By Carter B. Horsley
Although it has been widely acclaimed as the
greatest "dance" film in history, The Red Shoes
is the greatest film in history, period.
Two men are in love with the same woman. One
is powerful and the other creative. One offers her the opportunity
to fulfill herself as a great artist. The other as a woman.
It's not an easy choice, actually, as this
movie, more than any other, so dramatically shows.
Prioritizing one's professional and emotional
life is an important subject, of course, but The Red Shoes
is not an academic study, but a marvelously vibrant depiction
of "high art," its purposes, its torments, its frustrations,
its diligence, its glamour, and its hard work.
Despite such weighty issues, The Red Shoes
is not an intellectual exercise because its star, Moira Shearer,
is the most beautiful redhead in history, or at least photographed,
and a magnificent prima ballerina to boot.
One cannot underestimate her ravishing beauty.
She is astonishing and was at the time of the making of the movie
the bright young star of the Sadler's Wells Ballet, which later
became the Royal Ballet Company. The only comparable screen
are Marlene Dietrich in "Blonde Venus," and Grace Kelly
in "Rear Window." (There have been other great mesmerizing
beauties, of course, like Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth
Taylor and Romy Schneider, but none have had such an auspicious
and memorable debut, and none have had spectacular public talents
other than acting. Moira Shearer, whose looks are not dissimilar
from Vivien Leigh's, would make a few more movies, but retired
early from the screen.)
One dwells on her beauty because it is so
that it almost lulls one into overlooking how great the movie
Indeed, what makes The Red Shoes
however, is that not only does it have incredible performances
by several of the foremost and most legendary ballet dancers of
its era, but also great acting.
Bravura abounds. It is contagious. No one can
view the movie and not be profoundly affected, for the better.
The Red Shoes
is not only "high-brow," but "elitist." It
argues, convincingly, that art is not only an important value
in human life, but probably the most important. For those touched
by the magic of great art little else matters, and this film,
created in an pre-multiculturalism age, is not timid in insisting
upon differentiating "art."
It is great because it is viscerally exuberant,
beginning with the first scene of students stampeding up flights
of stairs to the cheap seats in the top balcony of a great theater.
It is great because it brims over with youthful
hopes and dreams and the enthrallment of love.
It is great because it bristles with cynicism
and sophistication and the arrogant authority of an impresario,
played with unforgettable gusto and passion by Anton Walbrook.
It is great because the male lead, played by
Marius Goring, is impetuous, brilliant and irreconcilably in love.
It is great because it is filled with fabulous
characters, two of whom are played incomparably by the two greatest
character male dancers in ballet history, Léonide Massine,
who actually was a choreographer for the famous impresario, Diaghilev
(see excellent site with information on his Ballets Russe at http://protis.univ-mrs.fr/~esouche/dance/dance1/html),
and Robert Helpmann. The film also has an utterly charming performance
by famed ballerina, Ludmilla Tcherina, as a wacky prima donna.
"The Red Shoes" is also great because
it has a lush and magnificent score, which won an Oscar, by Brian
Easdale and a long ballet that is not only sensational but also
one of the most Surrealistic film sequences in history.
Finally, it is great because its tragic ending
is life imitating art and its coda is a cathartic apotheosis of
the fragile glory of life.
I have seen the movie at least a dozen times
and weep uncontrollably at the end every time, and also just thinking
about it, and am always ennobled and honored by it.
One knows in one's heart that Noel Coward and
Fred Astaire watch this movie in their lofty heavens and also
weep, and smile.
One knows that physical beauty is luck and
fickle, only skin-deep, and the source of too much attention,
except in the latest, multicultural microseconds of history, but
here it is undeniable, pristine, perfect. To see this movie, the
most famous of several collaborations between director Powell
and writer-producer Emeric Pressburger, is to be bewitched and
infected with the notion that dreams may not be impossible, that
life is thrilling, and dangerous, and sad and wonderful.
Powell, who died in 1990, started making films
with Rex Ingram and worked on silent movies with Alfred Hitchcock
and joined with Pressburger in 1938 to work on a film with Conrad
Veidt. Pressburger, who died in 1988, had been a scriptwriter,
first for Robert Siodmark and then Alexander Korda. Powell and
Pressburger made The Thief of Baghdad and Contraband
in 1940 when they formed a company, The Archers, that would
make A Canterbury Tale in 1944, Black Narcissus
in 1946, and, after The Red Shoes in 1948, The Elusive
Pimpernel in 1950 and The Tales of Hoffman in 1951
(another ballet film starring Moira Shearer). The Archers went
out of business in 1956, but Powell would go on to make Peeping
Tom in 1960 and Pressburger would write the script for Operation
Crossbow, which was directed by Michael Anderson, in 1965.
Korda originally asked Pressburger to make
a ballet film for his star and future wife, Merle Oberon, but
the project was eventually abandoned and Pressburger and Powell
subsequently bought the script from Korda and rewrote it for Moira
According to the Cinebooks' Motion Picture
Guide Review in Microsoft Cinemania, the Hans Christian Andersen
story on which the movie is based was "not a pretty one."
