In 2015, I attended the Turner Classic Movie festival, which is held every spring in Hollywood. Thousands of devoted and knowledgeable classic movie fans attend this event. The selection of films and panel discussions are definitely worth the trip to California if you’re a classic film lover. There was not one film that I didn’t absolutely love, but one of the movies that I really enjoyed and would like to review today is Trapeze, starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, and Gina Lollobrigida. Directed and produced by Carol Reed and James Hill respectively, the 1956 film offers a stunning portrayal of life in a Parisian circus. Before playing the film at the festival, one of the hosts interviewed Lollobrigida. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren were two of Italy’s hottest and sought after actresses. While I listened to Lollobrigida share her life story, I was surprised to learn that she didn’t initially want to be an actress. She took on small roles to make money, but her beauty and screen presence gained her a lot of attention from directors and major Hollywood actors, like Humphrey Bogart. After her extensive career in acting, she went on to work as a photojournalist. Even today at the age of 90, Lollobrigida is still a captivating presence and fascinating woman.
While discussing what it was like to film Trapeze, Lollobrigida described the amount of dedication it took just to be cast in the film. She spent a year training so that she could perform her own stunts in the film. She said that the first time she performed an aerial pass on the bars, she lost her voice because of fear. Burt Lancaster, who ran away from home at the age of 16 to join a circus, also performed the majority of his own stunts. At the time of the movie’s release, Trapeze was a commercial success. Though the plot may be a familiar story, one which we might have seen in other films, the movie is artistic, the circus environment is intriguing, and the love triangle between Lancaster, Lollobrigida, and Curtis is exciting.
Burt Lancaster plays Mike Ribble, a former aerialist trapeze artist, who had suffered a crippling injury while performing the triple somersault. Mike still performs with the circus, but in a supportive role. The accident has left Mike both physically and emotionally traumatized, and he instinctively distances himself from people. An aspiring trapeze artist named Tino Orsini (Tony Curtis) pressures Ribble to let him audition for the circus. When Ribble sees Orsini’s incredible talent, he believes that he may be able to redeem his own failure with the triple somersault by training Orsini to perform the stunt. The dangerous training bonds the two men, but their friendship is put to the test when a beautiful performer named Lola (Gina Lollobrigida) also wants a spot in the trapeze act. She’s not nearly as good as Orsini, but her beauty captivates both Orsini and Ribble. The two men fall in love with her. Ribble recognizes that Lola is using her beauty to manipulate them, but he is rendered powerless when he is around her.
The connection and trust between trapeze artists is crucial. The triple somersault, which has rarely been performed, is difficult and risky. If the timing is off, even just a little, Orsini will fall. Though a net is set up below them, landing on it in a safe manner is also critical. One little mistake could result in permanent injury or even death. The love triangle between the performers is a distraction that places all of their lives and careers in jeopardy. Ribble cares about Orsini and Lola, and he struggles to negotiate his feelings for Lola with his friendship with Orsini.
During filming, the trapeze bars had to be set even higher than their normal settings because of the cameras, which made the stunts even more dangerous. In his autobiography, Tony Curtis explained that the stunts were so dangerous that some of the stunt doubles had their own doubles. However, all three actors performed many of their own of stunts. For example, there’s a memorable moment in the film where Lancaster and Curtis walk on their hands. Lollobrigida also performs her stunts with such confidence that one would never guess the anxiety she felt during production. The skewed camera angles and quick editing also add to the exhilaration of the circus performances.
Until a few years ago, I didn’t watch a lot of classic films. Like most people, I was familiar with the films of my generation. As a result, I had a lot of preconceived notions about classic films. In fact, I didn’t think that I would ever like classic films as much as current ones. Trapeze and many other films from the first half of the 20th century have taught me otherwise. Trapeze is a colorful, artistic, and exciting film that shows the glamour and the underbelly of circus life.