Catherine over at Thoughts All Sorts is hosting this blogathon all about films that feature colours in their titles. Be sure to visit her site to read all the entries. I can’t wait to read them all myself.
I’m writing about one of my all time favourite films. That film is the 1948 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger classic, The Red Shoes. This is one of the most visually stunning and beautiful films ever made in my opinion. Artistic, imaginative, romantic, absorbing, and quite moving; this film truly has something in it for everyone to enjoy.
Firstly, I would like to talk a little bit about Powell and Pressburger themselves. The pair began working together in 1939, on the WW2 spy thriller, The Spy In Black. They founded their own production company called The Archers in 1943. Their distinctive film logo (an arrow being fired into an archery target)became as famous as the films it appeared at the beginning of.
The majority of Powell and Pressburger’s films were quite different from any other films being made at the time. Their films were visually imaginative and very impressive. These films were more like works of moving art than traditional films. The uniqueness and artistic look of their work is a major factor for me in liking their films so much.
Powell and Pressburger were completely different from other filmmakers of the time, and they created films that really took you out of your own life (in a major way)for a few hours. Their films are beautiful to look at and really draw the audience in.
From time to time though they could also make the sort of films that the public were more used to seeing; films such as The Small Back Room, The Spy In Black and 49th Parallel. Their collaboration came to an amicable end in 1957, and they remained friends for the rest of their lives. Their films were not instantly acclaimed as classics upon release and it took several decades for them to receive praise and appreciation.
Director Martin Scorsese is a big fan of their work and he has done so much to bring their films to the attention of audiences today. Powell was also married for the last few years of his life to Scorsese’s regular editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.
Powell and Pressburger became famous for the use of Technicolor in their films. In The Red Shoes they once again use Technicolor to its best possible effect. They, along with their regular cinematographer Jack Cardiff, created magic and moving art on screen. Their use of colour was a big part of the unique look of so many of their films. Their colour films are so rich and vibrant, and it is the look of this particular film that lingers in the mind long after it has finished.
This filmmaking team managed to use Technicolor in a way that had never been done before, nor has it been achieved in films since. This team prove what filmmakers are capable of achieving should they put their minds to it. Their films are pure art and they are rightly praised and admired by film fans and filmmakers today.
Moving on to the film itself. In The Red Shoes (long before Black Swan) we are shown the sacrifices that have to be made by ballerinas for their art. They push themselves extremely hard, and for some there can be nothing else apart from the ballet in their life, they give all they are to their art. We also see that their dedication to their art can make them ill if they push themselves too hard either physically or mentally.
The Red Shoes is based upon the fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson. It is all about a young girl who puts on a pair of red shoes. Once she does she soon finds that she cannot take them off. She also finds that they make her dance everywhere she goes. She cannot make herself even stop for a rest. In her despair she turns to a woodcutter for help, he chops off her feet to ease her suffering. As she lies in his arms ,the shoes dance off still containing her feet. Off those shoes go, forever continuing their eternal dance around the land. Can you believe that was a children’s story? It made a big impact on me when I first read it. This story and the images it conjures up have stayed with me to this day. Some dark stuff for sure.
The film (thankfully)does not focus too much on that story. We instead focus on a young ballerina who must choose between her career with the ballet, or her own personal life and having love in that life.
Vicky Page (Moira Shearer)is a young ballet dancer who attracts the attention of Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). He is the head of world famous ballet company, The Ballet Lermontov. He sees great potential in Vicky. When his lead dancer, the adored Irina (Ludmilla Tcherina) leaves his company to get married, Lermontov gives Vicky Irina’s position in the company. Vicky finds lasting fame in the ballet community as the lead in a ballet written especially for her. That ballet is the Red Shoes, and it is based on the tale by Hans Christian Anderson.
As her success and talent grows, Boris falls in love with Vicky and he is determined to keep her with him at all costs. Vicky likes and respects him but she doesn’t return his feelings, instead she falls in love with young musician Julian Craster (Marius Goring). He offers her a life away from the pressures of the ballet.
