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Original at Glasgow University
The Archers' The Red Shoes and MGM's An American in Paris
By Benedict Smith
An American in Paris (1951) and The Red Shoes (1948) arise from two distinctly different schools of film-making. The former is a Hollywood musical, made by the Freed unit at MGM. The latter a British film made by the semi-independent Archer's production company, bank rolled by the Rank Organisation with a production staff arising from a peculiar mix of British and European film-making backgrounds. Ian Christie asserts that 'The Red Shoes was above all a work of creative collaboration between artists and technicians in many fields, on a scale rarely attempted in cinema', another of those rare attempts was An American in Paris. The copious similarities that exist between these two films, not the least of which is that they both feature seventeen minute ballets sequences, are surprising given the different traditions from which they appear to derive. That the two film units should produce similar texts after strikingly different histories invites both historical and textual analysis to determine what such a confluence of interests has to tell us about the texts and their shared agenda. Moreover the films' preconcerns with 'High Art', specifically painting and ballet, witness that a major concern of that shared agenda is the development of the film medium as an art-form, seeking artistic and social progression by wedding it with culturally established forms of artistic expression.
According to Hugh Fordin's Movies Greatest Musicals the conception of An American in Paris was entirely Arthur Freed's. '"How about selling me 'An American in Paris'-the title?" he reputedly asked Ira Gershwin. "And I want to take George's 'An American in Paris' and use it for a ballet, uncut, to finish the picture,". Apparently Gene Kelly had only once 'mentioned to Freed the idea for a story about an ex-GI, an aspiring painter who decides to remain in Paris after the war.' The genesis of The Red Shoes is somewhat different. The Archers had had a string of successes with the public and critics alike. A Matter of Life and Death (1946) had received the first ever Royal Command Performance, and Black Narcissus (1947) was about to go on to receive a host of Oscar nominations. An adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's had been made by Emeric Pressburger before the war and in late 1946 he urged Michael Powell to read his script. Pressburger and Powell, who agreed that it should be their next project, bought the rights to the script back off Alexander Korda. Despite being a film about ballet, with an actual twenty-minute ballet planned for the middle of the film Arthur Rank and his business chief John Davis approved the Archers' largest budget yet.
Powell wrote in his autobiography 'I think that the real reason why The Red Shoes was such a success, was that we had all been told for years to go and die for this and for that, and now that the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go and die for art.' In this passage Powell makes clear the importance of a culturally determined value system to the agenda which The Red Shoes addresses. The arts represented in the story are culturally respectable, being 'sophisticated' entertainment. The status of ballet and the associated arts of music and painting in the form of design had already been determined independent of the film. Ginnette Vincendeau and Richard Dyer suggest European film-makers persuade an engagement with the 'high white tradition' of European art, as a means of gaining cultural legitimacy and state subsidy from the 1950's onwards. The same notion of 'high cultural prestige' is invoked by Powell. Pressburger and Powell appear to have been attempting to purchase some of that respectability in two ways. Most obviously ballet as the subject matter alone may be recognised as conferring some the legitimacy of its traditional status within the arts on the medium through which it is being represented. The received notion that ballet was a subject and means of expression antithetical to that which film was supposed to be capable of conveying, 'sublime' art versus mass entertainment, and that movie audiences would react unfavourably to it was accepted by the Rank Organisation. They received and distributed The Red Shoes without fanfare or even a premiere and withdrew it from release after a few short weeks. Wedded to the clear on-screen arts, were the labours of the production team, who provided the original material of the ballet, music choreography, design etc. in its entirety which represented those arts. In essence the second method of achieving cultural kudos was to have film technicians perform a technological ballet as well as Covent Garden were able to stage one.
Gene Kelly has said, 'we really tried to make a ballet, not just merely a dance, not a series of beautiful moving tableaux, but an emotional whole, consisting of the combined arts which spelt ballet, whether on the stage or the screen'. The artistic agenda being addressed by Kelly is coincident with the Archers'. A 'ballet, not just merely a dance', the expression reveals the hierarchical perception of the arts, with Kelly's chosen means of expression perceived as clearly residing at the lower end of scale. That hierarchy invites an internal reorganisation of the musical genre, realigning its affinities with culturally legitimate forms of expression. Wedded to Kelly and Minnelli's ballet then, we find incontrovertible 'art' of painting. Providing the glue to marry a film musical and the 'combined arts which spelt musical' is the music of George Gershwin, a cultural hybrid in that his music straddled the gap between what was popular and what was culturally respectable.
