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Hans Anderson Goes Into Films
by Ann Taylor
Leader Magazine, December 20, 1947

Once upon a time, there was a poor shoemaker called Andersen, who wanted to live in the country, and was overjoyed when he heard that a great lady was looking for a man of his trade to live on her estate. He applied for the job, and he got it.

Soon after he had moved with his family into their new cottage, the lady sent him a piece of red silk to be made into dancing shoes for her daughter.

Red shoes for a girl dancer - what a delightful idea! The family crowded round to watch the shoemaker at work, and his little son looked on, absorbed, as his father made from the red silk and delicate strips of leather a pair of shoes fit for a princess. Surely there had never been such exquisite shoes since Cinderella danced at the Prince's ball. But when the shoemaker took them to the great lady, she said the shoes were terrible - the man had merely ruined her beautiful piece of silk. At that, he lost his temper, "If I've spoilt your silk," he said, "I may as well spoil my leather," and he slashed the shoes to ribbons with his knife.

The poor shoemaker's son, Hans Christian Andersen, the great children's storyteller, never forgot the red shoes. For him they became the symbol of something magic and immorally evil. When he came to write about them in later years, he told a strange and gloomy story of the doom they brought to a poor girl who was given these pretty adornments and wore them at her mother's funeral.

The little orphan was adopted by a rich lady who ordered the shoes to be burnt, but the girl, remembering how lovely they were, secretly acquired another pair. They were magic shoes, for when she put them on they set her dancing, whether her heart was in it or not. "Dance she did and dance she must, even through the dark night....."

The only way out was to have her feet cut off. That was the wretched plight the lovely red shoes brought her to, until she was released through the pity of an angel to find grace. "Her soul flew upon a sunbeam to her Father in Heaven, where not a look of reproach awaited her, not a word was breathed of the red shoes."

The Film Version
Such is the story as Hans Andersen told it, drawing on memories of the tragedy with which those charming vanities had over-shadowed his boyhood. An oddly forbidding story, warning us to beware of the pleasures of this world, such as dancing, fame - and would Hans Andersen say if still alive - the cinema? But it is this story that has been chosen as the core of a new film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

The red shoes have danced off on a new route. In the latest version of the tale, theme and moral are changed. The heroine of the ballet film (Moira Shearer) is given the elegant pair in which magic lurks, by a shoemaker (Léonide Massine), in whose shop she sees and covets them. She wears them to a fête and there they take control of her, body and soul. None of the men who fall in love with her can keep up with those flickering flames of shoes, and when the evening is over and she is tired, she finds the magic in them won't let her turn back to the peace of home.

As she dances on into the night, she sees a parallel between her dance and her own life. She finds herself in a world of fantastic shapes and sounds, representing her subconscious influences. Here and there in the darkness glimmer islands of peace and calm, an a rock upon which she seeks escape from the black, over-whelming tides of ambition. At last, in a final attempt to escape from her soul's worldliness, she seeks sanctuary in a church, but finds the way barred by a priest who will not let her go in wearing the red shoes that are symbols of ambition. She collapses, the priest unties the fatal shoes. The girl dies. As her body is borne into the church, the shoemaker takes the shoes away - to put them back in the window to await the next victim.

The magic shoes of Hans Andersen's dream have, you see, danced further afield into this new version of an old story which first began to take shape in the mind of the little boy watching his father at work on the ill-fated piece of red silk that a great lady wanted her daughter to wear at the ball. Andersen saw the story as the tragedy of gaiety. In the film, the moral is that if you once put on ambition, it will dance you into the night - and beyond.

Fame is a Disappointment
The change in the fairy tale would have brought a quiet smile into the face of the man who became the greatest of children's story-tellers against his will. In what he called his "long and lovely life" Hans Andersen sought fame as a writer of plays and poems, and books of travel. He was denied it, but the fairy stories he wrote, more for grown-ups than for children, brought a renown he never expected and, in fact, grudged. In fact he smarted under the prophecy of a Danish scientist who said: "Your novels will make you famous, The fairy tales will make you immortal."

Children of today are the brothers and sisters of the small boy who ran up to old Hans Andersen in a street in Copenhagen and shook him by the hand. The child's mother called him back, and reproved him for talking to a stranger.

The boy answered, "But that isn't a stranger. It's Hans Andersen."

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