Film Review #74: The Red Shoes
Directors: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Cast: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring
I loved Rize, I can’t wait for Stomp the Yard, and that last dance number in Idlewild is dazzling even if the final credits do roll right over it – what were they thinking? The list is longer. We’ve had no shortage of good dancing on-screen over these last several years. But you have to go back a ways further for the mother of all dance films. The one that convinced director Brian DePalma he wanted to make movies. The one that Martin Scorsese looked to when he needed a template for fighter Jake LaMotta’s experience inside the ring for Raging Bull. The one that led to Gene Kelley’s 18-minute ballet finale to Gershwin in An American in Paris. The one whose empty theatre seats during rehearsals A Chorus Line copied when that Broadway production went on-screen. British filmmaker Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes was 50 years old in 1998. In observing that, the British Film Institute said it was still the definitive movie about ballet.
As ever, a young unknown gets a big break and must choose what their art means to them. Shortly after World War II ends, London dancer Vickie Page (Moira Shearer) joins the touring dance company of Russian impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). The figure of Lermontov is based loosely on Sergei Dhiagilev, charismatic and controlling manager of the historic Ballet Russe. Lermontov also brings on young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) and commissions him to score a ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale of the girl bewitched by magical red shoes who dances herself to death. Despite the show’s great success, Lermontov and Craster’s rivalry over Vickie provokes a split, an eventual reunion and showdown for her loyalty. Vickie’s seemingly bewitched death echoes her ballet role.
The Red Shoes includes a performance of the entire original ballet within the film, instead of a few abbreviated scenes where actors, with enough coaching and the right cutaway shots, might credibly pretend to be dancers, a few twirls at a time. Dhiagilev’s real company ballet master, Leonide Massine, has a major dancing role in the film, as does then-famed ballerina Ludmilla Tcherena. Moira Shearer had never acted in film and was reluctant to leave her own blossoming career as second dancer (after Margot Fonteyn) at Sadler Wells in London. On the 1994 Criterion Collection DVD’s rich and excellent commentary track, Shearer relates how Michael Powell pursued her for a year to play Vickie Page.
Moreover, Jake Cardiff – who had incidentally never filmed dance before The Red Shoes, though he was already England’s premiere color cinematographer – gives us an absorbing full dance performance that quickly morphs into fantasy and magic. No theater-bound audience could ever fully take in such a live performance’s changes of scene and perspective from their seats, nor logically believe them if they did. But then, The Red Shoes is about what dancers experience inside an artistic world and its consuming collaborative effort, and only afterward about whatever partial glimpse the audience has from beyond the footlights. In contrast, a film with similar themes adapted from the stage like last year’s Rent disappointed because its camera careened aimlessly, just because it could.
The Red Shoes emerged in a dance-receptive, post-war era when both British and US audiences looked to art and entertainment to relieve years of strain and privation. In 1946, when Powell and his Hungarian-born collaborator Emeric Pressburger launched this project, England created a national arts council. The same year George Balanchine started the New York City Ballet. Although ultimately popular in England, The Red Shoes perturbed film critics there at first, with its pioneering mix of genres and flights of fantasy and a tragic ending distastefully “out of place” in a musical. But opening stateside in October 1948, The Red Shoes filled New York City’s Bijou Theater for 110 weeks in a row, was Oscar-nominated for best picture and editing, and won for art direction and original score.
Powell and Pressburger, who wrote The Red Shoes script, made 22 films together in their production company, The Archers. The Red Shoes comes out of their richest period in the 1940s. Their war-themed films had already confounded critics and politicians with “overly sympathetic” portrayals of the enemy – good to recall when you see Clint Eastwood’s brand new Letters from Iwo Jima. The Red Shoes is an entrancing gateway.
This review was published in the 1/4/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle in the column Make it Snappy, a weekly DVD review of recent films that never opened theatrically in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.