Friday, November 26, 2010

GRIN, SMILE, SMIRK: THE FILMS OF BURT LANCASTER—Trapeze (1956)


Although then-resident New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther found Carol Reed's Trapeze (1956) "dismally obvious and monotonous" when it opened at the Capitol "to the tune of much ballyhoo", his review offers an entertaining observation that makes me keen to watch the film yet again (I've seen it several times): "The only thing that startled us in the whole show was due to a slip of the film-cutter. Signorina Lollobrigida's double is seen flying through the air in a green costume. The next shot of the actress in a medium close-up has her grabbing the hands of Mr. Lancaster and wearing a brown-and-white striped number. We would like to have seen that quick change."

Such a prurient notation indicates to me that Crowther was not as thoroughly bored as he lets on. How could he be with such a bounty of classic beauty on the silver screen? Granted, the narrative's erotic triangulation is a familiar conceit, but rarely have I had to look up to watch such tempestuous melodramatics, in tights no less (glittering with sequins)! Burt Lancaster's background as a trapeze artist is a pleasure to behold; Gina Lollobrigida restores the definition of the hourglass figure while making her grand entrance into American films; Tony Curtis was and will always remain one of the most beautiful and androgynous faces in Hollywood; and Katy Jurado ain't too hard on the eyes either! Consider it a sensorial experience, if not an intellectual one, that Trapeze captures all four artists in the sensual prime of their youth. For me Trapeze spoke to a childhood dream of wanting to run away with the circus and reminded me of William Goyen's House of Breath whose character Folner runs away from Charity, Texas with a trapeze artist in tights after experiencing his "sensual revelation". The beauty of the actors in Trapeze fulfills the archetypal larger-than-life impulse of the circus.

According to Ruth Waterbury's January 1956 Photoplay coverage: "Burt Lancaster came out from the stage entrance of the tawdry old Cirque d'Hiver, where Trapeze was shooting, into the exquisite orchid twilight of Paris in the early evening. The crowd, which had been filling up ever since the day's work had begun at noon, moved quietly forward until it saw the children hanging to Burt's big hands—two little boys on one side, two little girls on the other [his sons Billy and Jimmy and daughters Susan and Joanna]. Then the crowd and the couple of gendarmes cheered. This was a sight that appealed to the French love of family and drama, this very tall, slim-hipped man surrounded by four miniature duplicates of him. In response to the cheers, Burt stopped and grinned."

Based on Max Catto's novel The Killing Frost, Trapeze fulfilled Lancaster's lifetime dream of making a film about the circus. He produced it through his own company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster and it proved a commercial success.

In his essay for TCM's website, Jeff Stafford quotes remembrances from both Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh's autobiographies regarding the making of Trapeze. Along with his personal admiration of Gina Lollobrigida's performance in her American debut ("she practically steals the film from her co-stars"), Stafford adds: "One thing everyone seemed to agree on ... was Gina Lollobrigida's immensely appealing performance as Lola."

I was intrigued that—when the production was over and Tony Curtis and his wife Janet Leigh were heading back to Rome—Lollobrigida gave them a parting gift of an ancient stone carving of a ram's head. That recollection caught my attention because on my 2005 visit to Paris, I had the welcome opportunity to view Gina Lollobrigida's sculpture exhibition, which had recently toured to Moscow and was then gracing Paris. I was quite impressed to discover that—since giving up her acting career—Gina Lollobrigida had become an accomplished and successful sculptor. In the circular courtyard leading into the exhibition was her immense sculpture of Ganymede taking flight on the back of Zeus in the shape of an eagle. The movement of the sculpture swept up into the sky and so I took a photo trying to replicate the feeling it engendered in me.Trapeze screens with Jules Dassin's Brute Force (1947) tomorrow evening, November 27, 6:30PM and 8:40PM, respectively.

Cross-published on
Twitch.

2 comments:

Peter Nellhaus said...

Had I been a smarter cinephile at age 10, I could have seen Trapeze theatrically way back in 1962. This was in a double feature with The Naked Spur, so coincidentally there's the cinematic pairing of films starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh.

Maya said...

Oh my gosh, I'm amazed you remember that! I wonder if anyone somewhere has compiled a list of double-bills of the time?