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Ring a Ding Ding

Trapeze (1956)

     The circus was not an uncommon subject matter in classic films, but I find most movies on that subject take a grim outlook on the lives of the performers under the big top. Take, for example, Freaks about the out-casting of a lot of circus side-show individuals whose disfigurement makes them unsavory and drives them to mangle the normal-looking folks. In The Greatest Show on Earth we experience the not-so-happy lives of the performers, one of which is hiding behind his makeup to avoid arrest. And if murder is more your appetite, Berserk will have you wishing Joan Crawford had ended her career decades earlier. Trapeze joins those but is more closely aligned with The Greatest Show on Earth in that in makes no strides toward horror but focuses instead on the drama among a couple of trapeze artists.

     Burt Lancaster‘s character opens the film performing the first-ever attempted triple somersault in the air before connecting with his “catcher.” The stunt fails, however, and he tumbles into the net before bouncing onto the ground, injuring his leg. Years later, this Mike Ribble works on trapeze rigging for a Paris-based circus and has no interest in “flying” again. His plans are interrupted, however, when Tony Curtis as Tino Orsini arrives wanting the man to teach him the triple somersault. His display of his skill impresses Mike and they begin working together, eventually agreeing to be an act, with Mike as catcher.

     Meanwhile, Lola, played by the voluptuous Gina Lollobrigida, is quarreling with an Italian trio of acrobats whose act she had forced her way into and repeatedly deals with circus master Bouglioni (Thomas Gomez) while relaying false information back to her colleagues about their act. When Bouglioni tells her the group has not been put on the bill, she convinces the man to allow her to be part of the Ribble-Orsini high-flying stunts. To do this, however, she has to weasel her way in. In doing so, she also convinces Tino she loves him, and he reciprocates. The relationship causes a feud within the now-trio of Lola, Tino and Mike that puts their futures in jeopardy as the men continue to work for the triple in the hopes of impressing the Ringling Bros. owner (Minor Watson) and taking their show on the road. Success is in sight, but we are granted only a neutral ending.

     Before becoming and actor, Lancaster was an actual trapeze artist, so this movie allowed him to combine his talents. Although he found the high-flying work easy, Curtis and Lollobrigida certainly faced challenges. Thankfully, stunt doubles were used expertly in this movie to allow all the tricks to appear the work of the actual actors. These doubles would even perform their flips with their faces passing by the camera, but because it occurs so quickly, one cannot recognize the difference. There are some shots that required the actual actors to be hanging onto bars and each other. Those were clearly shot using back projection to make them appear to be in the air and swinging when they were not. Performances by all actors were very strong and this offered a compelling story. I think I enjoyed it more so than other circus flicks because it focused strictly on the trapeze artists and depicted no bearded women or creepy clowns. Everyone took their professions very seriously and none were outcasts that had no choice but to work in the circus. This made everyone more relatable and resulted in a much more enjoyable experience for me. I think we have masterful Director Carol Reed to thank for that.

  • Trapeze is set for 6:30 a.m. ET Nov. 2 on TCM.
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