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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

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
Original at

Picture of the week

Scene from the Ballet udience
Still of
The Week


Oct. 15

Though more than fifty years old, The Red Shoes (1948) remains the cinema's most famous and best loved ballet film. It creates the dancer's backstage world with delightful color and conviction. The movie tells the story of a beautiful and talented young woman (ravishing redhead Moira Shearer) as she rises through the ranks of a world-famous dance company. All goes splendidly until she falls for the passionate composer who's written the score for her "Red Shoes" ballet. The company's Svengali-like impresario (played to elegant perfection by Anton Walbrook) demands she choose between art and her heart. "The dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer!" he insists with icy contempt. But unable to make this impossible choice, the poor girl goes mad.

The film takes as its metaphor, of course, the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name. It's a highly moralistic fable about an unfortunate child who's infatuated by a pair of red dancing slippers. Once she puts them on, she can never get them off and they force her to dance on and on-until she meets a man with an ax! (The film tactfully omits the Andersen tale's more macabre elements.) Pictured above is our heroine (Shearer, with Robert Helpmann and Leonide Massine) tempted by the cobbler with his devilish shoes.

The ballet itself-depicting the fairy story in dance-is the movie's breathtaking centerpiece. Vividly colorful, highly stylized, and lushly romantic, it's a quintessential Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger sequence. (I suspect it's what inspired, at least in part, all those elaborate ballet numbers that were so popular in Hollywood musicals of the 1950s-in An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, Invitation to the Dance, Oklahoma, and the like.) The writing-directing-producing team of Powell and Pressburger created some of the most entertaining and unstuffy British films of the '40s and early '50s, including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I'm Going, A Matter of Life and Death, and Black Narcissus. Many, like The Red Shoes, give touching insight to the deep-rooted conflict between the heart and the head; reason and passion.

Not too surprisingly, the movies have rarely shown much interest in the high-toned world of ballet. The Unfinished Dance, The Turning Point, and Nijinsky are the only other films on the subject I can immediately call to mind. (Yes, I'm trying to ignore this year's silly Center Stage.) I would, however, like to take the opportunity to draw your attention to the captivating Billy Elliott, which opens this week. It's about an eleven-year-old boy who, despite the inevitable objections of his working-class family, wants more than anything to be a ballet dancer. The story may seem obvious, but the telling is so fresh and true, I found the film quite irresistible. And its young star, Jamie Bell, really can dance!

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