Before there was Superman, created by a couple of Jewish guys in the 1930s as a modern, pulp-fiction Sampson in brightly colored tights and cape — there was a real Jewish Superman. And, right now, he’s springing back to life in a way that would have made Harry Houdini grin!
Now, for the first time in the lives of American Baby Boomers, we can see Houdini’s entire, surviving legacy on film. This new triple-DVD set just released by Kino International becomes a remarkable Passover story, because all of us are searching right now for the spiritual energy to overcome the powers of bondage in our world, aren’t we?
The story starts this way …
Once upon a time, there was a little 4-year-old Jewish immigrant named Erich Weiss — who, even when he reached adulthood, stood 5-foot-5. At the height of his powers, dressed immaculately in suit and tie with the air of a college professor or perhaps a famous doctor — Houdini loved to stage public displays of his powers in the busy streets just outside major newspaper offices.
Given his size, he routinely sought out police officers for these public spectacles who would tower over him as they roughly grabbed him and literally threw him into straight jackets or chains or — in some cases after chaining his body — into deep, cold water.
Seeing this little, noble form with his wise, highly cultured face set off by his perfectly knotted ties — it was quite a jolt to watch these big bruisers encircle him. They would actually toss him to and fro as they pulled the restraints as tightly as possible around his body.
This all contributed to the awesome wonder of Houdini’s escapes.
Yes, it’s true: Houdini also was famous as a magician and everyone knew that his theatrical shows were illusions.
But it was his amazing physical accomplishments on land, in the air and under water — real, life-and-death threats to the man himself — that made him world famous.
These feats were achieved by his sheer force of will, physical training, personal charisma and a clever understanding of the psychology of his foes.
What a Passover story, hmmm?
If you’re familiar with Houdini at all, you probably think of the sideshow image that appears at right of a nearly naked muscular man in chains — a freakish sight.
Frequently, his origins also were misunderstood because his stage name and dark wavy hair gave the impression of Italian origins.
In fact, Erich Weiss (whose family name originally was Weisz) was the son of Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss, a German-speaking rabbi from Hungary who moved to Appleton, Wisconsin. Everything seemed wonderful as Rabbi Weiss was named the first full-time rabbi for about a dozen Jewish families. Appleton was a fairly diverse town for the Midwest in that era. Pride in also having a local college campus in Appleton gave citizens a feeling of cosmopolitan cooperation.
Erich himself was born in Budapest in 1874 and traveled to Wisconsin with the rest of of the rabbi’s family in 1878, after the rabbi had spent a year or two in the U.S., settling into his new congregational role.
However, the family soon encountered a powerful social force that was to fuel the complete reshaping of Erich’s life, according to a number of his biographers.
That force? Erich grew up in an America in which immigrants desperately wanted to wipe away their roots in their pursuit of the American mainstream.
This desire to assimilate became a source of great pain for the Weiss family and led to the failure of Erich’s father in the eyes of his Appleton congregation. Within just a few years, these Wisconsin families decided that this rabbi wasn’t going to become the kind of American-style leader they had envisioned. The rabbi was too mired in European Jewish ways. Still a boy, Erich watched as these families fired his father — touching off a dismal, downward spiral for the family. Eventually, the impoverished rabbi wound up moving to New York City, where he died an agonizing death from cancer in 1892.
While Erich loved his parents, he was attracted from childhood to the mainstream of American celebrity, which at that time involved circuses and traveling stage shows.
By the time of his father’s death, he already had run away from home once or twice and was cutting himself off from his heritage with a stage name that honored a pioneering magician whose last name was Houdin. He picked the first name Harry partly because his nickname for years had been “Ehrie,” which sounded a lot like Harry. Coupled with Houdini, the stage name had a powerful alliterative ring.
In fact, the name was the least of Houdini’s transformations.
His life became a pursuit of personal transformation. He was a talented athlete who won honors as a swimmer. He became an early aviator and holds the unusual record for making the first, successful, powered flight in the skies above Australia.
One of the amazing clips in the new DVD set is footage of Houdini staging an extremely dangerous feat in which he slid down a rope in mid air from one airplane to another with the wind whipping the cord around as he struggled to survive.
