gave us “Festivus,” “feats of strength” were a regular feature of vaudeville, touring circuses and The Roaring ’20s.
That was the heyday of “The Mighty Atom,” a steel-bending, car-pulling (with his teeth, or his hair), chain biting (in two) 5’4″ 148 pound dynamo whose story is classic “98 lb. weakling” legend.
His exploits alone made him worth remembering, but the fact that he was Jewish has made Joseph Greenstein’s life the subject of magazine articles, books and documentaries.
After all, jokes his grandson Steven Greenstein, “The list of Jewish superheroes is kind of low,” in the documentary he made about his grandpa.
“The Mighty Atom” is an engagingly adoring film featuring lots of interviews with other Greensteins (Joseph’s fellow-strongman sons) that takes a lot of what Joe did and said at face value. And even though, in the film’s closing act, they admit that Joseph lied about his age to make his feats seem even greater than they were, you accept their credulity at face value.
The unquestionable claim they make, as a family, is that “there was a touch of P.T. Barnum” in the man.
And yet there’s film footage of Joe stopping an airplane from taking off, yanking a car down the street by his teeth or hair, bending railroad spikes and turning steel bars into “scrolls,” curls of metal.
An expert on biomechanics from Texas State U. talks about the parameters of human physical strength, and how Joe might have done what he claims he did.
A team from Bradenton, Florida’s MOTUS Academy may show how difficult it is to replicate Joe’s stunts (using a modern day strongman and motion-capture technology to measure the power generated by hands, thumbs and grip necessary to bend a horseshoe.
And a higher-up from Ripley’s Believe it Or Not, where The Mighty Atom’s exploits were heralded in print and in their “Odditoriums” all over the world, recounts their verification.
“If it’s in Ripley’s, it’s real.”
Still, the more skeptical among us can question the man’s origin story, running away to join the circus as a tubercular shrimp, mentored by a circus wrestler, learning (on location) the secrets of diet, training and focus of India and Asia, getting his “big break” by changing the tire on Harry Houdini’s car in 1920s Galveston, Texas.
“Did it without a jack,” his son Mike (also an elderly strongman) marvels. Joe just “picked the car up, with Houdini in it,” pulled one tire off and put another on.
“The Mighty Atom,” largely built around those interviews and a 1967 radio talk Joe gave to WNBC in New York, wanders off topic from time to time. Other strongmen show off their specialties, a young woman relates how she lifted a car that had fallen on her father. There’s speculation that the Jewish creators of “Superman” might have been inspired by The Mighty Atom’s well-publicized exploits.
But even if you take all this as pure hokum with a heaping helping of hype, Greenstein’s documentary about his grandpa (and still muscular Uncle Mike, pulling cars on TV at 91) can be savored for its recollection of American live entertainment during the Jazz Age, and for a family legend that, if it isn’t the literal truth, is still too colorful and entertaining to not repeat.
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Cast: Joseph Greenstein, Mike Greenstein, Steven Greenstein
Credits: Written and directed by Steven Greenstein. A Squad 47 release.
Running time: 1:15