'Gershwin's music seems a metaphor for democratic American creativity itself . . . Alongside his success in the musical market-places of Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley are his achievements in those loftier realms of concert hall and opera house. No concert or operatic music by any other American composer is programmed, played, and sung so often by the world's most accomplished orchestras and soloists in its most respected opera houses and concert halls.'
The terminology of Gerald Mast's praise encapsulates the aspirational quality which suffused the aims of An American in Paris. To go beyond the 'musical market-place' on to 'loftier heights' alongside 'the world's most accomplished' and 'respected' artistes.
Thematically the films are inter-connected. Both narratives concern a creative group of artistes pursuing their vocations. An American in Paris, in the tradition of MGM musicals is light of heart, while The Red Shoes takes itself far more seriously becoming at times melodramatic. In each film there is a patron figure, providing the money and drive for the artist to fulfil their potential, Lermontov and Vicky in The Red Shoes, Milo Roberts and Jerry Mulligan in American in Paris. Both mentors are concerned with more then their protégés potential. The romantic subtext is foregrounded in the MGM picture, but the Lermontov character in the Archers' film is more complicated and his passion is subsumed into the larger desire for Vicky to devote himself to his Company. The gender roles are switched, as are the endings. Jerry leaves his patron and exhibition for love and the Leslie Caron character. Vicky flees the impossible choice between Julian and Lermontov, carried away by the red shoes she jumps in front of a train and 'dies for art'.
The ballet in An American in Paris was originally written to be performed in the middle of the film, as in The Red Shoes, however it was moved to the end so as to provide the climax. It is however, a purely visual climax, the end result of the artistic allusions littering the film up till then (for instance Jerry's assembly of an unseen portfolio). Narratively it is isolated, like the Busby Berkeley sequences in the Golddiggers series for instance, but here the ballet is entirely fantastical, without even the suggestion of the sequence being part of a show, in extended or exploded stage space. Its function as spectacle is to literally act as a 'show-stopper', combining 'the arts which spelt ballet' and so completing the aims of the film. With great brevity it recapitulates the plot so far; Jerry falling for Lise but finding people in his way, but this is only a pretext for solo, duo and company dance numbers. As a musical number however it is akin to numbers in other Hollywood musicals in that as spectacle it is a celebration of dance, the underlying theme of films from Top Hat (1935) to Singin' in the Rain (1952), if with a more formal presentation in An American in Paris. It forms no developmental part of the story, but rather is given a sequential structure based on purely visual referents, an homage to the impressionist painters who have inspired Kelly's character. In the sequence there is a shift away from dialogue and the lyric to visual expression and impressionism. The plot is recapitulated in images alone, fitted to Gershwin's pre-existing score. What happens is that one layer of communication, language, is stripped away emphasising what remains, communication through music, movement, line and colour.
The designer of the ballet sequence, Irene Sharaff was told 'the end of the picture would be drenched in impressionistic colour'. Until she came on board 'the only reality for the ballet was the decor: Paris seen through the eyes of Dufy, Renoir, Utrillo, Rousseau, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec.' 'I did actually work out the sequence and the pompiers and the continuity of the ballet. I think I did it from the point of view of colour. But the painters themselves dictated the continuity.' That continuity doesn't respect temporal boundaries as one time period is exchanged for another without any chronological logic. Second world war uniforms are exchanged for jazz-age striped jackets and straw boaters before proceeding to nineteenth-century outfits from Toulouse Lautrec's Follies Bergeres. The effect of this historical/visual discontinuity is to reassert the primacy of the dancers and the music, as the entities giving the sequence coherence, the only constants among the spatial and temporal discontinuity. Gauging the effect of transforming the received visual arts tradition into cinematic spectacle is problematic. It could be argued that the transformation trivialises the subjects of the homage, turning the pictures and their characters into the background for a Gene Kelly love affair. It is this tension between the performers and the paintings that ballet is used to resolve. The performance of a ballet, as opposed to a conventional musical number, with its inherent legitimacy off-sets potential accusations of trivialisation, as one artistic expression of the sublime is joined by another, the two wedded together by the means of cinema.
