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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Submitted by Derek Baldwin
Interview with Moira Shearer
This comes from Brian McFarlane (1997) "An Autobiography of British Cinema" Methuen/BFI (pp 532-5)
Interview date: July 1994
- Did you avoid the fate of Victoria Page, heroine of The Red Shoes, by retiring from the screen and stage in favour of domestic life?
- The whole story of Victoria Page is such nonsense from the point of view of any real person, that I can't answer that question realistically. You have to take that film with a huge tin of salt, because there was never a ballet company anywhere which was like that. I'm sure no dancer of any generation ever had this supposedly appalling problem ending in suicide, if you please - between real life and the ballet. No, leaving the ballet was entirely my own wish. My training was in the Russian style and my subsequent career was with a very English company, which was rather constricting. I was a leading ballerina with the Sadler's Wells (now Royal) Ballet for twelve years and, by the early '50s, had also been given a taste of straight acting. I realised that this interested me much more than the narrowness and self- absorption of a classical dancer's life. And I was now married, with the first of my four children, and I greatly valued normal family life.
- Did you admire particularly any of the dancers in films at the time?
- Oh, Fred Astaire, yes. His dancing was of a totally different style, of course, but I think he was probably the best dancer I've ever seen in my life. He was unique. It was wonderful to see a man with such grace and elegance as well as absolute facility. Among his dancing partners I admired Eleanor Powell. She hadn't Fred's grace, but her technique was wonderful; she was so expert, such a strong presence, and she matched him better than any of the others.
- Had you been nursing any ambition to appear in films when The Red Shoes came along?
- Far from it, and I held out against that film for a whole year. The director Michael Powell was extremely put out by my continued refusal. It never occurred to him that a young girl wouldn't be overwhelmed by his offer. But I didn't like the story or the script, which seemed a typical woman's magazine view of the theatre, and I also realised he knew very little about the ballet. Also, at that time, 1946, I had just started to dance the ballerina roles in the big classics and the last thing I wanted to do 'was to interrupt this difficult work with a sugary movie. Powell bombarded me for weeks in 1946 and I remember thinking, "I have to get rid of this man. However, he finally got the message and went off in a huff, saying to me, "I am now going around the world to find the perfect girl for this part.
He came back a year later; presumably he hadn't found his perfect girl, though he had now engaged Leonide Massine and Robert Helpmann, both of whom I knew well, as dancer-actors and to arrange the choreography. Powell went on and on at me and I think he must have bombarded Ninette de Valois because she called me to her office and amazed me by saying, "For God's sake, child, do this film and get it off your chest - and ours, because I can't stand that man bothering us any longer!" I asked one question, "If I do it, can I come straight back to Covent Garden when the film is complete?" and her answer was, "Yes, of course you can." And I did - but not happily. There was a lot of jealousy and bad feeling. I'm afraid I was very naive. Helpmann told me later that the only reason de Valois wanted me to make the film was to give advance publicity in America for the first coast-to-coast tour of her company in 1949. Which, of course, is what happened.
- Was Powell someone you admired and respected in British films?
- I had seen his films and, yes, I did admire his cinematic expertise, which is exactly what I still feel today. His films were never my favourites because there was always something cold and rather pretentious about them, but they were certainly never dull. There is a lack of humanity in them all - but then, he was lacking in warmth and humanity. He was technically very imaginative and original, but he was also extremely egocentric, unlike his collaborator, Emeric Pressburger, a delightful Hungarian whom we all liked very much. Emeric wrote the scripts for their films - unfortunately a glossy, melodramatic one for The Red Shoes - but that was the way of most films of the '30s and '40s.
- Was it in fact your first acting role?
