September 3, 2018
Street Date 9/25/18;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Stars Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Gina Lollobrigida, Katy Jurado, Thomas Gomez.
Though Burt Lancaster eventually finessed the transition into senior emeritus status as skillfully as any actor who comes to mind, he and Tony Curtis were close to their irresistibly youthful peaks when they teamed up for Trapeze, the box-office chances of which were already tableset with the kind of title that looked irresistible on a marquee. To be sure, this onetime circus performer, who not long before had rewritten the book on screen gymnastics with The Crimson Pirate, was already past 40 when his production company took on this transparent labor of love. But no matter. Lancaster still looks here as if he could easily benchpress even portly Thomas Gomez, who plays the picture’s circus owner.
For that matter, Gina Lollobrigida, who shares top billing, doesn’t exactly look out of shape in her skimpy costume, though she’s more successful dressing up the poster art than struggling with English whenever her character is agitated — her perpetual state when so much (and too much) of the drama is driven by a love triangle.
Even so, Trapeze was a big deal at the time for boomer kids who wanted to see real stars (and not always their stunt-folk) photographed way up high, back when (Disney aside), there was only minimal distinction between adult and kids’ Hollywood fare. It was one of the three top box office draws of 1956, a very good movie year, and commercially hefty enough to play three weeks solo at one of my local downtown palaces, including one of them over the July 4 weekend. And sometime in the give-or-take early ’60s, United Artists even re-released it in a killer double bill with 1958’s The Vikings, which even could have made guys coming up for air in the local drive-in passion pit look at the screen at least once in a while. (This pairing would have made the aggregate tally here a pair of Tony’s, one Burt, one Kirk, profile shots of Janet Leigh and the sight of Ernest Borgnine doing a cannonball into a pit of wolves — that’s entertainment!).
Now, is Trapeze actually a good movie? Well, IMDb.com notes that Pauline Kael dug the star power (check) and Robert Krasker’s camera work (check), while the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther (a reviewer I don’t usually quote) called the dialogue “dull and hackneyed” (check; good work, Bos, though this is much truer in the romantic scenes ). Kael also liked Carol Reed’s direction, and I will say that he and Krasker really do pack the CinemaScope frame with detail and circus “business” — working, in the process, a few magician’s diversions on the eye to make us think that the actors are doing more of their own stunts than they are. Then again, and depending on how you feel about 1955’s A Kid for Two Farthings (a half-naturalistic color fantasy I personally love), Trapeze is really the dividing line for Reed. Though more successful than not, it was, up till then, his one relatively weak movie of the postwar era. After this, he fell off his Fallen Idol–Third Man throne for the remainder of his career — the sole exception being the glorious oasis of Oliver!, a best picture Oscar winner and one of my favorite movies of all time.
Despite all the illusionary glitz (the spectacle doesn’t exactly extend to the performers’ spartan living conditions), the Trapeze story basics aren’t complicated. With circus aspirations in his blood, Curtis journeys from Brooklyn to Paris because he wants to learn how to perform the dangerous and super-specialized “triple” — which in trapeze terms is just what it sounds like. Once-famous Lancaster now works as a rigger in a Paris circus — no longer able to perform, other than maybe catching a healthy flier, after having taken a terrible bounce in the movie’s opening scene while attempting a triple himself. After initial reluctance, Lancaster agrees to act as teacher, leading to a flier act that decorative Lollobrigida would like to crash — though she seems a little taken aback upon learning that she might have to develop at least cursory high-wire skills. To scheme her way in, she shafts her old partners while strutting her stuff and wedging herself between the equally smitten Lancaster and Curtis. The hetero jealousy angle really grinds the movie down, though there’ll inevitably be some who see some gay subtext in the guys’ dynamics — a subject that bonus commentator Kat Ellinger accordingly examines in a very strong commentary, especially since the Lancaster character was gay in the Max Catto novel. My own opine on this is just as a country boy myself, though by 1956, my 9-year-old self was reading the Police Gazette in the barber shop. Most of what really puts the movie over are the far more kinetic scenes where the mechanics of flying are explained.
In 2014, Germany’s Concorde Video put out a Region ‘B’ Trapeze Blu-ray that I would have ordered at the time but for reviews that were consistently awful — so much so that they’ve stood out in my memory ever since. The hope was that this new Kino Lorber salvo would rectify these problems, but what we get must be (guessing here) a moderately polished-up version from the same inadequate ancient master — a Blu-ray oddity in that almost every other color United Artists release I’ve seen from this era has looked acceptable or better in home renderings. Though some of the non-big-top scenes do look a lot better than some of the panoramic stuff within the tent, the dribbly color takes a lot away from some very keen Reed-Krasker CinemaScope framing (this was Reed’s first widescreen effort) and doesn’t do Lollobrigida’s makeup any favors. She looks almost incomparably better in MGM’s Never So Few (see below), which came out four years later.
For all my reservations about Trapeze, I rarely resist giving it repeat glances or even more — undoubtedly due in part to personal nostalgia (I saw it at the time at a Saturday matinee; what could be better?) but also because of the no longer common “guy” star power on exhibit here. Home studio Universal-International had loaned out contract player Curtis twice before for Houdini and Beachhead, but the latter had cast him with Frank Lovejoy, which was not the means by which to afford Malibu domiciles or jumbo prawns anytime you wanted them. Trapeze, though, was the big leagues, and just a year later, Curtis would be back with Lancaster again in Sweet Smell of Success — a flop at the time but a Real Deal masterpiece, and in the long run, how many actors have had their historical standing imperiled by one of those?