The primacy of painting to both films, in particular to the ballet sequences is revealed by Michael Powell's choice of production designer, a luminary from the Bauhaus. For the first time, Powell maintains, a painter was given total control over all aspects of a films design. Hein Heckroth had already designed a popular thirties ballet, The Green Table, and remained associated with many theatre and opera companies in Britain while practising as a painter. Heckroth's design starts off in concrete stage-set reality before swiftly moving into a surreal 'mindscape'. With matte paintings extending the darkened dance floor into the distance and creating fireworks above the dancers' heads, the Red Shoes ballet is also 'drenched in colour'. Neither film features an audience seated before the dancers, the American in Paris ballet taking place entirely in a fantasy Paris, while Powell and Pressburger conceived the audience of their ballet as the cinema audience alone. They specifically avoid the applauding crowds, reactions shots of which bookend and sometimes are intercut with Berkeley's routines. Routines which, as beginning in stage space, fore-run The Red Shoes transformation from 'reality' to imagined space. Powell envisioned that 'once the curtain had gone up on the performance, we would no longer be in a theatre, but inside the heads of two young people who were falling in love [the ballerina Vicky Page and the composer/conductor Julian Crastor]'.
The dances in the An American in Paris ballet are a series of performances in different locales. The 'Red Shoes Ballet' was never a coherent performance anywhere but on film. The sequence relies on the technology of cinema to piece it together. For instance Vicky only has to see the red shoes in the shoe-makers window at the side of the stage and reach out towards them for them to magically appear on her feet, via a jump cut. As the shoes carry her onwards and onwards Vicky must dance with anything and everything, even a newspaper. A piece of newsprint is blown by the breeze, it begins to spin faster and faster until it transforms into a man, his body covered with headlines he spins impossibly fast before coming to a stop to dance a duet with Vicky. The shot relies on hidden wires, fast-motion camera-work and a jump cut. Later as Vicky is carried around the world a company of 'savages' advance towards her, surrounding her, the movement is only comprehensible from a Berkelyesque crane shot seeing the group encircle and engulf her from above. The paint which has been daubed on the 'savages' bodies continues and develops the motif of painting in the sequence. The fun-fair which Vicky dances through is surreal, in both its shapes, the foreshortening of its painted structures and in the choice colours. Vicky herself becomes daubed with streaks of paint which we imagine to have rubbed off on her, the visible signs of her terrible non-stop dance through the world.
As Powell's comment, 'once the curtain had gone up on the performance, we would no longer be in a theatre, but inside the heads of two young people falling in love', suggests the ballet, and its visual representation is entirely rooted in the psychological motivation of the characters. Moreover the immersion of the couple, and specifically Vicky, into the music drives the narrative forward. It brings the two together, but also pushes Vicky further down the road toward making a final choice between a life devoted entirely to art without human contact or a second-rate (as Lermontov describes it) career with a husband. The story as acted out in the ballet is prophetic, the predetermined future it indicates suggests a mythic component to the film-narrative. Dying for art being an unavoidable future for the committed artist/dancer, registering the film's interpretation of art as a mythic component in life akin to and tied together with the classical Greek notion of fate. The structure of Sophocles' Oedipus, where fate is inescapable even with the warning of a prophesy of the future, is redeployed in The Red Shoes. The ballet is not only an intrinsic part of the plot but it is also the metaphor for the whole story, not a recapitulation of it as the 'An American in Paris ballet' must be, located at the end of the film.
As the narrative revolves around the backstage world of Lermontov's company 'the combined arts which spell ballet' are foregrounded, so we not only see the development of the choreography, but the set from sketches to full realisation, the music from piano melody to complete orchestration. The on-screen production team are the alter-egos of the Archers team, except in the case of Robert Helpmann and Leonide Massine who filled the roles of choreographers and dancers off-screen as well as on. The special matte-effect work, trick photography and cutting in The Red Shoes ballet reveal the technical involvement of the entire Archers production and post-production staff. Proclaiming the spectacle on the screen as entirely non-naturalistic. This is contrary to the musical tradition of naturalising the song and dance number, foregrounding the process of its production and thus the medium of film. The conventions of Hollywood musicals, where Paris is frequently recreated on a studio backlot, predispose the suspension of disbelief in the viewer to ignore the non-naturalism on display in the American in Paris ballet. Moreover the technical virtuosity on display is less overt or self-proclaiming than that of The Red Shoes. The only laboratory effect are dissolves that shift the Paris of one painter to another and one 'trick' cut which removes the ballet company from the square where Kelly dances at the end of the dance. For the sequence the film's principle director of photography was replaced by John Alton who abandoned the conventional studio method of lighting a set with a bank of lights above the set and large numbers on the ground with a more minimal approach using fewer lights but large numbers of colour filters. 'The secret to the ballet's photography was the fumata (smoky) quality, which changed all the colours to pastel.' Alton said. Vincente Minneli asserted 'you needed someone who would be spectacular and daring in his use of lights; there are so many light changes and effects in the ballet movement that I wanted him.' Visual effects were largely orchestrated and executed during the shooting, whereas 'The Red Shoes Ballet', taking place in 'exploded stage space' was completed as a whole only in the cutting room. With locale frequently changing in mid-step it is clear The Red Shoes' appropriation of ballet is significantly different to that of An American in Paris. There is no tension between the performers and the scenery, the two are co-dependent, as the episode with the newsprint demonstrates. The music is another indivisible agent of the ballet, composed by Brian Easdale specifically for the film's ballet and story. Notions of its cultural legitimacy are argued by its quality, but this is bolstered by the opening credit sequences emphasis that Sir Thomas Beecham himself conducted the orchestra for the ballet sequence.
