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Review: No special effects needed for ‘The Flight Fantastic’s’ stunning trapeze performance footage

A still from the movie "The Flight Fantastic" featuring Richie Gaona, left, and his brother Armando.
(Damiki Productions)

Made without computer-generated imagery or elaborate special effects, “The Flight Fantastic” will nevertheless have you doubting your eyes as you watch its action unfold.

Subtitled “A Story of Legend and Legacy on the Flying Trapeze,” this documentary tells the story of the Flying Gaonas, routinely described as “the first family of the air” during their years of circus stardom for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Footage of this sibling quartet and other memorable performers as they, yes, fly through the air with the greatest of ease never fails to elevate and enthrall.

As directed by Tom Moore, “The Flight Fantastic” is not executed as crisply as the routines it features. A trapeze enthusiast himself, Moore is not shy about displaying his passion. His shambling, amiable film has a tendency to wander and digress, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. But its core of balletic trapeze footage is always gripping.

The Flying Gaonas are the fourth generation of a Mexican circus family. Their father, Victor, sometimes known as the Chaplin of the trapeze for his comic act, started his children on the trampoline, and they and their father soon formed an act known as the Four Titos.

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But being on the trapeze was always on the siblings’ minds, with son Tito appearing on TV’s “What’s My Line?” as a boy aerialist at age 10. This passion did nothing but intensify after seeing Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida in the sturdy circus drama “Trapeze.”

The Gaonas, as their performance footage amply testifies, all had big personalities. Armando, the gifted oldest son, ended up as the catcher after his father retired, and Chela, the only woman in the act, was a complete ball of fire, tiny but powerful. Richie, a decade younger than his siblings, had beautiful form and joined the act fulltime when dad Victor retired. And then there was Tito.

A splendid flier called by Sports Illustrated “maybe the finest athlete in the world,” Tito stood out even in his ultra-charismatic family. Someone who specialized in unprecedented routines like “the double-double” (a double somersault with a double twist), some of which he literally dreamed up. Tito even intentionally made mistakes, because “if you make it perfect, no one will know how hard it was.”

“The Flight Fantastic” is at its best relating the multiple international triumphs of the Flying Gaonas, including winning the Golden Clown, the circus Oscar, at Monte Carlo’s international circus festival.

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Also interesting is the history of the trapeze form, related by a series of circus journalists and historians and including the accomplishments of Frenchman Jules Leotard, who came up with the garment that bears his name.

Most emotional of all is the tragic story of Alfredo Cardona, the great aerialist of the 1920s, the first man to make a triple somersault a regular part of his act, and doomed fellow aerialist Lillian Leitzel, “the Queen of the Air.”

Tito always felt a strong connection with Cardona, even before accidentally coming upon his elaborate grave in Inglewood Park Cemetery, and he became the first man since Cardona to consistently do a triple, even occasionally making the move blindfolded.

This trapeze lore, extending to Tito’s quest for the elusive quadruple somersault, is always of interest, but the same cannot be said for the film’s extended sequences showing us what the Gaonas are doing today, much of which involves teaching and passing on their knowledge to the next generations. This stuff is sweet and good-natured but it seems to come from another film entirely.

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Fortunately, we always have footage of the Gaonas in their prime to fall back on. Paul Binder, the founder of the Big Apple Circus, where the Gaonas performed after they left Ringling Bros., is especially articulate about their act.

“They do it with grace and beauty, which translates to audiences as a sense of magnificence,” Binder says. “They were magicians, they were there to create magic.” And so they did.

No MPAA rating

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

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Playing Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

“The Flight Fantastic.” Great performance footage enlivens this documentary on the history of the flying trapeze in general and the legendary Flying Gaonas in particular. — Kenneth Turan


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