One of the wonders of motion pictures is how they can cast aside truth to portray a more romantic vision of time and events gone by. It was only until recent years that many people took off their rose-colored lenses about how some circuses were a haven to performer and animal abuse. The traveling outfits that continue today have rectified the mistakes made by their peers in the past, which makes watching films about circuses a bit more palatable to today’s audiences. (Which is part of the reason why The Greatest Showman was such a soaring success).
A vastly underrated effort about circus life is the 1956 release Trapeze. Based on a novel by Max Catto, the film stars Burt Lancaster as Mike Ribble, a once-great trapeze artist whose ability to fly through the air with the greatest of ease earned him legions of fans and followers. Unfortunately, he suffered an injury and was forced to retire from the job that made him famous — a blow that he is still coping with getting over. He spends his time working as a mentor to rising star Tino Orsini (Tony Curtis, in one of his most understated performances). The men’s friendship threatens to collapse like a falling big top after they both fall for Lola (Gina Lollobrigida), an acrobat with her own agenda…and a seemingly natural ability to make men’s hearts flip-flop around their chests.
Lancaster drew on his own past as a circus performer to bring his own stunts to life, just one of a handful of factors that provides Trapeze with a sense of legitimacy. To watch this film is to be thrust into the excitement of the circus experience of old, rich and dangerous and fascinating.
Director Carol Reed‘s Trapeze is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from KL Studio Classics.