- Yes, it was. I enjoyed acting but I would have liked it a lot more if I could have been directed by someone of kindness and understanding. Powell was very difficult with actors. He didn't give any of us detailed direction and, perhaps it's unkind to say this, I don't think he could. He didn't seem at all interested in the performances of actors; his main concentration was the camera itself, the experiments with colour, tricks, effects - all the things at which he was brilliant. But he was uneasy with actors and was known as a bully, especially with women. Each day he would pick on someone, always someone in no position to stand up to him, and simply go on and on with cruel sarcasm until the victim was a wreck and quite unable to function properly.
And I'd like to mention the two vast volumes of autobiography that he completed at the end of his life. The kindest view of them is that his mind had gone in old age. But, knowing him, I think the welter of lies about so many people and past situations was quite deliberate. I particularly disliked the way he wrote of his dead wife, Frankie - it was disgraceful and almost certainly untrue.
- You were playing opposite two very experienced performers in Anton Walbrook and Marius Goring. Were they supportive and helpful to you?
- They were complete opposites. Anton was grand in the old "star manner. He wore dark glasses, had a special caravan where he ate lunch alone and never mixed with the rest of the cast. There was virtually no rehearsal, he simply appeared for his shots, speaking only to Powell. I'd never come across anyone like this before. Marius was completely different, charming and very jolly. I became fond of him immediately but, even so, I never felt I could ask for any particular guidance. I don't quite know why, but perhaps because of the strained, uncomfortable atmosphere of the filming, though we also had a lot of fun, usually when Powell was away from the set. Technical crews in film studios are wonderful, so friendly and supportive and in a way they take the place of an audience and one performs for them.
- The sets for The Red Shoes still look fabulous nearly fifty years later. What do you recall of them, or the great designer Hein Heckroth?
- I liked him very much personally, although I wasn't absolutely wild about his designs. I suppose it was their Germanic quality, which I found rather crude and garish. Perhaps because I was brought up with early editions of Grimm and Andersen fairytales and their much more delicate illustrations. I preferred his designs for The Tales of Hoffmann; his Germanic tendency was right for that. And I particularly liked my frilly pantalettes for the doll, Olympia!
- Presumably you had almost unlimited space in which to dance, compared with a stage.
- No, the sections we danced on were never as large as the Covent Garden stage. Our great difficulty was dancing on concrete; there were floorcloths, sometimes quite slippery, but underneath always the concrete. It is death to the calf muscles. And there were other hazards, mainly the long waiting while cameras, lights, playbacks, etc, were organised. Eventually they would be ready and expect us to leap instantly into the air, but we were now cold and had to limber up yet again. No - filming ballet is not easy.
- The camerawork is wonderful and I wondered how aware you were of the camera? Were you required to be technically aware?
- No, not technically, but the camera was placed where an audience would be so we naturally performed "out front". If by "technically aware" you mean did we know how the camera would record what we were doing, no - we had no idea of this. And like everyone brought up in the theatre, I missed a live audience very much. I missed, too, the pleasure of performing a role from beginning to end, building it up without interruption. You can improve, polish, change, but it is your work and you stand or fall by it. Filming is quite different because so many people have a hand in the finished product. Far more footage of the Red Shoes ballet was filmed than was ever seen publicly, and it was cut and edited to suit the technicalities. From several takes of a sequence, one would be much better from the dancing point of view, another for the lighting or camera angle. Always the latter was chosen, which was miserable for us.
- Had you worked with any of those dancers before - Robert Helpmann, Leonide Massine or Ludmilla Tcherina?
- I had worked with Helpmann and Massine many times and also several of the corps de ballet dancers, but I'd never met Ludmilla before. However, with all the hard work, everyone gets on to a very happy, colleague-y basis straight away, everyone trying to do their best despite the difficulties. I think we all felt the same disappointment when we saw the finished film. It was simply the view that someone right outside the profession would have of a Russian ballet company.
- What do you remember of the film's reception?
- It was received with great excitement. I discovered only recently that Rank and John Davis tried to stop the film half way through, having seen the rushes. They thought it was going to be a total disaster at the box office and it had cost a fortune already, so they decided to close it down one Saturday. Luckily, Alexander Korda stepped in with the necessary backing and shooting continued on the Monday. Then it became a huge box-office success, and is still shown almost fifty years later.
