Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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What the Ballet Critics said
From Ballet magazine, vol 5, No 8, Aug-Sep 1948
Published by Ballet Publications Ltd., 58 Frith Street, London W1
When the film was first released it was praised by both film and ballet critics. But when it was realised how popular it was with audiences, the ballet critics appear to have changed their mind about it. Of course this couldn't be anything to do with snobbery when they realised that the masses were actually enjoying their elite art form. Many of them seem to have got the idea that it should be a documentary, not a drama. Steve
Some Opinions on 'The Red Shoes' (Film)
The word 'mammoth' seems the mot juste for this gigantic endeavour for it is not only unwieldy in scale, but also the kind of story due for well-merited extinction. Who can believe that a brilliant and ambitious composer would walk out of Covent Garden the day he was to conduct his first opera there? That a great ballerina would desert the theatre just as the curtain was about to rise because she cannot achieve that feat, so impossible in the celluloid work, so constantly accomplished in fact - to reconcile a career with married life!
There are genuine conflicts inherent in the domestic life of a dancer: for example, whether and when she should have a child; but the scriptwriters were determined to live up to their statement that all resemblance to any real persons on the part of their characters would be purely coincidental.
A generous credit must be given to the producers for having launched the career of Miss Moira Shearer, who is beautiful, attractive, and probably the best ballerina to appear in a full length picture since The Dumb Girl of Portici. [1916 silent film starring Anna Pavlova. 83 mins] The photography by Jack Cardiff seems to me the most successful that we have seen - far superior to that of the two short coloured films which M. Massine made in Hollywood: Mr Helpmann has coped very skilfully with the choreography of a ballet that takes place in the ballerina's mind, instead of on the stage where it should be; and there is an intensity in the direction which at times overcomes the incredible story. For these reasons the picture is better worth seeing than anyone merely looking at a synopsis would imagine.
Doris Langley Moore
This film in the planning stages had the right elements, an experienced director, good cameraman, designer and dancers, and a choreographer with stage and film experience. The ensuing mix-up (imposed presumably by the script) led to the choreographer being assigned a dancing role, the designer inventing a ballet which was worked up by a less experienced choreographer, and the leading dancer having to act an intensely dramatic role. Jack Cardiff's camera work, in parts as brilliant as his Himalayan scenes in Black Narcissus, suffered in the Technicolor processing and in the cutting-room. The morsels of stage ballet and the fantasy ballet - conceived in theatrical and not in cinematic terms - were smartly effective rather than poignant or memorable.
The plot unfolded was only slightly less banal than the behind-the-scenes picture of the oddest ballet company ever invented. The unacknowledged ghost of Diaghilev hovers over every scene, though the Lermontov Ballet is completely unlike the Diaghilev enterprise. By mingling, but not co-ordinating, realistic and fantastic elements, the film fails both in realism and in fantasy. The 'realism' is transparently bogus (no ballet company of quality could be run for twenty-four hours on the lines shown here); and the 'fantasy' does not grow organically out of the script situations. This film wins my Oscar as the Biggest and Loudest and Technicoloredest film-about-ballet-which-doesn't-quite-get-there to date.... Perhaps somebody will now try with a modest script, a choreographer who believes in the cinema and about one-tenth of the money.
Once upon a time there were two little screen-writers, who went to sleep and dreamed up a beautiful film about the ballet, full of lovely flowers, Robert Helpmann and LOVE. They added Marie Rambert and Massine for good measure, called it The Red Shoes, and blamed it all on Hans Christian Andersen.
Perhaps it wasn't fair to see a René Clair film, with its minute attention to detail, on the same day as Messrs Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes. Perhaps Messrs P. and P. don't go to the films - or the ballet? Anyhow their attention to detail is not very minute. Suffice it to say that if you go to this film - about backstage life at the ballet - hoping to catch something of the reek of sweat in the classroom, the mouldiness of a landlady's breakfast in Scunthorpe, the cameraderie, the competition and the cacophony of a dancer's life, then be warned that you will see it all through the Dali-bespectacled eyes of Hein Heckroth. But for those who want to go on believing in the champagne-drunk-from-ballet-shoes legend, The Red Shoes - with its ballerinas stepping out of Rolls-Royces in Floral Street - will provide an exhilarating evening's entertainment.
So much of the film is so easy to criticize from every possible angle, and Miss Shearer is so easy to praise, that I would prefer to mention some of the technicalities. Jack Cardiff, in charge of photography, has made what must be a technician's masterpiece; the trick work is faultless, with an assurance and efficiency that is a joy to watch. Sloppy framing - notably of the close-ups - at time spoils many a scene that shouts out for small alterations to give visual pleasure instead of frustration. The work in the early part of the ballet, using 'straight' photography, is frankly bad, but as the fantasy increases the camera crew seem to get their teeth into it, and Helpmann seems to have settled into working with them in his choreography. The cutting, or 'montage' as Eisenstein called it - is uniformly excruciating, with the exception of the final death sequence - the only part of the film, I'm sorry to say, which really held my attention.
But my main grouse is that Messrs. Powell and Pressburger never really give the audience a chance. The mixture of fact and fantasy is far too confusing. We began to settle down to a ballet made with Fantasia like sets that no stage - short of a stage-director's dream - could ever hope to produce, when all of a sudden Miss Shearer comes bouncing into the wings beside us for a costume change, and 'bang' goes the illusion. ('Bang' should also go the gun that shoots the director.)
Films like this are very jolly if made as an excuse for the cast to have a month on location in Monte Carlo. But what is their function? Are they meant to 'say' or 'do' anything? I have a feeling that the answer from Messrs. Powell and Pressburger would be solely in the language of £ s. d.
The Red Shoes is a long and boring film: I suppose it had to be long in order to cram in as many clichés as possible. The ballerina torn between husband and career; the great impresario devoted to his art, but secretly in love with her; the girl taking 'the only way out'; and the posthumous performance with a spotlight moving about the stage in memory of the dear departed - where have I seen all that before?
I liked Moira Shearer in her tragic dressing-room scene; I liked Tcherina rehearsing Giselle in the foyer de la danse at the Opéra; I liked the dancing newspaper which turned into Robert Helpmann; there were one or two wonderful close-ups of Massine as the mad shoemaker in the ballet; the realistic curtain-calls deserved and received applause; it was delightful to catch a glimpse of Madame Rambert in her own dear and sacred theatre. But the Red Shoes ballet was a great disappointment; I was horrified by Anton Walbrook as Diaghilev in a gorgeous dressing-gown, being fed coffee and grapefruit by a bowing footman while he engaged conductors and commissioned scores; the script was feeble, the back-stage atmosphere incredible, and the sight of Moira Shearer in sunlight and technicolor, lying dead on the railway-line in her white ballet dress, with blackened shoes, bruised feet, gaping bloody wounds and a face dripping with gore, was so disgusting that I had to cry out and cover my eyes. The film should have ended with her beautiful leap to death.
See what one ballet critic said when they were given access while the film was being made.
See also Moira talking about her experiences in 1949 and in 1994.
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