"An impoverished young woman dons a pair of magical shoes
and almost dies when her feet won't stop dancing. She is saved
when her feet are cut off by an axe-wielding executioner. Her
still-shod feet dance on, but she is given wooden feet, finds
peace in religion, and hobbles through the rest of her life,"
the Cinebooks' review noted.
The movie begins with students dashing up flights
of stairs to get to the cheap seats for a performance of their
professor's score for a ballet, "Heart of Fire," that
will be performed by the Lermontov ballet company. Shortly after
it begins, however, one of the students, Julian Craster, played
by Marius Goring, recognizes that it is his own composition, not
the professor's, that he is hearing, and he storms out followed
by a few of his fellow students.
He writes a letter of protest to the concert's
impresario, Boris Lermontov, played by Anton Walbrook, but then
decides that that might not have been the better part of wisdom
and dashes to his office the next morning to try to retrieve the
letter before it is read. With fabulous arrogance and superciliousness,
Lermontov listens rather patiently to the worried Craster's pleas
for the return of the unopened letter only to reveal finally that
he has read it and its charges against the composer. Lermontov
asks Craster to play some of his own music on the piano and
suggests that it is "much more disenchanting to have to steal
than to be stolen from" and offers him a job as a coach of
In this fine scene, Lermontov epitomizes power,
control and flippancy. He is God and Mephistopheles. He is also
charming, debonair, brilliant, impeccable and cruel, in short,
a formidable and manipulating opponent, especially for a naive,
young and ambitious artist. As that artist, Craster, is vulnerable,
malleable, but also proud and driven, in short, a lustful, impetuous
youth whose talent needs luck to blossom.
Is Lermontov a villain and Craster a hero?
Lermontov's savoir faire and generosity make him appear
not to be a villain while Craster's willingness to not press the
"copyright" issue makes him appear not to overwhelmingly
virtuous, or at least not too self-righteous a hero.
The previous evening after the performance
of the "Heart of Fire" ballet, Lermontov attends a fashionable
party only to become aghast by the fact that the hostess's niece
is a ballet dancer who will perform. He asks the hostess to describe
ballet and she says it is "poetry in motion" and he
responds that it is "religion." Affronted by the "trick"
audition - "I can't bear amateurs," he scoffs - Lermontov
plans to leave. At the bar he flirts with a beautiful woman who
orders the same drink, a champagne cocktail, and remarks that
they were fortunate to be spared the "horror" of an
audition. She replies that "I am that horror." "Why
do you want to dance?" he asks. "Why do you want to
live?" she responds. "Because I must," he says
and she says that is her answer, too. The beautiful young lady
is played by Moira Shearer, radiant in a Jacques Fath gown. He
says they must talk and we subsequently learn he has invited her
to come to Covent Garden the next morning for an audition.
She shows up only to discover that she is one
of many other hopeful ballerinas showing up for auditions. She
is one of the fortunate ones that are asked to stay. Lermontov
secretly attends one of her dance recitals and is enraptured and
plans a new ballet for her based on the Andersen story, The Red
Shoes, and he commissions Craster to write a score for it. In
preparation for it, Craster plays the score on the piano for Vicky's
rehearsals and they fall in love.
At its premiere, the ballet and Vicky are hailed
as major new stars and Lermontov then makes her the company's
prima ballerina. Craster and Vicky marry, but Lermontov is jealous
of Craster and is critical of a new score and he and Vicky resign.
Lermontov, however, lures her back subsequently to perform The
Red Shoes ballet one more time, arguing that her talent is too
great to be abandoned merely for love.
Craster's opera's premiere is the same night
as her performance.
As she listens on the radio to the start of
the opera just as she is about to go on stage herself, she realizes
that she has sacrificed her love for her art and runs out of her
dressing room, down the hall and jumps, or falls, out the window
and onto the tracks where a train is arriving with Craster who
had decided at the last moment to join her and not conduct the
premiere of his own opera.
The train runs over her feet and she dies in
his arms as he unties the red ballet shoes from her bloody feet.
The film cuts to the curtained stage where
the overture to the ballet has just entered and the audience is
growing restless as the curtain has not gone up.
Lermontov comes out from the center of the
curtains and announces with incredible angst that Vicky Page will
not perform but would have liked the ballet to go on and the ballet
begins without her. A spotlight substitutes for her and the film
ends with the shoemaker who originally sells her the shoes replacing
them in the store window.
While the neatness of the fictional story being
reenacted in the "real" story of the film is stylistically
satisfying, if not coy, the impact of the film's end is truly
memorable and totally devastating.
Walbrook's curtain scene is unforgettable.
He was in love with Vicky and together they had created a masterpiece
that would now be forever retired, lost. He is totally crushed,
but too ingrained a gentleman not to persevere for the final
Life goes on, though different. Vicky and Craster are redeemed
through their love and their sacrificing their art for that love.
The reason the movie is so effective is that
the ballet and the acting are sensational.
