‘Trapeze’ soars, even more than sixty years later

Trapeze (1956)

Directed by Carol Reed

It’s no wonder that director Carol Reed’s crowd-pleasing “Trapeze”—with its circus tricks, high-risk stunts, and tense love triangle—did so well at the 1956 box office. It’s the kind of mid-century Hollywood film that could still easily entertain audiences today…the kind of movie that producers today might even consider remaking with new-and-improved special effects.

Not long after injuring himself trying to complete a rare in-air triple summersault, trapeze artist Mike Ribble (Burt Lancaster) is working behind the scenes at the same circus, so close but so far from the spotlight he had been used to. When a young but talented trapeze artist, Tino (Tony Curtis) seeks out Mike’s mentorship, they begin practicing to complete the triple (this time, with Mike catching instead of flipping). But when the circus’s owner thinks a female performer, Lola (Gina Lollobrigida), will make this two-person act more entertaining (and therefore, positively affect the box office), she gets in the way of a good thing and causes a rift in the middle of the budding new act…causing a dramatic love triangle at the same time.

Burt Lancaster had his own circus career end with an injury, so “Trapeze” (though based on a novel, “The Killing Frost”) allowed him to act in a semi-autobiographical role. While the performances of all three leads sometimes strayed into melodrama, Lancaster holds his own during the many trapeze stunts he performs himself (the film brought in a Ringling Brothers professional to complete the more difficult maneuvers, however). More credit for the film’s success should go to Robert Krasker, behind the camera, for capturing the circus in all its glory. He filmed the trapeze stunts from all angles, including the rafters, which must have made “Trapeze” quite the spectacle for theatergoers in 1956. Carol Reed’s most popular film, “The Third Man,” was a notable film noir, so it must have come as a surprise to the average moviegoer that he found success a decade later with a romantic drama about the circus. Nevertheless, there’s something universally appealing about the circus (modern worries about the welfare of its human and animal performers aside) and it makes for a reliable movie subject. “Trapeze” took advantage of that great tradition, and even today we can all enjoy the fruits of that labor.


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