Life is a Circus in Trapeze

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It all started with Strauss’s The Beautiful Blue Danube… and a fatal plunge…

Trapeze is one of those movies made to hold your breath, to be at the edge of your seat and contempt the colourful world of the impressive circus. I’m writing on this film today for the At the Circus Blogathon hosted by Letícia from Crítica Retrô and Summer from Serendipitous Anachronism.

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I don’t do this often, but, as I haven’t seen many circus movies, I chose to review one I had never seen. But I knew Trapeze could only be a winner for me because:

1- It stars Burt Lancaster, my 5th favourite actor.

2- It stars Tony Curtis, an actor I’m appreciating more and more.

3- Seeing more Gina Lollobrigida movies is ok for me! Same for Katy Jurado (who is part of the last movie I reviewed: High Noon. I like the coincidence)

4- When I realized it was directed by Carol Reed, it grabbed my attention even more. Actually, if I’m not wrong, I think it’s the first American movie directed by Carol Reed that I see.

My verdict: not disappointed. Not one minute!

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A 1956’s Cinemascope film, Trapeze is an adaptation of the novel The Killing Frost by Max Catto. It won the Silver Bear for Best Actor (Burt Lancaster) and the Public Prize at the 6th Berlin International Film Festival, and Carol Reed received a nomination for Best Director at the Directors Guild of America.

The action takes place at the Bouglione Circus in Paris, trapeze artist Tino Orsini (Tony Curtis) has just arrived in town to meet the great Mike Ribble (Burt Lancaster), whom, he believes, is the only one who can teach him how to do a dangerous triple somersault. Ribble is first not interested in working with him. Years before, he got badly injured precisely doing a triple somersault that failed. He since has to walk with a stick. But Riddle admits to his friend Rosa (Katy Jurado) that Orsini has talent. He finally accepts to create an act with him and to teach him the triple. Things go fine and the two men work well together until Lola (Gina Lollobrigida) imposes herself to be part of the act. Bouglione ( Thomas Gomez) put pressures on all of them, believing the important thing for his circus is the money and the public, not so much the quality of the acts. Then starts a series of manipulations and the formation of an inevitable love triangle.

I remember I was once having a conversation with my grandfather about old actors and he asked me if I liked Burt Lancaster. Of course! And then he wanted to know if I had seen Trapeze. But I had not. I think it’s not long after that Summer and Letícia announced their blogathon, so I thought it was the perfect occasion to see it!

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Burt Lancaster couldn’t have been better cast as Mike Riddle. You might know that, before breaking into movies, Mr. Lancaster first worked as an acrobat in the circus world. That’s where he met his longtime friend Nick Cravat. Unfortunately, after having been badly injured, Lancaster had to renounce to the circus life. After having served in the army, he became a movie star. His first movie was The Killers.

Burt the acrobat!

Burt Lancaster has always been athletic. Except for performing acrobatics in a circus, he also practiced Basket Ball, athletics, and gymnastic. Lancaster didn’t hesitate to use his skills and what he had learned from the circus in movies such as The Flame and the Arrow, The Crimson Pirate and, of course, Trapeze. Lancaster was a performer on many levels.

Interestingly enough, I even read that Lancaster used to ask for a high bar set up on sets and locations so he could perform acrobatics and stay in shape. (IMDB) Well, we all have noticed what a great body he had!

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From The Rose Tattoo

So, Burt was meant to play in Trapeze. Because of his experience, the actor could perform all his trapeze stunts by himself. The only part that is not performed by Lancaster himself is this famous triple somersault. Lancaster first wanted to do it, but technical adviser Eddie Ward thought it would be best for him to double him for the dangerous stunts. Ward was eventually replaced by Nick Cravat for the final stunt. Well, even if we don’t see Burt doing the famous triple somersault, we still can see him performing as an acrobat and that’s a delight.

Burt doesn’t only impress with his athleticism, but also for his performance. As always, he is full of charisma and dynamism. He transmits his intention in many ways. On that trapeze, but also on the ground when, with his majestical face and his impressive manners.

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Trapeze certainly was Burt’s film (he also produced it), but Tony Curtis is a revelation too. Unlike Burt Lancaster, this one hadn’t worked in a circus before, but he had the stature to be convincing in the role. We also have to remember that this is not only a circus show, but also a movie with a story. Curtis was believable and I have to say I much enjoyed his performance.

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Gina Lollobrigida didn’t impress me much. She was beautiful, of course. She was ok, but I was more mesmerized by Katy Jurado’s acting. If Lollobrigida is a bit plain, Jurado gives a touching performance and can easily be a favourite. Yes, she has the beautiful role, but that’s not the point. The fact that Lollobrigida’s acting wasn’t wonderful enough created a sort of ambiguity and, to be honest, I can really say what I think of her character, precisely because of that. Sadly, the stunt woman for Gina Lollobrigida died after an accident on the set.