The ballet, which was choreographed by Robert
Helpmann, the leading male ballet dancer of his era, and which
also stars him and Massine, who is fantastic as the shoemaker,
is a breathtaking, 17-minute sequence that has huge and impressive
sets and many surreal effects. The music is very beautiful and
haunting and the sequence is one of the most magical in the history
Walbrook is wonderfully imperious and
Goring is quite convincing as a dedicated artist and a romantic
lover. Shearer is incredible, her ravishing, Botticellean beauty
matched by her great dancing and superb acting.
The movie also won Hein Heckroth an Oscar for
Best Art Direction-Set Direction and had also been nominated for
Best Picture and Best Screenplay.
An article by Dan Lybarger available at http://www.tipjar.com/dan/theredshoes.htm
notes that the title ballet sequence "inspired Gene Kelly
to make An American in Paris, and its themes have influenced
a variety of artists from Martin Scorsese to musician Kate Bush."
Lybarger interviewed Shearer for a January 22-8, 1998 article
in Pitch Weekly and quoted her as saying that she had fought against
doing the film for a year because she was beginning to do major
roles with the Sadler's Wells company at Covent Garden and because
she felt that Powell really did not know much about ballet: "He
had these sort of grandiose, filmic ideas of putting every sort
of eccentricity into every character and having everything going
on at once, presumably to make a particular kind of impression
on the screen. He had Léonide Massine...behave like a mad
jumping bean. Massine was wonderfully dignified and distinguished
in life. I thought it was a travesty of what a ballet master should
An excellent, illustrated article on Shearer
in Ballet Magazine can be found at http://www.ballet.co.uk/old/legend_js_moira_shearer.htm.
Shortly after the movie opened in New York, the Sadler's Wells
Company came to New York with Margot Fonteyn and Moira Shearer.
In the article, Shearer maintained that she was impressed by George
Balanchine's encouragement of her and had she not gotten married
to Ludovic Kennedy she might have joined his company in New York.
The article noted that Shearer stayed at Covent Garden until 1953
when she retired because of injury.
Powell had originally asked Allan Gray to write
the film's score, but he was soon replaced by Easdale, who had
scored Black Narcissus.
A superb article with several excellent stills
from the film relating to the movie in the Feb., 1998 issue of
American Cinematographer Magazine can be found at http://www.cinematographer.com/magazine/feb98/shoes/main.htm.
It notes that "Powell and Pressburger both insisted that
Lermontov had a bit of Diaghliev in him, but in reality he was
more a combination of Alexander Korda, Powell and Pressburger
perhaps with an added dash of Svengali." It also notes that
"the great 80-year-old German star, Albert Basserman, brings
a realistic presence as the designer, Ratov. Esmond Knight, a
prewar romantic actor partially blinded during his tenure as an
officer aboard the ill-fated H. M. S. Prince of Wales amid the
battle in which the Nazi sea-raider Bismarck was sunk is excellent
as the conductor, Livy." The article quotes Powell as having
once observed that "the salient feature of the film is simply
Moira Shearer. Before this film could be started, it was necessary
to find a dancer on the brink of becoming a ballerina, about 20
years of age. [She had to be] beautiful, [with an] exquisite figure
and legs and strength of character....If we had not found Moira
Shearer, we could not have made the film."
"Powell," the article continued,
"considered using Ann Todd or Hazel Court with real dancers
doubling the ballet scenes, but Helpmann, Pressburger and Heckroth
dissuaded him from doing so." It also recounts that on her
first day of shooting Shearer got sunburn and a blister on her
back and later wrenched her neck badly while doing the jump from
the window scene and would also later get a scratch on her leg
that developed into an abscess. "The overall production itself
was something of a stormy voyage. The unyielding cement floors
of the stages caused pain and swelling in the legs and feet of
the dancers, and the blazing lights actually produced some fainting
spells. Shearer found herself dancing under near-impossible conditions
that included being suspended for up to eight hours at a time
in a harness while being buffeted by wind machines," the
article maintained. It also reports on the unusual cinematography
that involved new lighting and intricate tricks with the motor
speed of the cameras and filters. During a "Swan Lake"
sequence, it noted that the camera spins to show the dancer's
point of view during a pirouette.
The title ballet sequence took six weeks to
shoot and included 120 scenes that had been painted by Heckroth
and which Easdale's score was matched. The famous "Paper
Dance" in the title ballet in which a newspaper morphs into
a dancer was achieved with wires and exact frame cutting.
The movie went over budget and its initial
reception in England was less than enthusiastic, but it did well
in the United States.
This lavish movie was quite a miracle since
the project was launched without established stars, and without
a known ballet or score.
The ballet and its score are truly great and
by themselves would have made any film wonderful and important.
Combined, however, with the great acting, the film is staggering.
It is even conceivable that others could have played the lead
roles, but no one could ever match the luminosity of Moira Shearer,
who also happens to perform several other major dancing roles
in the film that highlight her great dancing talent.
This is the best film of all time, because
it is a great love story, a great moral story, because of Shearer's
incandescence and because no other film has dared to better another
art form at its own game and won as convincingly.
here to order the blu-ray disc version for 32 percent off its $39.95
list price from Amazon.com with audio commentary by Ian Christie with
interviews from Moira Shearer and Marius Goring, cinematographer Jack
Cardiff, composer Brian Easdale and Martin Scorcese