A vibrantly daring masterpiece, and one of the most beautiful films ever made
If you love beauty and drama, this is a must-see film. Set in the world of ballet, “The Red Shoes” turns a battle between making art and having a personal life into profoundly ravishing entertainment. With an extraordinarily innovative visual approach, this cinematic masterpiece is as breathtaking for the eyes as it is engaging for the mind and heart. Many have called this bold British classic the most beautiful film ever made - an assertion with which I highly agree. It ranks near the top of many Greatest Films of All-Time lists, including #9 on the British Film Institute’s (BFI) list of the 100 Best British Films of the Century. This dark fairytale was nominated for a Best Picture British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award (BAFTA), and five Academy Awards (winning two). Often listed as a favorite among film directors, it has influenced the likes of everyone from Gene Kelly to Martin Scorsese, and has been named a favorite by directors such as Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Guillermo del Toro and more. The film has inspired songs, a Broadway musical, a ballet, and is often referenced in movies (including just about every one of Scorsese’s films in one way or another).
A visually visceral melodrama, “The Red Shoes” uses sensual colors, luxuriant costumes, evocative sets, and Expressionist film techniques to present the plight of an artist's expression. As someone who has appeared in theater for several decades (though not ballet), I can affirm that “The Red Shoes” contains the most authentic behind-the-scenes look at the creative process and its collaborations I’ve ever seen in a fictional film. The film's backstage workings are the backdrop to which we follow the interplay of three artists: the impresario behind the Ballet Lermontov, “Boris Lermontov”, for whom art is an all-or-nothing venture; “Victoria (Vicky) Page”, a ballerina who aspires to become the best; and “Julian Craster”, a music student/composer seeking to be heard. Through a series of ups and downs, the three end up collaborating on a new ballet called "The Ballet of the Red Shoes”. In the process, “Vicky” becomes torn between the svengali-ish "Boris" egging on her passion for dance, and her need for a personal life, in the form of her love for "Julian".
The film is inspired by “The Red Shoes” fairytale by Danish poet and author, Hans Christian Andersen. It's about a girl who obtains an enchanted pair of red shoes and once she puts them on they dance. Not able to take them off, they eventually dance her to death. This film takes Andersen's tale and twists it into a metaphor for the artist’s dilemma of art versus life. Within the film is "The Ballet of the Red Shoes” - an astounding fifteen minute ballet sequence and showpiece. In the ballet the red shoes become ballet slippers representing “Vicky’s” passion for dance. There’s a stunning moment when the protagonist (danced by “Vicky”) sees the red shoes standing on pointe and literally jumps into them as they magically tie themselves around her ankles - symbolically showing “Vicky” being taken over by her art. Unlike typical movie dance numbers which showcase dance steps, this ballet is staged for film and becomes an abstract display of “Vicky’s” thoughts as she dances. It contains ingenious editing, movement, colors, lighting, special effects, and changing backgrounds - all creating a cinematic tour-de-force. In the ballet we get the first glimpse that “Vicky” has feelings for “Julian”, and we start to see her quandary emerge through brilliant dissolves and imaginative superimpositions. This ballet was so unique and adventurous (and still mesmerizes) that it inspired Gene Kelly to create his iconic extended ballet sequences in both the Oscar winning “An American in Paris”, and the immortal "Singin' in the Rain".
Just like how the film's characters create "The Ballet of the Red Shoes" , the real-life making of “The Red Shoes” was a complete collaborative effort between artists and technicians. At the helm were co-directors, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Their creative work in this film is visually thrilling - whether a simple lyrical detail such as showing only steam to indicate a passing train, or the canted framing of orchestra instruments transforming them into glistening icons. The two men were a perfectly matched creative pair, as Powell was visual, dramatic, imaginative, and made films for himself, while Pressburger was more the writer, storyteller, and made films with an audience in mind. While they shared the roles of directing, writing, and producing, Powell was more the director, and Pressburger more the producer who wrote original ideas and first draft scripts and was involved in the music and editing. A decade or so before “The Red Shoes”, film director and producer Alexander Korda wanted to make a ballet film (featuring his soon-to-be wife, actress Merle Oberon) and hired Pressburger to write a script. The film never happened and the script sat dormant.