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We also have to give credit to Johnny Puleo, who plays Max. He is one of those supporting actors that is just so fun to watch. He adds a little something to the film and is nothing but appreciable.

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Trapeze is a movie I liked, not necessarily for the story. On this subject, I really enjoyed the first part involving Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis preparing their duo. But as soon as Gina Lollobrigida gets involved, things were a bit spoiled. That love triangle surely adds a plot element to the story. But it’s not what we like most about the movie. It’s this kind of love triangle that is here for no real reasons except entertain us a bit. That creates another problem for the film, a little hic. We can’t deny that Trapeze is a bit misogynist. I mean, all the problems seem to be created by the women. Why? Are they so dangerous? Even Rosa (Katy Jurado), a good and humble person, is accused of being the cause of a horse’s death. Luckily, Lollobrigida’s character evolves for the best and she sorts of become a more sensible person at the end.

No, Trapeze, except for Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis’s brilliant performances, impresses for its visual dimension. I mean, a circus movie has to be that way. First, it’s so colourful. I think that seeing this movie on the big screen would be an unforgettable experience. It’s a majestic rainbow that simply makes you want to go to the circus. To this colour is added the traditional circus music and we became part of the public. The camera angles were also brilliantly chosen and allowed us to have different views on the trapeze artists. The wide shot and the great wide shots allow us to have a great ensemble view on the performers, see their pirouettes and their teamwork. While the closer shots allow us to see important details such as Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollobirgida’s kiss in the hair or Burt Lancaster’s hands dropping the hands of his partner and causing his fatal plunge. The mix of low and high angles is also well welcomed and adds even more dynamism to the film. I have to see, the editing and the cinematography are among the most brilliant elements of Trapeze.

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Trapeze remains a very authentic film for the reason that it was shot on location. Well, somehow. It takes place in Paris and it was filmed in Paris. We don’t see the Eiffel Tower or the Arch of Triumph, but the artistic life of the city, the more underground part of it. But one thing is sure, Paris is lovely everywhere. The exterior scenes were filmed at the Cirque d’Hiver, which real life proprietor was Joseph Bouglione. The interior scenes were filmed at the Studios de Billancourt (Hauts-de-Seine). The studios are not at the center of Paris, but not so far from it.

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The Cirque d’Hiver in Paris

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Finally, what makes this film a perfect circus movie is the fact that the world of the circus is omnipresent. I mean, people are performing all the time! I love this moment when Tony Curtis follows Burt Lancaster (who is not one bit interested in him) and wants to show him what he can do. He starts doing acrobatics around him in the street and that makes him just so lovable. Then, when Lancaster finally agrees to speak to him, he starts walking on his hands. Lancaster joins him and then, there those two men discussing business while walking on their hands as if it was something perfectly normal! Of course, we all do that in real life hahaha! But this adds a very appreciable comic side to the movie.

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Trapeze is one of those movies that makes you want to go to the circus. Just like when I go to the real life circus, I was very stressed for the performers when I was watching the film and hoped for nothing bad to happen to them. It might not be perfect on the narrative level, but for its main composition, it’s a film that remains highly entertaining. Anyway, I greatly enjoyed it and it fulfilled my expectations in a good way.

I want to thank Critica Retrô and Serendipitous Anachronism for hosting this colourful blogathon! Talking about circus movie certainly was something I’m sure not many people had thought of and it was a most rewarding experience! It even gave me an idea for next’s year subject, if the blogathon is hosted again!

Don’t forget to take a look at the other entries:

At the Circus Blogathon

See you!

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11 thoughts on “Life is a Circus in Trapeze

  1. Thanks for the info, Virginie as usual. Always liked this movie. I saw it as a teenager. There was a show in America at the time called “the Million Dollar Movie”. They would play the same movie every night for a time. I remember seeing this movie many times in 1 week. Lancaster and Curtis made a great pear as they did on “Sweet Smell of Success”,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Virginie. I first saw this on television when I was a young kid. I liked it much better when I saw it in letterbox. You are right about the way it captures the feel of the circus world. Very good review. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I know this film was shown at TCMFF this year, and since then I’ve wanted to watch it. Films with trapeze routines are not many, but they always let me at the edge of my sit! And the pics of Burt Lancaster during his circus years are so cool!
    Thanks for joining us, Virginie, it was great to have you among our guests!
    Kisses!
    Le

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Burt Lancaster was such an amazing actor, thank you for sharing this lovely post, I loved your research and background information, really great work! This post was a pleasure to read, and I really look forward to re-viewing this film!

    Liked by 1 person

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