The Red Shoes

1948, UK, Directed, written and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger,

with Moira Shearer, Marius Goring & Anton Walbrook, 134 minutes, color, blu-ray disc

cover of videotape case for The Red Shoes

"Apotheosis of the fragile glory of life"

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 bedazzlements 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 incandescent that it almost lulls one into overlooking how great the movie is.

Indeed, what makes The Red Shoes extraordinary, 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 Shearer.

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 mischievously 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 the orchestra.

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 performance. 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 of film.

Walbrook is wonderfully imperious and aristocratic. 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 be like."

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.

 

This film is ranked number 1 on Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films list

Click 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

A very, very long and superb article by Gina Pia Cooper, editor-in-chief of fashionfinds.com with many superb and fabulous illustrations on the movie, Moira Shearer and Jacques Fath, the designer, can be found at http://www.fashionfinds.com/april/pages/jacquesfathscostumesfortheredshoes.htm. The article continues for 11 more "pages" but actually is much longer.

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