The story behind The Red Shoes is a back-stage musical in the tradition of classical Hollywood. The central component of 'putting on a show' is significantly different. Jane Feuer suggests that Hollywood musicals sought to disassociate their performers from professionals, who by virtue of pursuing song and dance as a business somehow sully it, and therefore proclaimed the nature of the performances as amateur. This was an obvious conceit since film-making is an industrial process, but was a generic convention (the epitome of which was the Andy Hardy series). The Red Shoes proclaims its commitment to professionalism in the first reel with Lermontov complaining about the awfulness of amateur performances. A serious attitude is all, "Why do you want to dance?" Lermontov asks Vicky, "Why do you want to live?" she earnestly replies. Putting on a show in this atmosphere is a highly professional business. Operating within the Hollywood tradition An American in Paris also features the generic obsession with putting on a show. Oscar Levant is seen labouring over the piano trying to write symphony, the Georges Guetary character Henri Baurel, is concerned with the first performance of a new number in his stage show and Gene Kelly gets Parisian street kids to help him perform an impromptu number, 'I Got Rhythm'. All three men join together for the first number of the film, 'By Strauss' a dialectical debate on the preference of jazz to Strauss. However the true 'backstage' the film reveals is the painter's version of putting on a show, from finding a patron, getting a studio, painting a large enough body of work and meeting sympathetic critics. The irony of course is that Jerry throws all this away, abandoning the support of his patron for the love of Lise. This does not matter to the narrative however since Jerry's lack of critical success is displaced by his transition from artist to subject. In the ballet he becomes part of the work of great artists, moreover he is not a trapped subject of study but is capable of transition between artists and pictures, thus exerting some kind of control. Far from being the unwitting agent of fate his story is completed outwith the ballet and the world of art, resolved by his relationship with Lise.
This analysis has attempted to identify the shared concerns of An American in Paris and The Red Shoes, the result of which is to have established the bounds of an intertextual, or rather inter-media agenda, where the hierarchical perception of the arts has been addressed. The two films sought to redefine that perception both overtly and covertly. The films narrate the process of an established artistic form's means of production. At the same time they subvert them, 'The Red Shoes Ballet' is an entirely filmic production, using all manner of effects impossible to reproduce on the stage. The An American in Paris story ultimately rejects its chief protagonist's artistic aspirations. The homage of the ballet however fulfils the demand of the story to present a visual climax. An end result which subverts the misé-en-scéne of impressionist paintings, manipulating their colour and subject matter to purely filmic, and more specifically generic musical ends and movement and dance. This essay has sought to uncover the agenda arrived at by two separate schools of film-makers. A judgement of whether the films achieved their aims can be made by following the criteria laid down by the films themselves. In terms of fulfilling the its own agenda The Red Shoes clearly succeeds, ducking none of the difficulties of meeting ballet and the 'high white tradition' on its own ground. Operating within the musical genre, nominally the backstage musical, it subverts the genre laying stresses on: the ballet company's professionalism; the process behind the production of art; the film's own position as cinema and with the ballet itself it emphasises the integration of music, image, dance and montage as a legitimate collective means of producing Art. An American in Paris is by no means a failure, but the tension between its ingredients; art and the musical genre, the use of ballet dancing as a bridge between the two instead of arising from them; and the narrative disavowal of the pursuit of Art determines that it remain problematic instead of successfully making 'an emotional whole, consisting of the combined arts which spell ballet'.
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