Lermontov becomes jealous of the young couple, and soon Vicky finds herself forced to choose between her career and her life with Julian. It is extremely difficult for her as she loves both equally and becomes emotionally torn between them. Soon she starts to become ill from all this pressure.
Four of the films leading actors were ballet dancers at the time of the films release. Moira Shearer (playing Vicky), Robert Helpmann (playing Ivan, the much respected lead dancer of the Lermontov ballet), Ludmilla Tcherina (playing Irina) and Leonide Massine (playing Grisha, the temperamental company choreographer). Each of these get their own chance to shine in various dance sequences throughout the film.
The standout sequence in the film is the ballet of the Red Shoes. The sequence in its entirety lasts around fifteen minutes of screen time. The sequence is one of the most artistic and creepy things ever put on screen. I think it captures the beauty and artistry of ballet perfectly.
There are also several scenes in that sequence that feature bizarre and creepy images which for me bring to mind a nightmare. I’m specifically thinking of the scene where begins Vicky hallucinating things from her own life during the performance (such as the shoemaker transforming into Lermontov and Julian), and of the shots of men turning into paper figures and slowly falling to the ground, as Vicky’s uncontrollable, red clad feet dance amongst their fallen, limp figures. I’ve often wondered if the fallen figures represent people in the fairytale who die, while the girl in the red shoes lives forever dancing on, and on, and on?
It’s a dazzling sequence for sure and is a perfect blend of the art of ballet and of the art of film. There is also some clever camera trickery at work in it for the moment Vicky jumps into the red shoes and they lace themselves up. This shot still impresses when viewed today.
Anton Walbrook gives the standout performance of the film for me. He is a man driven by his dedication to his work who finds himself falling unexpectedly in love. Then he starts hating himself for getting drawn away from his work by his desire for Vicky, and also for the desire for a personal life away from his work. To Lermontov the ballet is a calling and he despises any of his dancers who choose personal life over their ballet work. He starts to hate himself as much as he hates anyone in his company who gets distracted. Walbrook steals every scene he is in with just a look. In many scenes he can be seen seething with jealousy and a barely repressed desire for Vicky. He makes you both pity and despise Lermontov at the same time.
Vicky dancing The Red Shoes Ballet. Screenshot by me.
Moira Shearer is excellent as the young woman given the career opportunity of her life. Her initial excitement soon transitions to weariness and short temper when she is under pressure. She really brings home the struggle that Vicky is enduring concerning the choice between her private and professional life.
Marius Goring is energetic as the dedicated and outgoing composer who cannot understand Vicky and Lermontov’s obsession with the ballet. He can offer Vicky happiness, but is she willing or able to accept it? Goring was one of the best character actors in all of British cinema, here he gets quite a bit of screen time and gets a real chance to shine. It’s nice to see him in a more major role for a change.
My favourite scenes are the following. Vicky climbing the stairs to Lermontov’s villa (this sequence looks like something straight out of a fairytale, Vicky is like a Princess in that outfit she wears and it looks like she is exploring a deserted castle.) The ballet of The Red Shoes. Vicky and Lermontov meeting for the first time at the party and he asks her “why do you want to dance?”, she replies “why do you want to live?” Julian and Vicky arguing during rehearsal about how she should dance during a particular music segment. The montage of Vicky and Ivan dancing in several ballet productions. Lermontov sitting in his apartment, alone, depressed and angry.
Like the fairytale upon which it’s based, this film has quite a dark edge to it and the ending is very bleak. Don’t let that put you off though, as it is truly worth watching. This film never fails to impress me and has become a real favourite over the years. It’s in my top five favourite Powell and Pressburger films too.
Be sure to watch either the special restoration DVD release of this, or check out the Blu-Ray version to see the film looking at its best.
What are your thoughts on this film? Please leave your comments below.