In 1939, Powell and Pressburger worked together for the first time on Korda's “The Spy in Black”, with Powell directing and Pressburger writing. The two creatively clicked and worked on a couple more films together before creating their own production company called Archers Film Productions. It was a way of maintaining creative control over their films. Under Archers, Powell and Pressburger collaborated on twenty four films between 1942 and 1957 (co-directing fifteen of them) before dissolving the company to go in different directions. They remained friends and later collaborated on two more films. In addition to “The Red Shoes”, they made many of cinema’s most imaginative and commanding classics, including “Black Narcissus”, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp", “A Canterbury Tale”, “A Matter of Life and Death”, and “The Tales of Hoffmann”. When Pressburger and Powell decided to make a ballet-themed film, they bought back the script from Korda and re-worked it into what became “The Red Shoes”. Because it was unlike other British films at the time, upon first screening it, the film's financiers - the Rank Organisation, thought of it as an art film no one would see and were sure they would lose money. Because of that and financial trouble the Organisation was already facing, little money was spent to promote the film. It opened in Britain to mixed reviews, with most complaints being about its nonrealistic approach to ballet. The film found footing in the art house theaters in New York City, and because of its enormous success there, eventually found its way into the US mainstream market, becoming one of the highest box-office British films of its time.
English born Michael Powell began in silent films, doing all sorts of odd jobs including taking production photos for two Alfred Hitchcock films. He began writing and directing films in 1930, and directed over fifty films (including the ones with Pressburger). In 1966 he made the controversial psychological horror-thriller, “Peeping Tom”, about a serial killer who photographs his victims as they die. Because of its subject matter, the film received a negative reception and it hurt Powell’s directing career. It has since become a classic and cult favorite. Powell was nominated for two Academy Awards (both alongside Pressburger), one as producer for Best Picture for “The Red Shoes”, and one for Best Original Screenplay for the 1942 film, “One of Our Aircraft is Missing”. He was married three times, including his final marriage to film editor Thelma Schoonmaker (Martin Scorsese’s most frequent film editor - Scorsese introduced the two). Michael Powell died in 1990 at the age of 84.
Hungarian born Emeric Pressburger began as a journalist, and then became a screenwriter working in Berlin at UFA in the 1920s (when it was Hollywood’s biggest rival and the hub of German Expressionist films). Having to flee the Nazis (he was Jewish), he eventually ended up in London in 1935, where he continued writing screenplays and original story ideas. In his career he wrote just shy of seventy scripts in addition to directing sixteen films (including the fifteen with Powell - the other being "Twice Upon a Time” in 1953). Pressburger won a Best Original Story Academy Award for the 1941 film “49th Parallel”, and received four other Oscar nominations (including the two with Powell mentioned above), plus one for Best Story for “The Red Shoes”. He was married and divorced twice. Emeric Pressburger died in 1988 at the age of 85. In 1981 Powell and Pressburger were awarded the BAFTA Fellowship (a British lifetime achievement award).
An aspect of “The Red Shoes” that separates it from every other film is its use of color. The radiant Technicolor cinematography by the film’s director of photography Jack Cardiff is so dramatically potent it just about becomes its own character in the film. Cardiff was able to use Technicolor to create subtle tones, shades, and color combinations that are so magnificent, they are often jaw-dropping. The dazzling hues of the walls, costumes, sky, and even leading lady Shearer’s red hair, look lavishly unlike any other film. Even the film’s opening (set in an ordinary stairwell, a theater balcony of seats, and an orchestra pit) is elevated by Cardiff’s sensuous lighting and color. The textured lighting of the green and yellowish stairway, the beautifully balanced palette of clothes of the audience, and the bright red carnation worn by the conductor, all become bedazzling. His distinct artfulness never lets up from the film’s beginning to its end. The first few times I saw "The Red Shoes" I was so enthralled by the colors and lighting, I never really paid attention to the story. Cardiff’s inspiration for his cinematography comes from paintings by the old masters, and their influence is overwhelmingly evident. Every frame is the equivalent of a painting in motion - several of which look like a cinematic Degas. Cardiff knew nothing about ballet before working on “The Red Shoes”, so Powell had him attend the ballet many times before filming began. As a result he was able to capture the magic of the ballet and even became a ballet aficionado.
