Monday, November 11, 2013

Burt Lancaster, The WPA Circus, & Trapeze (film)

I. Burt Lancaster and the Circus

After going to see Trapeze (1956) on the big screen (!) last night, I got wondering more about Burt Lancaster as a circus performer.

Lancaster was a circus acrobat when he was in his twenties. Lancaster  performed aerialist acts in the WPA circus too, one of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs.

Here he is in Trapeze (left), and in his circus days:

Below: "Aerealist Burt Lancaster" and his circus partner, Nick Cravat, from the Library of Congress:

I found some other photos of the WPA Circus too.

Below: Purchasing tickets to FTP's Circus in New York City, photo from George Mason Univ. SC&A

Lancaster and his partner Nick Cravat performed a pole act too, like this one:

"Tightrope Walker"
WPA Fed Theatre Project Circus in NY 1935

From the LOC site:

"The Circus Unit was part of the larger Variety Unit of the FTP. Employing as many as 250 performers in 60 acts, circuses toured regionally and drew huge crowds that included both the young and old.
Many of the performers, such as Katie Sandwina, known as the world’s strongest woman, had been in the circus for years, but the ranks also included individuals who had unique talents that were not typical of those who performed in traditional theater.
Performers included clowns, jugglers, tightrope walkers, cyclists, and aerialists—one notable example is Burt Lancaster, shown here, who began his career as an aerialist.
Although few animals performed—Hallie Flanagan stated “There were no elephants on relief”—there was one elephant in the FTP named “Japino,” seen on the image loop in this exhibition. At some point, Japino escaped and was accidently returned to Barnum and Bailey Circus, who quickly returned the escapee to its rightful owner."

BELOW: "Burt Lancaster with fellow circus performer on parallel bars, between 1935 and 1939. Photograph. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (038.01.00)
From the Library of Congress

BELOW: Rope dancer, WPA Circus, 1935, Fed Theatre Project Circus in New York, NY--from the New Deal Network (more performance photos there)

I went searching for more info & images of the WPA circus.

From The Paris Review, review of "Circus and the City: New York, 1793–2010":
"The Federal Government stepped in to keep the New York circus alive during the depression. Under the auspice of the Federal Theatre Project, the WPA Circus employed 375 performers, and entertained millions of New Yorkers, 1935 to 1939." 
II. The WPA Circus: Posters 

The WPA Circus was part of the Federal Theatre Project, funded by the $4 billion works program appropriation by Congress in April 1935. 

The two posters (below) that I found for the WPA Circus are pretty scary.

ABOVE: From the Library of Congress's collection of WPA Posters
ABOVE: “The World’s Greatest Circus / Under the Big Tent… ,” 1936. Silkscreen poster, printed by the Poster Division, Federal Theatre, New York City. Music Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
III. WPA–Sponsored Circus-Themed Art

ABOVE: "Circus Performance" (WPA), lithograph by Lester O. Schwartz 
--from Annex Galleries (of American prints)   

"Barbara Warren was the blockprinting design foreman for the WPA's Milwaukee Handicrafts division. One of the most diverse and progressive branches of the Work Projects Administration, Milwaukee Handicrafts employed thousands of women and African Americans who were otherwise unable to find work during the Great Depression. They designed and manufactured household goods ranging from textiles to books, as well as dolls, toys, and costumes for local theater." 
ABOVE: "The Circus," 1938, photograph of a mural created by Albert Sumter Kelly for the children's ward at Lincoln Hospital, NYC for the Federal Art Project
--from the Smithonian's Archives of American Art

ABOVE: "Circus Queen" by Harry Leroy Taskey, lithograph, 1936, done for the NYC-WPA with their stamp lower left
ABOVE: "Side Show", lithograph by Basil HawkinsMichigan artist active as a printmaker on the WPA
IV. The WPA Circus: Photos of people attending a WPA circus

ABOVE: Children at WPA festival in Sheep Meadow, Central Park, May 2, 1936. Photograph. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
--from Antiques & Auction News review of "Circus and the City" exhibition

BELOW: Note the boy on the left looking into the camera:

ABOVE: both photos of the WPA circus from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library & Museum (#2 and #3 on the list of images)
V. TRAPEZE (film)

Trapeze was much better than I expected: I enjoyed it a lot. 
I should have known it would be good: it was directed by Carol Reed, who seven years earlier had directed the classic The Third Man (1949). 

Both movies are about close male friendships. 

Below left: Tony Curtis as the flyer and Burt Lancaster as the catcher in Trapeze (1956)
Below right: Joseph Cotten & Orson Welles on a Ferris wheel in The Third Man

Here's a fun blog post about what an incredibly slashy (homoerotic) film Trapeze is, with lots of pix:
"One flies and one catches, and no one comes between"

Of course there's a woman in both movies too, whom both men fall for.
Below, Gina Lollobrigida as a rope dancer in Trapeze working really hard to get Burt's interest by "testing her costume," she tells him, for wardrobe malfunction:

VI. Graphic Novel On the Ropes
 Jim Vance and Dan Burr created a graphic novel about the WPA Circus: On the Ropes (2013). 
From a review by Cory Doctorow:
"On the Ropes ... finds Fred working in a travelling WPA circus in the midwest, assisting the show's last remaining freak, an escape artist named Gordon Corey, who puts his head in a noose and his hands in shackles and then escapes and saves himself from hanging in a count of five, performing for an audience that pays a nickel a head to watch him risk death."


Anonymous said...

Love Burt Lancaster and Toy Curtis in Trapez, but the clown-themed circus posters give me the creeps... and you found them scary too. I guess this is a mild form of coulrophobia.

Anonymous said...

Toy Curtis? Freudian slip.

Fresca said...

TINTO: "Toy" Curtis! Ha! Perfect.
He is so very luminously pretty in this movie, and he actually begs Burt to handle him:
"You've got great hands: catch me!"

Now I've seen "Trapeze", I wonder why it's not better known.

I don't care for clowns much, but I don't usually find them creepy---don't know why the WPA made these ones so very icky...

bink said...

Great research and pictures. You should turn this into a book!

Bookworm said...

Great post and great pictures. I especially love the screenprints.

Trapeze was frequently shown in the UK when I was young. Not sure why it was popular over here.

Fresca said...

Thanks--it's fascinating stuff I knew nothing about before.

BOOK: I wonder why, too! "Trapeze" is actually hard to find here, and the print they showed at the cinema was poor. It deserves more viewings, for sure!