The Red Shoes (1948) is considered by many to be the finest ballet film of all time. It may well be, but there is so much more to this picture than simply the ballet scenes. For one thing, the cinematography is dazzling, especially vivid with the three-strip Technicolor process that was used. But what really makes The Red Shoes so memorable is the way it confronts the basic questions an artist faces. Just how important is your work? Are you willing to give up everything for it?
The film opens with scenes of young composing student Julian Craster (Marius Goring) and his friends frantically securing seats at the premiere of the latest Lermontov Ballet performance, Heart Of Fire. The music is credited to their Academy professor, Andrew Palmer. Shortly into the performance Julian realizes that the professor has stolen his compositions and passed them off as his own. It is a bitter disappointment.
At an after-party, the Ballet’s impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) meets young dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) for the first time. Their initial exchange informs everything that is to follow.
Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?
Victoria: Why do you want to live?
A few days later, Julian is granted an audience with Lermontov. When the subject of composer credits for Heart Of Fire comes up, Lermontov cautions the young man, “It is much more disheartening to have to steal, than to be stolen from.”
Thus the stage is set for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s (collectively known as The Archers) foray into the ruthless milieu of world-class ballet.
Julian and Victoria are soon hired by Lermontov, and set to work on his adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s dark fairy-tale The Red Shoes. Julian scores it beautifully, and Victoria’s dancing makes her an overnight sensation. Predictably, the two fall in love. Just as predictably, they are fired by Lermontov. Victoria had heard his admonition to his former lead, “The dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.”
Lermontov’s desire for Victoria is not romantic; it is all encompassing. He wants her very soul. He bides his time until the right moment presents itself. “Put on the red shoes Vicky, and dance for us again,” Lermontov purrs, and she agrees.
Opening night for the return of The Red Shoes is in Monte Carlo. It is the same night as Julian’s opera Cupid And Psyche is set to debut at The Royal Opera House in London. But Julian abandons his appearance and arrives backstage at Monte Carlo. When he asks Victoria to join him on a train to Paris, she replies “Please Julian, wait until after the performance.”
Julian: “It will be too late then.”
Lermontov then enters the room and says, “You’re already too late Mr. Craster.”
Turning to Victoria he continues: “Tell him why you have left him. Nobody can have two lives, and your life is dancing.”
It is an impossible choice, but the red shoes make the decision for her in a stunning conclusion.
The conviction and passion the three actors bring to this scene is heartbreaking. Indeed, their performances throughout the film are striking. Especially that of Moira Shearer, who was a professional dancer and had never previously acted.
The Archers’ choice of Shearer was brilliant, because as the essay by David Ehrenstein notes, “When you look at Shearer you see a dancer — even when she’s standing still.”
The story within a story is The Red Shoes ballet itself. This is a remarkable twenty-minute dance piece, created specifically for the film. While the sequence does stay true to Anderson’s fable, there are a host of allusions to the three-way conflict. The effect is almost hallucinatory, as Victoria’s thoughts merge with reality, and she sees herself dancing with both Julian and Lermontov at times. All the while she is actually onstage, dancing through a hypnotizing series of scenery, including a ballroom, a carnival, the desert, and cloudy skies.
As usual, Criterion has done an outstanding job with the extras. Martin Scorsese introduces the film, with a demonstration of the amazing restoration job that was completed in 2009. There is audio commentary from Scorsese, as well as stars Marius Goring and Moira Shearer, among others. There is also an alternate audio track, featuring Jeremy Irons reading excerpts from Powell and Pressburg’s 1978 novelization of The Red Shoes. The original theatrical trailer completes the selections on disc one.
Disc two consists of nothing but bonus material, and some of it is magnificent. My favorite is the interview with Thelma Schoonmaker Powell (15:00). This was recorded in 2009 at Cannes, during the premiere of the restored version. Besides being Scorsese’s longtime editor (since 1972), Thelma was also Michael Powell’s widow.
Her insights are fascinating, both on the continuing impact the film has had over the years, and its impact on Scorsese directly. She claims that every one of his pictures contains a homage of some sort to The Red Shoes. Most notable of these is the red coloring of Mean Streets. She hesitates in giving other specific examples, leaving the door open for us to find them for ourselves. Another great bit of trivia I picked up is about what goes on in the editing room. Apparently they run Turner Classic Movies nonstop, twenty-four hours a day on a side wall (silently I assume), for total immersion in film.
An indication of Scorsese’s love for the movie is apparent in his memorabilia collection. These are still photos of some of his prized artifacts, number one being the actual red ballet shoes themselves, which are autographed by three of the principles. He also has Emeric Pressburg’s original shooting script, and storyboards from the main ballet scene. This last was a gift from Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts.
There is an interesting documentary titled Profile of “The Red Shoes” (25:00), which features interviews with members of the production team and their families. Finally there is “The Red Shoes” Sketches (16:00), an animated piece constructed from the original color storyboards, with narration again provided by Jeremy Irons.
The Red Shoes is a tremendous combination of story, acting, dance, and music, all performed on the vibrant canvas of Technicolor. The meticulous digital restoration is something to behold as well. Criterion has assembled the definitive edition of this classic, and it is highly recommended.