English born Jack Cardiff is highly regarded as the number one color cinematographer in film history. He began his film career in silent films as an actor and camera assistant, worked his way up to camera operator, and eventually to cinematographer. Trained in the complicated Technicolor process, he was the camera operator for the first British Technicolor film, “Wings of the Morning” in 1937, and became Technicolor’s star technician. In 1946 he was the cinematographer for “A Matter of Life and Death”, the first of three films with Powell and Pressburger. Next year followed with another Powell/Pressburger classic, “Black Narcissus”, for which Cardiff’ mind-blowing use of color earned him a Best Cinematography Academy Award (his only win). He would go on to receive two more Best Cinematography Oscar nominations (for “Fanny” and “War and Peace”). He photographed many other classics including "The African Queen", "The Barefoot Contessa", "Death on the Nile", "The Brave One”, and "The Prince and the Showgirl" with Marilyn Monroe (who specifically requested him for the film). He also directed a dozen or so films, including "Young Cassidy" and “Sons and Lovers” (for which he earned a Best Director Academy Award nomination). He was appointed as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2000, received an Honorary Academy Award in 2001 for his body of work, and a BFI Fellowship in 2002. He was married three times. Jack Cardiff died in 2009 at the age of 94.
One thing Powell insisted upon in this stylized film was the use of real ballet dancers. He and Pressburger virtually created their own ballet company for the film, and every dancer who appears was a professional dancer. This includes the French prima ballerina Ludmilla Tchérina (who plays “Irina Boronskaya” - Lermontov’s prima dancer); Australian lead dancer and choreographer for the Vic-Wells Ballet, Robert Helpmann (who plays “Ivan Boleslawsky” - Lermontov’s primo ballerino), Russian choreographer, ballet dancer and legend, Léonide Massine (who plays “Grischa Ljubov” - Lermontov’s choreographer and dance coach), and the film’s female lead Moira Shearer whom I’ll write about below. All four dancers also appeared in the Powell/Pressburger’s 1951 film, “The Tales of Hoffmann”, among other films. Much of “The Red Shoes” was shot on location, including inside London's Covent Garden and Paris' Opera House, and in Mote Carlo.
Anton Walbrook gives a powerful performance starring as “Boris Lermontov”, the creative head of the Ballet Lermontov. Dedicating his existence to art (he calls ballet his “religion”), “Boris’” obsessiveness borders on the malign as he is always on the lookout for new talent he can bend and exploit to his needs, devoid of kindness or compassion. With all of “Boris’” cold omnipotence, Walbrook manages to keep him believable and human, giving a fabulous performance with an exquisite array of nuanced expression. Walbrook's forceful presence and expressions let us feel his emotions, as when “Boris” first encounters “Vicky” at her aunt’s party or when he learns of “Vicky’s” marriage. Austrian born Anton Walbrook began his career studying with famed director Max Reinhardt. He appeared onstage in Austria and Germany and then began appearing in German silent films in 1915. In 1936 he went to Hollywood to star in the 1937 film “The Soldier and the Lady” (after starring German and French film versions the year before). Afterwards he went to London where he stayed to avoid the rise of the Nazis (his mother was Jewish). He took to British stage and films, appearing in two Powell/Pressburger films, “49th Parallel” and “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”. “The Red Shoes” offered him a more menacing role than he’d previously played, and because he was so believable he continued to play sinister roles for much of his career. Walbrook’s “The Red Shoes” co-star Shearer stated that he was distant and remote during filming, and didn’t mingle with anyone on the set. He wore dark glasses off-screen and wears them in a couple of scenes in the film. Walbrook appeared in a fourth Powell/Pressburger film in 1955, “Oh... Rosalinda!!”, before retiring from films in 1958. He continued appearing on stage and also did a bit of television in the 1960s. He appeared in two masterpieces by director Max Ophüls ("La Ronde" and "Lola Montès”), as well as Otto Preminger’s “Saint Joan”. His final film was “I Accuse!”, directed by José Ferrer. He was gay and never married. Anton Walbrook died in 1967 at the age of 70.
Marius Goring plays “Julian Craster”, the composer and love of “Vicky”. When the film starts, we see “Julian” in the audience of a performance by Ballet Lermontov. He verbally battles with two ballet snobs who are only interested in seeing the prima ballerina perform, while he and his fellow music students are there to hear his professor’s music. When the music starts, “Julian” immediately realizes his teacher plagiarized his music, and from then on he struggles to be heard - whether it is his music underscoring a ballet, or his love for “Vicky” over her passion for dance. Goring does a wonderful job subtly conveying the myriad of feelings “Julian” experiences throughout the film - from the moment he realizes his teacher stole his work, to his highly romantic tenderness while riding in a carriage with “Vicky” just before dawn. Goring was a redhead, and had to change his hair color for the role, as not to clash with co-star Shearer. English born Marius Goring began his acting career on stage in the 1920s, studying and appearing at the Old Vic, and he maintained a successful stage career his entire life. He began his film career with uncredited roles in 1936, and was landing substantial roles by 1939, including in "The Spy in Black”, directed by Powell and written by Pressburger. He worked with them again in "A Matter of Life and Death”, and “Ill Met by Moonlight”. Some of Goring’s other classic films include "The Barefoot Contessa", "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman", and "Exodus". He also appeared on television, most famously in the title role of the long running BBC series, "The Expert”. He was married three times, including his marriage to actress Lucie Mannheim (until her death). Marius Goring died in 1998 at the age of 86.
