You know, those two kids from the old New York neighborhood who ran away and joined the circus.
Never heard of them, you say?
Sure you have. Nick — Nick Cuccia — and that Burton kid from East Harlem, born back in I'm thinkin' 1913. Yeah, met in summer camp, got some training as teenagers from old Curly Brent, the guy'd been a circus acrobat, taught 'em horizontal bar. The boys did these terrific acrobatic shows down at the Union Settlement House, good enough that in '33 they took off with that truck show, the Kay Bros. Circus.
Still not ringing a bell? Well, once they went pro, Cuccia starts calling himself Cravat, and Burton, well, he was the Lang part, short for Lancaster.
Anyway, you have heard of Burt Lancaster, right? Rolling on the beach with Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity. Not to mention Elmer Gantry (Academy Award), Birdman of Alcatraz (Golden Globe Award), Gunfight at the OK Corral, Trapeze, Airport, and Atlantic City (another Golden Globe Award). In fact, the American Film Institute ranked him 19th among male film legends, ahead of the Marx Brothers (#20) and Buster Keaton (#21).
Yep, that Burton Lancaster.
According to Kate Buford in her quite thorough biography Burt Lancaster: An American Life — not surprisingly a far better source than Wikipedia — Nick and Burt followed their circus dreams for several more seasons, including work with Russell Bros. Circus, the Gorman Bros. Circus, the Newton Bros. Circus, and the WPA Circus, the latter a branch of Roosevelt's Federal Theatre Project. (Motto: "Two and a half million children can't be wrong.") It was the height of the Depression, they struggled to survive financially, but clearly they valued the experience. Circus people, said Lancaster, were "the only ones who had traveled everywhere and had seen everything."
This apprenticeship gave Lang & Cravat time to develop a perch act as well as to toy with a comedy angle, with Lancaster playing straightman to Cravat's clown. But the future of the Federal Theatre Project was dim, as it came under increasing attack by right-wing politicians for supposedly being a communist plot to corrupt American minds. The level of discourse was a precursor to some of today's Tea Party rhetoric. For example, at a Congressional hearing, one U.S. Congressman pressed the project's director to reveal whether or not one of his playwrights was a communist. The writer in question was Christopher Marlowe, Elizabethan dramatist. Oy!
"To grow up in America without dreaming about the circus is not to have lived."
— Burt LancasterThe duo survived with spot dates in clubs, burlesque, and vaudeville shows, before Lancaster finally entered the Army, where he was given the opportunity to continue his performing career by entertaining the troops. Long story short, Lancaster eventually managed to land on his feet in the film industry, where his acrobatic chops led him to becoming one of the primo movie action heroes of that era, a talkie version of Douglas Fairbanks.
Lancaster first became a matinée idol with The Killers (1946) and Brute Force (1947), but complained that his true identity was being subsumed by a false Hollywood persona. His solution was to cajole his old childhood buddy Nick into joining him in L.A. in 1947, sweetening the deal by also offering to hire his bff as his ptf (personal trainer forever). The ploy worked, Cravat made the leap, and ended up in nine films with Lancaster, often as his comic sidekick: The Flame and the Arrow; The Crimson Pirate,;Run Silent, Run Deep; The Scalphunters; Airport; Valdez Is Coming; Ulzana's Raid; The Midnight Man; The Island of Dr. Moreau.
During their early years of stardom, Lang & Cravat also revived their circus act, earning $10,000 a week headlining top vaudeville theatres and $11,000 a week for a month with Cole Bros. Circus. Not bad considering they had started with the Kay Bros. Circus at $3 a week!
Though they quickly tired of this comeback, the circus remained in their blood. "There was on thing about Burt that I loved," commented director John Berry, "which was that circus background. It gave him something very, very unusual. You see, circus performers, when the act is over, the way in which they take a bow, the way in which they relate to an audience, which is with great dignity and a certain way of sharing their whole set-up. Burt could be a pain in the ass, but he was generous."
I have had a chance to look at their first two films together, The Flame and the Arrow (1950) and The Crimson Pirate (1952), where their circus skills and flair for physical comedy are strong selling points. In fact, it was Cravat who came up with the idea of integrating their circus and comedy chops into a movie. Before shooting Flame, the pair went back into training, which included running, horseback riding, archery, fencing, and tumbling. Shotsy O'Brien, acrobat and human cannonball (get it?— Shotsy), put them through their gymnastic paces, retooling their old perch act and bar act.
It was the success of The Flame and the Arrow that catapulted Lancaster into the role of mega action hero, what film critic Pauline Kael labeled a hunkus americanus. The movie's plot not only resembles that of Robin Hood, they actually re-used some of the sets from Errol Flynn's Adventures of Robin Hood and his Adventures of Don Juan. Likewise, The Crimson Pirate was to some extent a variation on the popular Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler, The Black Pirate (1926).
Both movies depict the Lang & Cravat characters supporting peasant uprisings against brutal, autocratic rulers, and in both Lancaster plays an outsider who at first is only in it for himself, but eventually joins forces with the disadvantaged. This populist prejudice did not go unnoticed by the witch hunters of the House Un-American Activities Committee or by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who received a letter advising him to "check the moving picture Crimson Pirate because in it Burt Lancaster makes a speech about workers" that "sounds like a commie plug." I'm betting they also didn't like the line "All my life I've watched injustice and dishonesty fly the flag of decency; I don't trust it."
