I don’t know why I never saw The Red Shoes. TCM showed it several times during the brief period my family had cable, but I never watched it. Too distracted, I guess. Well, that’s all changed now, so let’s hop into this 1948 gem, shall we?
The Red Shoes was based on a story by Hans Christian Anderson, but thankfully, it’s only a ballet within the larger plot arc of the film. Its protagonist, Karen, asks an executioner to cut her feet off with his axe so she can escape those infernal shoes that won’t let her stop dancing. Aack. No one wants to see that.
Anyway, the film starts at the Royal Opera House in London, where crowds are clamoring to see the Ballet Lermantov on its opening night of Heart of Fire. One in particular, Julian Craster (Marius Goring) is impatient to see his mentor, Professor Palmer (Austin Trevor), who wrote the music. As it starts, however, Julian is dismayed to hear the professor has stolen the score from him, and walks out. He writes a letter to the head of the ballet, Boris Lermantov (Anton Walbrook) telling him that he’s the real composer of Heart of Fire.
Before all that, Boris and Professor Palmer both get invited to an after-show party by Lady Neston (Irene Brown). At first Boris is reluctant to go because Lady Neston’s ballerina granddaughter, Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) is going to perform, but he agrees when Lady Neston promises she won’t. As it happens, though, he meets Vicky at the bar and invites her to audition for his company, then awkwardly watches her walk away after she tells him who she is.
The morning following the party, Boris gets a visit from Julian, who’s come to take his letter back. At first Boris is annoyed and doesn’t really believe his story, but after hearing Julian play, offers him a job of assistant to the conductor. Julian is overwhelmed, and strides out with his letter in hand.
Vicky and Julian’s first day is rather inauspicious, as neither of them have any idea what they’re doing. It’s a strange world they’ve been thrust into, full of dancers’ foibles and ego tripping, but both of them adapt very quickly. Boris’s opinion on these two upstarts changes quickly as well, as he realizes Julian was telling the truth about Palmer’s grabbiness.
Boris also gives Vicky permission to make a guest appearance at the Mercury Theatre in Notting, where she has danced before. The place is so small it doesn’t have an orchestra pit, so the dancers have to rely on piped-in music from a record player. Boris sneaks in to watch Vicky perform Swan Lake, and he’s enchanted.
Both Vicki and Julian are asked to go abroad to Paris and Monte Carlo with the ballet, and Boris wants them to work on his new show, an adaptation of The Red Shoes. It’s fortuitous timing, because his former prima ballerina, Irina (Ludmina Tcherina), had the audacity to get engaged. Boris thinks a ballerina can’t possibly love and dance at the same time, so she’s out. “That man has no heart,” Irina intones dramatically.
Production on The Red Shoes commences. Boris wants Vicky to absorb the music so much that she has to listen to Julian play it at every meal, and the two of them spar during rehearsals about tempo while Boris sits by and chuckles. It’s almost sadistic, really.
The performance lines up the trajectory of the rest of the film. Vicky goes into a trance while she’s dancing, and instead of the shoemaker who sold her the evil red shoes, she sees Julian and Boris. The camera jumps towards her like a gasp, but she keeps dancing. The ballet deviates from Andersen’s story quite a bit, as there’s no executioner, and when Vicky’s character tries to cut off her feet with a knife, the knife turns into a green branch. She’s finally saved by a parson who removes the shoes, which go back to the shoemaker, and then she dies.
The ballet ends to wild applause, and Boris is seeing lots of fresh, crisp cash in his future. He wants Vicky to be in all his new projects, with Julian composing. Inevitably, though, the two of them fall in love, and Boris just can’t have that. He tells Vicky she has to decide between the ballet and Julian. Vicky chooses Julian, but the ballet also calls to her. And those red shoes. The ending is something Hans Christian Andersen would have likely approved of.
I’m going to repeat what thousands and thousands have already said: The Red Shoes looks amazing. It is an artist’s film. It has an oversaturated brightness that’s very stylized, and it makes Moira Shearer stand out in particular, with her flaming red hair and ivory skin. She comes off very regal and glowing in every scene, whether on or off the stage. Her paying the cost of choosing between art and love is the sort of story that gives filmmakers and creative types goosebumps. What’s ironic is that making the film changed the way she was perceived by other dancers in the theater world–Moira thought they were never able to trust her again.
The dancing, of course, is sublime. The film is populated with real ballet dancers throughout, and they don’t tone anything down as far as what goes on in rehearsals. It’s a lot of drilling and repetition and discipline–in a very small way, it’s like being in the military. I had to chuckle at it, because I know performance well, and long hours of practice tend to make one wacky, whether in an annoying or goofy way. It also has a way of making life seem a little unreal.
Speaking of which, the film crew had all sorts of tricks to up the fantasy elements of the movie. According to IMDb, director of photography, Jack Cardiff, messed with the camera speed so that it looked as if the dancers were floating. There’s also a scene in which Vicky dances with a newspaper that wafts around and spins, turning into a man and back. The filmmakers used wires against a black background to make the newspaper float, which is one of the oldest tricks in the book.
Innovation was par for the course with the filmmakers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, collectively known as the Archers, who also brought audiences such films as Tales of Hoffman and Black Narcissus. They were unusual in other ways, too. Very few directors or actors of the time deliberately bucked the very prevalent studio system, but the Archers made it their mission as filmmakers, and were committed to artistic integrity at all costs. The Red Shoes was called “a thrilling blend of movement, color, music, and imagery” by critic Bosley Crowther, and was the sixth most popular film in the United Kingdom in 1948.
I only wish the red shoe motif had been woven throughout the film somehow, even if Andersen’s original plot wasn’t. The ballet doesn’t happen until about halfway in, and at first it appears like a one-off. I just think the whole thing would have had more punch if the shoes were kept around, if only subconsciously, to emphasize Boris’s control over Vicky. On the other hand, it does make the film’s end more of a blindside.
That’s only a very small beef, though. I wouldn’t hesitate to give The Red Shoes repeated viewings, because it’s really a spectacle. Half the fun of the film is wondering what kind of proverbial rabbit will get pulled out of the hat next, and the other half is crazy amounts of awe and wonder.
For more of The Greatest Film I’ve Never Seen Blogathon, please see Debbie at Moon In Gemini. Thanks for hosting, Debbie–it was fun! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope you’ll join me tomorrow for Crystal and Michaela’s Rock Hudson Blogathon. Until then…
This film is available on Amazon.