Friday, October 28, 2011

Early Film: Trapeze Striptease

[post 205]

Here's an oddity, a Thomas Edison film from 1901 featuring an enthusiastically received striptease on the solo trapeze. True, she finishes with more skin still covered than most of today's acts start with, but I suspect it was still pretty risqué at the time.


David Carlyon said...

An oddity but also a circus tradition. Ever since the mid-1800s, circus has balanced respectability and titillating display. While officially respectable as an adult form, and later as family fare focused on children, it has continued to show as much skin as then-current cultural standards allowed.

In George Spaeight's wonderful HISTORY OF CIRCUS (1980), he wrote about a Londoner who fairly drooled in his diary, writing about a woman on the trapeze, her arms "all bare; her leg, cased in fleshings [tights], were as good as bare to the hip . . . her legs all sprawling [as she] perched up there, naked and unprotected" (74-75). She was not fully naked but represented what the scholar Tracy Davis has called "clothed nudity." In many circus acts, the presence of tights was often "a matter of inference and faith, not of observation and knowledge." Paris's Chez Molier circus was more explicit, featuring naked equestriennes, pictured in Le Courrier Francais, June 21, 1891.

Nor was it only women subject to the male gaze. When Walt Whitman reviewed Dan Rice's circus in 1856 Brooklyn, he made a point of praising the display of men's legs that drew him to circus.
By the late 20th-century, it became G-strings with a G rating.

I've written about this slightly hidden sexual display in “‘Soft and Silky Around Her Hips’: Nineteenth-Century Circus and Sex,” Journal of American Drama and Theatre, 22.2 (Spring 2010): 25-47.

This striptease film continues an old circus tradition of titillating display.

jt said...

Thanks Dave for the historical perspective!

I am also reminded of Barbette, the female impersonator and trapeze artist who was the hit of Paris back in the 20s, much admired by Cocteau, Man Ray and others, but even headlined with Ringling and later choreographed for them. Not physical comedy or raunchy, but highly praised for the aesthetic beauty of the act. He appears in Cocteau's "Blood of a Poet" and in small roles in some later films, but I have yet to find any clips of the trapeze act itself. Hard to believe it was never captured on film.