To his credit, while some actors were naming names, aiding in the blacklisting of their fellow artists in order to save their own necks, Lancaster remained a strong voice for political justice and personal liberty. He continued to do so throughout his life, and was still enough of a pain in the ass to make it onto President Richard Nixon's "enemies list" in 1973. [If "blacklisting" means nothing to you, see the Woody Allen film The Front, starring that great comedian, Zero Mostel. Please!] As Lancaster's Flame and Arrow alter ego Dardo puts it as he faces the gallows, "A man can't live by himself alone.... but a man who has friends.. who are willing to risk their lives for someone else, a man who has friends like that will never really die."
Although Cravat never gets the co-star billing of the Lancaster love interest, he is central to both films, playing a short (5' 2" / 157 cm.), mute and comical co-conspirator, a sort of Harpo Marx but with bulging biceps and over-the-top acrobatic and combat skills. (Cravat had been a Golden Glove bantamweight and lightweight boxer, reputed to be fast with his hands.) And why mute? Apparently Cravat's East Harlem accent was too broad and incurable not to have been laughable on screen, especially in a costume drama taking place in 12th-century Italy.
Before we get to the big action sequences, here's a quick example from Crimson Pirate of how they handled their mute "dialogue."
“Who are they?”
“Who knows? This one can’t talk and this one can’t keep quiet.”
— Rebels discussing the Lang & Cravat characters in The Crimson Pirate
Now back to The Flame and the Arrow so you can see what I'm talking about. And if it seems like I actually do know what I'm talking about, great, but keep in mind that I didn't know 99% of this stuff a month ago. So imagine me watching this movie for the first time, no idea idea who Cravat was and only a minimal notion of Lancaster's acrobatic prowess, when I see Cravat's first entrance:
That got may attention! And then there was this nifty Lancaster flip from a tree branch:
But the real fun starts when Lancaster ("Dardo") and his merry men — Lombard mountaineers revolting against tyrannical German rule — decide that the best way to invade the enemy castle and rescue Dardo's son is to disguise themselves as clowns and sneak in on the heels of a local "carnival" troupe performing there that evening.
Funny story: "In the middle of a pell-mell acrobatic scene, Warner [Warner Brothers president Jack Warner] walked onto the set and bumped into Lancaster, dressed in striped leggings, a big red clown nose stuck in the middle of his face. Behind him, Nick scurried up a rope. 'What the fuck is this?' the mogul roared. 'A Midsummer Night's Dream?'"
[from Buford's Lancaster bio]
This action sequence takes up the last 16 minutes of the film and showcases such circus skills as trapeze, partner tumbling, two-highs, wirewalking, juggling, fire eating, and of course the perch and the horizontal bars. Here it is, divided into three parts:
"A circus is like a mother in whom one can confide and who rewards and punishes."
— Burt Lancaster
Two years later, Lang & Cravat were back in circus mode with The Crimson Pirate. I could only find this film on a DVD produced in Korea (kamsa hamnida!), but in 1952 it ranked as United Artists' top-grossing film of all time. Technicolor images of the frequently bare-chested Lancaster sure didn't hurt.
Here they make their first splash as pirates:
While the movie ends with another prolonged chase / combat scene, this early chase is actually more comic in style:
CrimPchase by towsen
And here's a clever boat escape:
boatOnHead--Pirates by towsen
Oh wait, that was from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Hmm, wonder where they got that idea... Well, will you look at this — here are our heroes, handcuffed to a boat, set adrift to die, when their scientist friend has a bright idea.
As Ionesco liked to say, quelle coincidence! But it doesn't end there for Lang & Cravat; no, they actually develop the gag. Still handcuffed to the boat, they try to get lost from the parade of fishermen in order to rescue the heroine from the fortress:
boatChase by towsen
For their big finale in this movie, instead of disguising themselves as clowns and acrobats, they play in drag as beguiling unmarried girls of the village:
This leads to another sustained action finale — "let's strip for action!" yells Lancaster before going bare-chested again — very acrobatic but not necessarily comic, so I won't include it here. Instead, here’s a technical aside, an example of how they shared a common acrobatic vocabulary. This is a foot-to-the-stomach combat toss I learned thirty years ago, what we at the NYC Physical Comedy Lab have been calling the Burt Lancaster flip (no, Jeff: Lancaster, not Reynolds), because here's our man doing it in that earlier clip from Flame & the Arrow:
Notice that he’s been provided with a mat to cushion his fall, but does finish it with a nice kip-up. Yes, he did his own stunts, but they still couldn’t afford for their star to get hurt!
Now fast forward to the Crimson Pirate, and here’s Cravat doing it.
Now fast forward to the Crimson Pirate, and here’s Cravat doing it.
I guess from now on we'll have to call it the Lang & Cravat flip! (Yes, I realize it's probably two or three thousand years old.)
At 48, they were still running every morning and working out three times a week on the bars. (Free weights only made the muscles tight, argued Lancaster, while acrobatics strengthened them.) It was no accident that movie fans were still swooning over Lancaster's buff torso well into his fifties, and that he was still able to brag about doing his own stunts.
In the early 1970s —they would have been around 60 — Nicholas would still come over several times a week to work out on the horizontal bars with Burton. Lancaster put Nick's kids through college, and after Lancaster's son Jimmy lost his first wife to leukemia, he married Nick Cravat's niece.
When Lancaster (a chain smoker) suffered a debilitating stroke in his late 70s, Cravat was devastated. "I've had the feeling," he wrote one of Lancaster's sons, "that some time in your lives you must have said to yourselves, What did Dad see in Nick? At times, I wondered too. I think we both sensed the same thing: trust, love, and respect... As for Dad, he's with me right now and will be until I draw my last breath. Who knows, we could still be together in the next world."
A blog by Nick Cravat's daughter, Tina Cuccia
A blog by Nick Cravat's daughter, Tina Cuccia
Burt Lancaster: An American Life by Kate Buford
Nick Cravat on IMDB
Burt Lancaster on IMDB