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 Roger Mellor
You just can't kill "The Red Shoes". Fifty years after its release, the 1948 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film continues to fascinate and influence audiences, both cinematic experts and ordinary moviegoers. It is widely shown on public and cable television channels and at revival houses. A videocassette is available, and a new state-of-the-art version has recently appeared on DVD/LaserDisc. Washington Square Press has even reissued a paperback edition of Powell and Pressburger's novelization of their own screenplay (it doesn't read too well on the printed page, but no matter). Now in her seventies, Moira Shearer -- the ravishing redheaded Scot without whom, Powell said, he could never have made the film -- is still queried about it, most recently in an online interview by Dan Lybarger in Pitch Weekly of January 22, 1998, where she once again describes how reluctant she was to interrupt her ballet career to make the film and how physically grueling the experience turned out to be.
Even an extraordinarily unsuccessful attempt at a Broadway musical version in 1993; a less-than-thrilling Lar Lubovitch ballet excerpted from the show; and a recent poorly received effort by Denmark's Flemming Flindt, Legs of Fire, can't seem to diminish the public's interest in the story, very loosely based on the far more grisly Hans Christian Andersen tale. Martin Scorsese, who ought to know, has named the film one of the five greatest of all time (his other choices: 8 1/2, Citizen Kane, The Leopard, and The Searchers), and British alternative-rock singer Kate Bush, apparently obsessed, produced a 1993 CD and video inspired by TRS. The package cover illustration for the CD features the obligatory gorgeous, undanced-in red satin pointe shoes.
British film reviewer Ian Christie noted that The Red Shoes "launched a thousand dance careers," and he has probably underestimated the number. Young, predominantly female, audience members, seeing the film at a highly impressionable time of life, were drawn to the irresistible blend of glamour, intense work, love, and sacrifice represented by Victoria Page, the beauteous ballerina who seemed to have everything but couldn't hold on to it.
New York City dancelover Cynthia O'Neal states on page 100 of the June 1997 Dance Magazine, "You know, I was one of those little girls who saw The Red Shoes twenty-seven times ...," and she is by no means alone. One former dancer who now teaches recalls that dance was always her first love, long before she saw the film. Brought up on old lithographs of Taglioni and photos of Pavlova and Markova, she was afraid that, as a blonde, she could never look like a ballerina. Seeing Moira Shearer's glorious red hair -- practically the raison d'etre of the film -- made her realize that one need not be a brunette to succeed, and she went on to a rewarding career in ballet. An actual redhead, Dance Magazine's Oklahoma correspondent, Lili Cockerille Livingston, author of the recent American Indian Ballerinas, who danced with the New York City, Harkness, and Joffrey ballets, writes: "Ah, The Red Shoes. The first time I saw the movie in the early riffles, I was completely awed by the beauty, romantic overtones, and (I can now articulate) the ... dance movement. Yes, I dreamed about it and, as a redhead, could certainly identify with the aquamarine chiffon gown and poignant delicacy of Moira Shearer. [Leonide] Massine fascinated me, and -- having the opportunity to work with him in the Joffrey Ballet's revival of Le Tricorne -- I came to understand why.
"Later, as a professional dancer, I was often compared with Shearer and enjoyed ... living and performing in Monte Carlo [where much of the film is set] with the Harkness Ballet. I even bought my own aquamarine chiffon dress and was wont to wander on the beach under the road and train tracks directly below the Opera House.
"Seeing the movie later in life was not a disappointment. The magical, incredible focus of the characters -- regardless of less-than-pristine technical abilities -- remained awesome. Indeed, a tree classic in the genre of dance films."
"Ruth," also from Oklahoma, posted this on the Internet: "I wanted to be a dancer after seeing the movie. It was such an inspiration to a little Okle girl. Although Moira suffered and died, I didn't care. Something was very moving and compelling about the suffering -- to be so devoted and dedicated to the art, to give up love, and to sacrifice. Now I see it as silly and immature, but sometimes soulful little girls need or want to have something to believe in. I suppose some are drawn to religion at this stage in life, but my religion was dance."
In yet another Internet posting, an academic writes that seeing the film made her think that a dance career was too difficult, and she became an archaeologist instead. She adds, "Silly me."
Over the years, students at various New York City open ballet classes have been treated to the sight of a dumpy woman of more than a certain age stumping around in reddyed pointe shoes, presumably in memory of Moira/Vicky. (Lately, she seems to have switched to pink; perhaps she has used up the local supply of red dye.) The woman has become something of an American ballet legend, with people from as far away as Albuquerque having heard of her. At least she hasn't dyed her hair red as well!
