Maybe the Rockefeller-types had colour televisions in their homes in 1956, but most North Americans didn’t. Black & white TVs though were becoming ubiquitous by ’56. Once you owned the set, the content on it was free forever, a novel concept. A lot of Americans who used to go out were starting to stay in and Hollywood was feeling the heat: not only were they losing customers and cash, but theatre chain owners were complaining about the product that the movie studios were shipping them. Who wants to shell out to see some paint-by-numbers Westerns worse than any of the twenty Western shows free on TV?
Hollywood decided to attack TV where it hurt the most—right in the colour zone: and, also, by exploiting its advantage of scale. Movies, beginning around the mid 1950s and continuing until television had caught up in the colour category (by the mid 1960s, most North American homes featured a colour TV), began to become the full-blown sensory spectacles they remain. Studios spent a lot of money competing with each other to develop technologically superior film colour systems, bigger screens, new cinematographic techniques to remind an audience how much bigger a movie screen was than the puny piece of glass they had back home. Inevitably, perhaps, this intense focus on technological innovation and wowing people with bright colours and sweeping panoramic cinematography, came at a cost: the content suffered. Studios forgot how to tell a story. The story and dialogue in Trapeze are largely laughable. They often were in the big movies of this era, which intentionally chose to emphasize style over substance. It doesn’t really matter. Hollywood, with a point to prove, can be a fearsome thing.
Directed by Carol Reed and shot on location in Paris (mostly at the Cirque d’ Hiver), Trapeze, viewed in its natural environs—a movie theatre—must have made people cover their eyes and scream, like, you could definitely see people getting up and leaving. The flying act is harrowing. An acrobat in real life, before an injury turned him thespian, Burt Lancaster performed many of his own flying stunts in the film. Beyond that the formula Trapeze sets remains the formula still: famous faces, pretty faces (Gina Lollobrigida, the centre of a love triangle, makes her screen debut) mixed with lots of glorious action, fast and dangerous.
I miss the days when two guys could just walk around on their hands and have an honest conversation with each other, mano-a-mano-like.