In the best Houdini film in this DVD collection, the silent film “Terror Island,” the opening titles explained to viewers in 1920: “It is of interest to know that Houdini, world-famous for his exploits as self-liberator, actually performed the amazing feats here pictured.”
Reading those words in a film produced nearly a century ago makes one realizes what a huge sensation Houdini would have been today. Somehow, he managed to link his own spiritual yearnings with his physical and professional passions and summed it all up in an eerily 21st-Century phrase:
This is the point at which the Houdini film footage can get downright haunting.
Even in the short Kino trailer at the end of today’s story, you can glimpse a few seconds of the kinds of crowds that swarmed the streets for Houdini’s public escapes.
After you’ve watched the clip with your eyes glued on Houdini himself, watch again and look at the faces in the crowd. On the DVD set, the crowd scenes are much longer and clearer. Looking into these faces in clip after clip on the DVDs, you’ll find expressions of awe and bemusement — but you’ll also find people leering at this strange sight, clearly hoping to witness Houdini’s death.
Thinking about those grainy black-and-white images of crowds, drawn by the bizarre spectacle of a possible death by hanging, one one has to think of other freakish images of American crowds. We may even think of the crowds that showed up to watch lynchings. We may think of crowds that showed up in Europe during the rise — or even during the fall — of Fascism.
And, at the center of it all? There’s this little man, looking very much like a vulnerable professor, who manages to escape whatever is threatening his life.
Reflecting on Houdini’s life as a Jewish immigrant, then watching scenes of bizarre restraints and life-threatening tortures in his films, one has to think of later scenes — terrible scenes of crowds caught up in a far greater evil than anything Houdini, who died in 1926, could have envisioned.
And yet, here was a man who — even if he hid his heritage from the world — was determined to prove that humans have the power to defy all odds by sheer force of will and training.
There was so much that Houdini couldn’t see.
His films follow silent-era conventions for cliff hangers, particularly the sad choice of using exotic-looking minorities as the most convenient sources of stock villains. There are Asian and South Sea island villains in these films, for instance, that make us wince today.
But what Houdini saw quite clearly was the mythic persona of what we later would call the superhero. In one film, he becomes a famous crime fighter and viewers are told that his transformation was fueled by the tragic death of his father at the hands of criminals.
One title tells us that this hero’s life was shaped by “memories of a father’s fate and, with them, a fierce longing for vengeance.”
Think about it.
With a slight variation, that’s the story of Batman’s origin years later.
On another level, that’s the story of young Erich Weiss’ transformation into Houdini.
And what did Houdini proclaim was the proper mission for heroes?
In “Terror Island,” the best of these films, he not only plays a hero of supreme physical abilities — but he’s also a visionary scientist who invents a submarine and other high-tech gear to recover a cache of lost diamonds in the South Pacific. When a friend asks him what has sparked such extreme creative passion, Houdini points out of his office window at orphaned children in the busy streets below.
“I would use every dollar to brighten the lives of little waifs — like those two out there,” he says.
He means it, too, because long after the high adventure is over, after he has recovered the diamonds and won the love of the true-hearted girl — the film closes with this loving couple hosting an elaborate summer camp for scores of orphans.
This is truly a haunting Passover story — with as much pain as triumph.
Finally getting a chance to see the collected cinematic works of Houdini this spring is likely to make many of us contemplate Passover themes in fresh ways this year.
Want to see Houdini in action?
First, you can click on the cover of the DVD set above to jump to our review and you can order a copy via Amazon right from our site, if you wish.
Also, you also can click on the video screen below to see the Kino trailer for the new DVD collection. If there’s no screen visible in your version of this story, then visit YouTube to see the Kino trailer of Harry Houdini’s films.
WANT TO EXPLORE THE SPIRITUAL SIDE OF SUPERHEROES FURTHER?
We continue to cover news about spiritual themes in comic books and graphic novels. Here’s our latest major story about the rebirth of the comic genre.
TELL US WHAT YOU THINK. What are you reflecting on during Passover this year? What are you planning for Earth Day? What do you think about our Harry Houdini story today?
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