From a dance perspective, it must be said that the level of ballet technique in the film is not up to current standards. Turnout is not sufficient, pointe work is sometimes mushy, and beats frequently lack clarity. What the dancers do demonstrate, though, is a wealth of character and personality often missing today. From Mexico, another dancer writes: "Even if the dancing is not brilliant and at times turned in even, how many times do we all see brilliant technique and no artistry nowadays?" She also mentions that a friend of hers is planning a flamenco version of the story.
The passage of time has caused many admirers to rethink the film's relationships more fully in light of the women's movement of recent decades. The fact that Vicky's life was totally controlled by men -- that she was definitely not the master of her fate -- has more resonance today than it did in 1948, when women had been forced back into the kitchen after World War II in spite of having proved themselves fully capable of dealing with life and careers on their own in factories, in business, and in the armed services. And of course, the problem has not disappeared; it has actually become more visible.
Although a gifted woman, Vicky is still subjected to such egocentric types as Ljubov, the ballet master and choreographer portrayed by Massine, and, above all, to the Diaghilevesque impresario, Boris Lermontov, perfectly embodied by Anton Walbrook. Rather early in the film, Lermontov's attitude toward a woman who has a life outside dance is established by his automatic assumption that when Boronskaja (Ludmilla Tcherina) gets married, she will leave the ballet.
Vicky at first endures few hardships. She appears to come from an affluent and aristocratic background and obviously does not have to earn her own living, except by choice. She is already dancing principal roles with a small company (the real Ballet Rambert at its Mercury Theatre with Marie Rambert herself watching). She wears designer clothes and is feted by her aunt, Lady Neston (Irene Browne), at a lavish London party, where the aunt hopes that Lermontov will see Vicky dance. After her marriage to the composer, Julian (Marius Goring), who is not presented as independently wealthy, the couple live in an apparently spacious flat that no young composer could possibly afford on his own (and is much bigger than almost any London flat, even today). Our heroine's path to a starting career in ballet is made unbelievably smooth. This may be another factor that attracted impressionable young women to a life in ballet. They would not only dance and be loved and admired as Vicky was, but they would also live very well.
I was always under the impression that Vicky did not purposely leap to her death, but that, hastily pursuing Julian, in her confusion and despair she overshot the balcony above the Monte Carlo railroad tracks and went over. However, others have said that they thought she was definitely a suicide. But lately, reading more recent commentaries on the film, I find that the consensus seems to be that Vicky's death is ambiguously presented and that the filmmakers apparently wanted it that way. In any case, the art-versus-personal-happiness conflict is fatal, and even today there is great debate over whether or not a woman can indeed "have it all." Today people might find the seemingly mild-mannered Julian as much of a villain as the domineering Lermontov. These characters, poor dears, were products of their time and culture.
LERMONTOV (to Victoria Page, at Lady Neston's party): Why do you want to dance?
VICTORIA: Why do you want to live?
LERMONTOV: Why? I don't know exactly why, but -- I must.
VICTORIA: That's my answer too.
Okay -- it's only a movie, folks!
RELATED ARTICLE: Movies That Drove Us to Dance
Dance has long been well represented in the movies, with 112 titles appearing when the word dance is typed into the search box of the Internet Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com). In addition to The Red Shoes, these films really made people wanna dance!
The Gay Divorcee (1934), directed by Mark Sandrich, typified the wonderful escapism from the cares of the Great Depression that all of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers 1930s films provided. A delightfully frothy plot -- aided by some marvelous character actors -- was combined with such entrancing dance numbers as "The Continental," pictured here, with Fred and Ginger in clover. [Picture not available]
An American in Paris (1951), directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Gene Kelly, and choreographed by Kelly and Carol Haney, had the priceless advantage of music by the great Gershwin and the winsome gamine presence of the very young Leslie Caron. Less well known is the fact that the screenplay was by none other than Alan Jay Lerner. Almost all of the dancers in the film had worked with major ballet companies, a change from the usual Hollywood practice. It won the Oscar for best picture.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), directed by Stanley Donen and choreographed by Michael Kidd, emphasized dance as a super-macho activity. Four of those brothers were important American dancers, including Matt Mattox, Tommy Rall, Marc Platt, and a teenaged Jacques d'Ambroise, on loan from New York City Ballet.
The Turning Point (1977), directed by the former choreographer Herbert Ross, introduced charismatic Mikhail Baryshnikov to the moviegoing public. Other "name" dancers in featured roles were Antoinette Sibley, Starr Danias, Daniel Levans, Scott Douglas, and James Mitchell. The great Alexandra Danilova, thinly disguised as "Madame Dahkarova," more or less played herself. Costar Leslie Browne.
Tap (1989), written and directed by Nick Castle, gave us Gregory Hines as Max Washington, who, just released from prison, has to decide which of his professions -- burglar or tap dancer -- to resume. Hines with his dynamic costar, Sammy Davis Jr. This film, which also featured Savion Glover, exemplified the rebirth of tap dancing in a more contemporary style.
Dance Magazine December 1998 66(1)
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