Moira Shearer leaves an indelible impression as “Victoria Page”, the woman caught between her love for dance and her love for a man. Her fiery passion for dance can be seen in her eyes when we first meet her in the film’s opening scene watching the Ballet Lermontov performance. Shortly after, when “Boris” asks her why she wants to dance, her reply is “Why do you want to live?”. This is a woman with ambition and passion. Shearer is fantastic as she wholeheartedly navigates the highs and lows, excitement and nerves, and loves and artistry of someone striving to become a transcendent artist while grappling with life outside her art. Her scene when finally confronted by “Boris” and “Julian” is chillingly truthful. Born in Scotland, Moira Shearer began dancing around the age of five. By 1936 she was studying with former Russian Imperial Ballet premier dancer Nikolai Legat, followed by Sadler's Wells Ballet School, and in 1942 became part of the Sadler's Wells Ballet (now The Royal Ballet). By 1944 she was a principal dancer in the company, gaining success and some fame from her performance in, “The Sleeping Beauty”. She soon created the title role in the Frederick Ashton ballet version of, “Cinderella”. When Powell was looking for dancers that could act for “The Red Shoes”, his friend, actor Stewart Granger suggested he see Shearer. After watching her perform, Powell approached her for the role. A rising ballet star with no interest in movies whatsoever, she turned him down. After a year of Powell relentlessly pursuing her, and hounding the director of the Sadler's Wells Ballet Ninette de Valois, Shearer relented when she learned Léonide Massine and Robert Helpmann were involved, and when de Valois insisted she take the role if only to get Powell off her own back. Shearer did it with the caveat that she could return to the ballet company when filming ended and resume her place just as before. De Valois agreed but ended up not keeping her promise, and by 1952 Shearer was reduced to a guest artist in the company. She retired from dance in 1953 at the age of twenty-seven and turned her focus to acting, appearing mostly on stage, later giving lectures on ballet and poetry and prose recitals. “The Red Shoes” was her first film and it made her (and her vibrant red hair) an international sensation. Though she and Powell did not get along, she worked with him in two more films - "The Tales of Hoffmann”, and his scandalous “Peeping Tom” (and danced in both). Shearer only appeared in a total of six films, her final being “Black Tights” in 1961, in which she also danced ballet. Her success with “The Red Shoes” was a double edged sword, as it overshadowed all her other decades of work. She wrote two books, “Ballet Master: A Dancer's View of George Balanchine”, and a biography of actress “Ellen Terry”. In 1950 Shearer married journalist Ludovic Kennedy, and they remained married until her death. They had four children. Moira Shearer died in 2006 at the age of 80.
In addition to Best Picture and Best Original Story Academy Award nominations, “The Red Shoes” won two Academy Awards - one for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and one for Best Music Score. The film’s look was created by first time production designer, German born Hein Heckroth, who began his career as a surrealist painter and set and costume designer for ballet and opera. After arriving in England in 1935, he began designing sets and costumes for films, including two prior Powell/Pressburger films - “A Matter of Life and Death” and “Black Narcissus”. Even though he had no experience, Pressburger urged Heckroth to head production design for “The Red Shoes”, and a large chunck of the film’s magic can be traced to Heckroth’s work. He shared his Oscar with his art director, Arthur Lawson. The Academy Award winning score was by Brian Easdale, who composed and arranged the memorably lush music. The score is played by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Easdale, except during "The Ballet of the Red Shoes”, which was conducted by the Philharmonic’s famed conductor and impresario, Thomas Beecham. Brian Easdale was the first British composer to win an Oscar. The film's fifth Oscar nomination was for Best Editing (Reginald Mills).
In 2000, Martin Scorsese spearheaded the film’s restoration, which aimed to match the spectacular original Technicolor, and it is breathtaking. When you watch the film, be certain you are watching the restored version.
This film has it all - a compelling story, stirring performances, gorgeous music, and otherworldly beauty. It is a film bound to leave an unforgettable impact. Enjoy “The Red Shoes”!
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