The Red Shoes
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It may be the film that launched a million little girls' dreams of becoming a ballerina, but Michael Powell's groundbreaking dance fantasy, The Red Shoes (1948), originally seemed a risky undertaking. Powell and his erstwhile filmmaking partner, Emeric Pressburger, were dealing with a form of dance that tended to scare off the uninitiated, and they aimed to conclude their picture with a lengthy ballet sequence that ran without dialogue. The graceful movement of dance itself would, in effect, serve as the final movement of the narrative, and nobody was certain if such a concept would play properly on the big screen.
The story opens with Julian Craster (Marius Goring), a fledgling composer, realizing that his work has been stolen for the Lermontov Ballet's production of "Hearts of Fire." When Julian confronts the company's controlling director, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), Lermontov enlists him to score his next work, The Red Shoes. Unfortunately, Lermontov's star decides to get married, so he re-casts a beautiful young dancer named Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in her role. The Red Shoes becomes a huge success, and Victoria is suddenly a star. When Julian and Victoria fall in love, Boris, who secretly pines for the young woman, kicks Julian out of the company. But Victoria chooses love over art, and leaves with him.
This will lead to another meeting between Victoria and Boris, and a frenetic final presentation of The Red Shoes. Simply calling the event that befalls poor Victoria melodramatic would be a vast understatement. But its cinematic grandeur is enough to bring out the 13-year-old girl in any viewer.
When The Red Shoes made its British debut, it failed to stir much excitement. Critics complained that it was way too long, the dialogue was repetitious, and the characters were cliched. There was also a rumor that Powell and Pressburger had gone so far over budget, the film threatened to sink its production company, The Rank Organization (this turned out to be untrue). When all was said and done, Powell and Pressburger seemed to have created little more than a highly inventive commercial failure...that is, until the film started playing in New York City.
For quite some time, no American distributor was interested in releasing The Red Shoes, seeing how it had fared so poorly in its homeland. But, when the picture was finally booked into Manhattan's Bijou Theater, it took off, playing there - and only there - for a staggering 110 weeks! Only then did Universal Pictures give it a broad release. All the good press worked wonders back in England, where the picture ultimately found an audience and became one of the highest grossing films in U.K. history. Too bad its young star wasn't concerned with its eventual success one way or the other.
Shearer was a ballerina who had been hand-selected by Powell to star in The Red Shoes, not that it was easy convincing her to do so. In an interview she gave years later, Shearer said she really wasn't all that interested in the job, even after she accepted it: "I fought against being in that film for a whole year, and (Powell) was so angry. He thought I would sort of fall at his feet and be absolutely thrilled at this great chance. I was just beginning to do the big classics at Covent Garden, which was every classical ballerina's dream, and I didn't want to be deflected by all this."
But Powell kept after Shearer until she relented, although she was eventually quite disenchanted with both Powell and the filmmaking process. "Michael Powell was obviously very keen about the ballet in an overall way," she said, "but he didn't know anything about it at all. He had these sort of grandiose, filmic ideas of putting every sort of eccentricity into every character and having everything going on at once." She particularly didn't care for Powell's handling of Leonide Massine, the real-life dancer-choreographer who plays a choreographer in the movie, claiming that Powell had the normally dignified Massine "behaving like a mad jumping bean." She also complained that the dancers were treated disrespectfully during filming, with their routines being full of fitful starts and stops that often made it physically impossible to meet Powell's exacting demands.
Shearer never found another role to utilize her unique talents (with the possible exception of The Tales of Hoffman, 1951), even though many were offered including, rather bizarrely, a role opposite Charlton Heston in El Cid (1961). But her work in The Red Shoes, both as an actress and a dancer of the highest order, remains a sight to behold.
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Screenplay: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger and Keith Winter (inspired by a story by Hans Christian Anndersen)
Producers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Editor: Reginald Mills
Music Composer: Brian Easdale
Music Director: Sir Thomas Beecham
Art Director/Costume Design: Hein Heckroth
Choreography: Robert Helpmann
Principal Cast: Anton Walbrook (Boris Lermontov), Moira Shearer (Victoria Page), Marius Goring (Julian Craster), Leonide Massine (Grischa Ljubov), Robert Helpmann (Ivan Boleslawsky), Albert Basserman (Sergei Ratov), Esmond Knight (Livy), Ludmilla Tcherina (Irina Boronkaja), Jean Short (Terry), Gordon Littmann (Ike), Julia Lang (Balletomane), Bill Shine (Her Mate), Austin Trevor (Prof. Palmer), Eric Berry (Dimitri), Irene Browne (Lady Neston).
C-134m. Closed Captioning.
by Paul Tatara