Cinema Station

Desert Island Movie: Trapeze | February 22, 2011

Desert Island Movie # 4 Trapeze


Outside of using them as a backdrop for horror films they don’t make circus movies anymore. Yet there was a time when they made them so frequently that it almost amounted to a sub genre unto itself.  And any number of popular stars had at least one circus picture on their resumes.  John Wayne, Charleston Heston, Dorothy Lamour, Betty Hutton, James Stewart, Esther Williams, Cliff Robertson, Doris Day, Kirk Douglas along with Clyde Beatty who was a circus impresario and author Mickey Spillane of Mike Hammer fame.  Some titles include; Ring of Fire (1954), The Big Circus (1959), The Big Show (1961) Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962) and Circus World (1974)…The best known, highest grossing, most critically acclaimed and most honored was Cecile B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). It was given the Academy Award as the Best Picture of that year. And Mr. DeMille who was known as “The King of Epics” did indeed make the biggest circus picture of them all, loaded with spectacle, thrills, stars, sentiment, and enough plotlines to support three films all held together by a stirring narration spoken by Mr. DeMille himself.  But even with all that my all time favorite circus picture is Burt Lancaster’s Trapeze (1956). I say Lancaster’s because although he didn’t direct it, (England’s Carol The Third Man Reed did) he was the dominant creative force behind the entire enterprise. The film was produced by Hecht- Hill – Lancaster a company he helped to found. They had produced the Academy Award winning Marty (1955). This was a story that Lancaster brought to them for development because the subject was close to his heart. Prior to becoming a movie star Lancaster had been a circus acrobat and had been looking for a long time for a story with a circus background. In fact one could say that many of his action pictures prior to Trapeze due to his physical hi jinks in them were sort of circus pictures in disguise.  I’m thinking of films like The Flame and the Arrow (1950) and The Crimson Pirate (1952) both featuring his former circus partner Nick Cravat. But now he had found the right story in Max Catto’s novel The Killing Frost which writers Liam O’Brien, James R. Webb, Wolf Mankowitz and the great Ben Hecht turned into a screen play called Trapeze.

Now this is by no means is an authentic depiction of circus life any more than The Godfather (1972) is an accurate portrayal of organized crime.. Like that classic film Trapeze is a glamorous and highly romanticized rendition of its subject. And that is exactly what makes it a terrific film. It’s romantic, it’s glamorous, it’s beautifully shot, the circus atmosphere is handsomely rendered and the three leading players couldn’t look more beautiful or physically capable. Lancaster, of course, shines. He was 42 and in great shape physically. So much so that he did all the stunts in the film himself…Gina Lolabrigida, who, preceding Sophia Loren, was the screen’s leading Italian sexpot. She was called “The most beautiful woman in the world” at the time and in this film she looks it. But her performance as the narcissistically  ambitious tumbler goes beyond the physical. It is solid and emotionally credible…And Tony Curtis (30 when the film was made) has never looked more handsome in a movie. This was his first major role in a class A, high budget film with a world re known director and a truly international cast. And Curtis made the most of his opportunity. He was always an athletically capable performer and in this one , with coaching from Lancaster and others, he is entirely convincing as Tino Orsini, the young hot shot trapeze artist. Because of his pretty boy looks Curtis was always an underrated actor. In Trapeze he gives a well balanced, romantic performance that would catapult him into the upper echelons of screen stardom.


The film in short tells the story of the new young artist replacing the old one. Here the “Old man” after some resistance and coaching becomes the young man’s teacher and mentor. All is well until a conniving woman named Lola inserts herself in their midst using her looks and sexuality to potent effect. It splits the duo apart and sets up questions as to whether or not they will be able to arrive at the historical breakthrough of performing the triple mid air somersault that they were working so hard to achieve. Reed’s stylized direction takes us wholly into the world of this particular circus and its environs. And with the creative input of his cinematographer Robert Krasker, he uses the then new cinemascope process to full effect.

I like this film because the atmosphere is exotic, the trapeze sequences are breathtaking and the story is suspenseful as well as romantic. When I was a kid everyone dreamed of running away with the circus and living with people who make their living performing death defying stunts that stun and amaze us. If all of them were like the one in this film I definitely would. But since I didn’t the next best thing is this film. And that’s why I want it on my desert island.



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