The Star

The Star (1952)

Ring a Ding Ding

     It is no Sunset Blvd., but Bette Davis did a fine job playing an actress gone “box office poison” who desperately seeks another part. The Star was released two years after the powerful William HoldenGloria Swanson flick and treads along the same lines but holds its own if one’s not drawing comparisons.

     Davis is Margaret Elliot, the aging actress who upon the picture’s opening wanders buy an auction of her belongings. She is broke, a fact comically exacerbated by a sister and brother-in-law who come by the woman’s apartment demanding their usual check. Margaret has a daughter who at present lives with her ex-husband and his family. This Gretchen, played by a young Natalie Wood, adores her mother but must face the constant torment of her peers who say Margaret Elliot is no longer a star.

     Margaret tries to save face for her daughter’s sake but leaves her ex-husband’s mansion in tears. She ends up driving through the neighborhoods of the rich and famous in Hollywood while downing a bottle of liquor. She is chased by a cop before crashing her car and spending the night in jail. The next thing Margaret knows she’s been bailed out by ex-actor Jim Johannson (Sterling Hayden), who had worked with the woman on a movie before giving up his career to join the Navy and later bought a shipping yard.

     Jim tries to be the voice of wisdom and persuade Margaret that possibilities for life and career exist outside a soundstage. He convinces the woman to take a job as a department store clerk outside of town –acting her way through the interview– but she soon quits the position when two snooty shoppers recognize her.

     Margaret, with the help of her agent Harry Stone (Warner Anderson) goes to a studio head to ask for a part in a film she has been eyeballing for years. The producer Joe Morrison (Minor Watson) offers the actress the part of an older character as the lead is going to Margaret’s young rival. The old pro botches the screen test, however, by trying to make the part younger and flirtier. The star later speaks to a young writer about a part she would be perfect for, hearing the plot laid out like so much of her life, but she walks out to pursue the alternative lifestyle that had been before her all along.

      The Star might lack the murder, stalking, and insanity offered by Sunset Blvd. but it is far from lacking in the drama department. Davis does a fantastic job of expressing the range of emotions to which her character is subjected. Whether she is furious at her in-laws for asking for money, remorseful over the lies she has told her daughter about her stardom, depressed about her financial situation, or resigned to the steady decline of her lifestyle, Davis offers all with gusto. She has a few vibrant rageful rants, but none go over the top as might be easy to do. She earned an Oscar nomination for her effort.

     A variety of movies —A Star is Born being another great one– address the subject of declining fame. Actors often found their standard parts going to a younger generation and many struggled to reinvent themselves, or to convince the studios to allow them to do so. Ironically, Bette Davis is one star whose career never faltered as her character’s did in The Star. Davis’ odd beauty was already on it’s way out by the time this film was released in 1952 but she had so thoroughly defined herself as more than a pretty face that her sometimes frighteningly old facade (see Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) did not prevent her from finding work. She also maintained her career well despite acting as a free agent after a 1949 voluntary release from her Warner Bros. contract.

Source: Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine

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Trapeze

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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