Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Trapeze (1956)


“You really fly high” - Mike
“Because I’m not afraid of anything.” - Lola

As one of the few trapeze artists to ever perform a triple somersault, one of the most dangerous and highly skilled moves, Mike Ribble (Burt Lancaster) seems unstoppable. That is until a fall leaves him crippled and puts an end to his career as a flier. Years later Ribble is working as a stage hand at a Paris circus run by famous Bouglione (Thomas Gomez), a tyrant who cares little about his performers and a lot about making a profit. Ribble meets Tino Orsini (Tony Curtis), a talented young trapeze artist who idolizes Ribble and dreams of becoming a flier in the circus. With a little push from his old flame and fellow circus performer Rosa (Katy Jurado), Ribble takes Tino under his wing. The two work on a new act with Ribble as catcher and Tino as flier, with the intention of getting Tino to the ultimate goal of perfecting the triple. Working with Tino breathes new life into Ribble. But one woman stands in their way: Lola (Gina Lollobrigida). She’s a headstrong acrobat, who came from a particularly dire situation in her native Italy. Lola will do anything and step over anyone to succeed. When Bouglione puts this unlikely trio together for the act, the opportunist, the dreamer and the fallen star must come together to put on the performance of a lifetime. When both Ribble and Tino fall for the tempestuous Lola, will their act fall apart? Will Ribble finally be able to help Tino master that triple?




Trapeze (1956) was based on Max Catto's 1950 novel The Killing Frost by Max Catto. It was adapted to screen by Liam O’Brien (brother of actor Edmond O’Brien) and James R. Webb with uncredited help by writers Ben Hecht and Wolf Mankowitz. The film was plagued with legal troubles as other authors came forward claiming that the film’s plot was stolen from their own original stories. Author Badia Jacobs filed a lawsuit in 1962 claiming that her unpublished manuscript entitled “No Alternative” was plagiarized by Catto for his novel. In 1948, Jacobs gave her manuscript to agent Ben Medford and claims Medford subsequently plotted with Catto to steal the story and publish it as The Killing Frost. Jacobs did not find out about Catto’s novel until she saw the film adaptation years later. The two stories were vastly different and the judge eventually dismissed the case. Screenwriter Daniel Fuchs also filed suit. Fuchs’ story The Daring Young Man was published in Collier’s magazine in 1940 and he adapted it into a screenplay which he claims he gave to producer Harold Hecht who then stole it for the movie. After two years of litigation, both parties settled out of court for $50k.

Burt Lancaster’s production company, one he co-owned with Harold Hecht and James Hill, produced the film. At the time it was called Joanna Productions but was eventually was renamed Hill-Hecht-Lancaster Productions. Before becoming an actor, Lancaster was a skilled acrobat and trapeze artist. He performed in circuses, carnivals and nightclubs until an injury ended his career, much like character Mike Ribble in the film. Lancaster was eager to make a movie about the circus and relive his acrobat days. He partnered with his childhood friend Nick Cravat who became an adviser and body double in the film. Lancaster does the majority of his own stunts as a trapeze catcher in the film. Other stuntmen and women were used in the film. Eddie Ward of the Ringling Bros. Circus was a technical consultant. Tragically, Lollobrigida’s stuntwoman died during the filming of one of the scenes when she fell 40 feet and broke her back.

In the mid 1950s, Lancaster was on top of his game and his clout was enough to get an independent film like Trapeze under way. It was a big production shot entirely at the Cirque d’Hiver and the Billancourt Studios in Paris. Montgomery Clift was under consideration for the part of Tino. The role eventually went to Tony Curtis who was borrowed from Universal. Trapeze was director Carol Reed’s first American film. It was also Gina Lollobrigida’s first film with an American production company (an arrangement with Howard Hughes prevented her from making films in Hollywood). Trapeze was shot in CinemaScope and released through United Artists in July 1956. It was a huge hit earning $4.1 million in the first week and was screened in over 400 theaters in the United States. It broke United Artists’ record for highest grossing film both domestically and internationally.

Trapeze (1956) is an enjoyable film with lots of great aerial stunts and a love triangle drama to boot. Lancaster and Curtis proved to be a great onscreen duo and would later re-team for Sweet Smell of Success (1957). They play off of each other so well. Gina Lollobrigida plays a terribly unlikable character but she does it so well. I enjoyed Katy Jurado’s role as Rosa. She’s basically the polar opposite of Lollobrigida’s Lola. I would have liked a bit more backstory about Rosa and her relationship with Ribble. Jurado’s role is understated but key to giving the film a sense of balance. Otherwise you have three very headstrong characters (four if you want to add Gomez’ Bouglione) causing chaos in the story. In Catto’s novel, the love triangle becomes murderous and Tino and Ribble’s relationship turns out to be more than just mentor and apprentice. I'd love to see a modern remake take on Catto's LGBT love story and tragic ending.




Trapeze (1956) is available on Blu-Ray and DVD as part of the Studio Classics line. The disc includes subtitles, audio commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger, the original theatrical trailer and other Kino Lorber related trailers.


Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of the Blu-Ray for review.

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