- Did the success of The Red Shoes make possible three years later the filming of The Tales of Hoffmann, a more daring film commercially?
- Yes. It was more daring but also rather clumsily put together. A complete opera is too much for the commercial cinema and Powell put all the action into the first third of his film and was then left with long static stretches almost to the end. For a man with such a gift for cinematic effect it seemed very odd. Amusingly, he made it for Alex Korda, who was terribly bored by the result.
- What do you remember about dancing the Doll role? Was Michael Powell helpful to you there?
- No, he simply arranged the shots and where the camera would be. This was purely dance - it was Frederick Ashton's choreography and, in a way, he became the director, watching (just as in the theatre) to see if it was as he wanted it and asking for another take if necessary. It was very enjoyable - we had to hit a few marks for the lighting and there was a certain amount of stopping and starting for technical reasons, but working with Fred was such a pleasure and relief.
- What are your recollections of Pamela Brown?
- She was a charming, funny woman. Sadly, I didn't see her often as she was only on the set on certain days, but I admired her acting very much. I was exceedingly sorry that her part as Niklaus in Hoffmann was cut down until it was hardly there.
- When you came back to England from making your one Hollywood film. The Story of Three Loves, you made one of my favourite 1950s British films, The Man Who Loved Redheads. What recollections have you of it?
- I loved it. Harold French directed, delightfully and easily, but had a little difficulty with his producer, Alex Korda, who announced he would redirect a certain sequence himself. And he did Korda, of course, began his career as a director in Hungary. But poor Harold French, I've often wondered how he felt about it. But he was soon back with us again. It was a charming play by Terence Rattigan, originally called Who is Sylvia? and we had a marvellous cast, full of the best British character actors (Roland Culver, Harry Andrews, Denholm Elliott, and so on). I played several parts and wished I'd had more experience before tackling it. Timing is everything - a few years later I could have played those parts so much better, but it was the film I most enjoyed doing.
- Your last film appearance for Michael Powell was his notorious Peeping Tom.
- Yes, I did that out of kindness of heart. Michael Powell arrived on my doorstep in 1959, with an ashen face and a large script under his arm. Could I help him? A small part - it would only take four days - the actress he had cast, Natasha Parry, had flown off to New York. At least, would I read the script? So I did, and thought it quite interesting, stupidly forgetting his sadistic streak. It was only four days in the studio and I saw nothing else of the filming, so the finished article was quite a shock.
- Was it horrifying to do?
- No, it wasn't. There was such an air of unreality and artificiality on the set and, as I've already said, Michael Powell was hardly the man to release emotion in his actors. I thought the critics were absolutely right about it. I am only sorry that, recently, those violent boys, Scorsese and Coppola, have tried to make it into a cult film. It is deeply depressing.
- Was he utterly unprepared for the response to the film?
- I imagine he was, though I didn't see him again for a number of years. I think he probably loved the publicity and would have been contemptuous of anyone who didn't understand what he always called his "art".
- The only film of yours I've never seen is Black Tights
- It was a French film of four of Roland Petit's ballets and, alas, there were drastic cuts. I had to get back into practice after six years and it was really difficult. I danced Roxane in Roland's Cyrano de Bergerac; he's a most gifted choreographer and this was the single ballet of the four which was genuinely romantic. Typically, the producers and distributors decided it would bore the public, who would want only the more jazzy, modern works, so it was cut to ribbons. I was terribly upset when I saw the travesty of the final film.
- Everyone will want to know why you never made another film.
- The simple answer would be that I had never been offered further films, but, in fact, the offers continued for years, including unlikely ones like El Cid with Charlton Heston. But I've always found my marriage and my children infinitely more important than any career, so no great decision had to be made.
See also Moira's 1949 interview.
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