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Submitted by Dibyaduti Purkayastha (Tipu)
Gotta Dance, Gotta Dance
The Red Shoes
A young ballerina, dazzled by success and torn between love and ballet, throws herself under a train.
From: Halliwell's hundred: A nostalgic choice of films from the golden age
The years have not diminished the cornerstone of J. Arthur Rank's 'art gallery' of the forties. After the flop of Caesar and Cleopatra, dire forebodings were voiced about the commercial chances of a ballet film, but the rare elements in it fused to make a box-office wonder, as much in the states as in Europe. I saw it on a glum autumn day when I was in the army on Salisbury Plain, at a cinema curiously set in the innards of a medieval banqueting house. The glimpse it preferred into an intensely private world was overwhelming: I did not understand the compulsion to dance, and probably still don't, but I emerge full of respect for the fanatical dedication, the triumphing over physical discomfort, and the brilliant talent required to make a ballet star. Luckily prints can still be obtained which duplicate the original glowing colours required to clothe the theme in scintillating raiment.
The least satisfactory part of the entertainment is the plot, conveyed above in one sentence which makes one wince to write it. For well above an hour there is no plot at all, just an account of the success in this strange world of a young dancer played with great delicacy by Moira Shearer and a young composer played with sickly make-up by Marius goring as an unabashed boor. As soon as they marry, he changes character so radically as to demand that she give up her art to iron his shirt. She decides to leave him instead, but when he reappears in her Monte Carlo dressing-room just before curtain up, sulking like a spoilt schoolboy and not unnaturally evoking a few harsh words from her temperamental impresario, she goes suddenly to pieces and throws herself over a convenient balustrade into the path of a passing train. There is an indication that we are supposed to believe that in doing so she was possessed by her red dancing shoes, as was the heroine of the ballet she was about to perform, based on the Hans Andersen fairy tale; but the film has given no prior warning that we are about to plunge into this kind of fantasy, so it is not effective; nor is the shot of Ms. Shearer expiring amidst globbets of tomato ketchup. It is as though P and P, having explored every nook and cranny of the ballet world to their satisfaction, had decided that since the end had to come somehow, it might as well be this way as not. But however unsatisfactory it may be from the point of good taste as well as drama, it does provide two memorable brief moments. The first is only fleeting, as Miss Shearer's dresser realizes her mistress is going to kill herself and runs off arms outstretched in one direction to get help, just as Shearer dances off arms outstretched in the other: there is something impressionist and disturbing in the mirror image. The second is the opportunity it affords for Anton Walbrook's speech before the deep red curtain of the theatre, a speech shouted at the audience through barely-controlled tears: 'Ladies and gentlemen - I am sorry to tell you - that Miss Page - is unable to dance - tonight. Nor indeed - on any other night. Nevertheless - e have decided to present 'The Red Shoes' - it is the ballet that made her name, whose name she made. We present it - because we think - she would have wished it.'
It doesn't sound much on paper, but it has to be experienced through the dark genius of Walbrook's performance, every word apparently torn by its roots from his reluctant larynx and twisted through his Germanic pronunciation which turns gentlemen into shentlemen and the title of the ballet into something that sounds like Zeredshussss... His presentation of the word 'nevertheless' is also something special, accompanied by flailing helpless arms and the suggestion of a facial tic. It is a good thing however that we are treated to only a few frames of the ensuing stage performance, in which a moving spotlight replaces the leading lady; it is an impractical idea from which we are mercifully protected by the end title.
Having got the last five minutes out of the way, we can affirm that the rest of the film is all pleasure, except perhaps for the title cards, in which bald non-serif lettering accords badly with the film's artistic pretensions. We open on the dingy upper circle staircase at Covent Garden as half berserk students rush to occupy the uncomfortable seats after queueing for six hours. The film carefully sets up all the characters before the curtain rises. The ballet stars limbering up nervously backstage. Shearer in a box with her aunt, who is trying to persuade Lermontov to watch her perform. Lermontov hiding behind the curtains of a stage box, wagging a finger to indicate non-acceptance of her invitation. And Goring in the upper circle increasingly livid as the music being played has been stolen from him. As Massine peeps through the curtain at the distinguished audience, and a girl at the front row of the balcony near falls over at a glimpse of Lermontov, there is magic in the air.
Eventually Lermontov meets the young heroine at a party:
- Why do you want to dance?
- Why do you want to live?
- I don't know exactly, but I must.
- That's my answer too.
Later, before giving her her big chance, he expands his theme:
- I want something more - I want to create. I want to make something big out of something little. But first I must ask you the same question. What do you want out of life? To love?
- To dance!
The role of the lofty, reclusive impresario is magnificent one for Walbrook, whether lording it in a fading stuccoed villa high above the Mediterranean, flopping around a hotel room in a multi-coloured kaftan and suede shoes, or impeccably attired for rehearsal in dark glasses, blacks suit and spats.
The main achievement of P and P in this film is to make us look at people through fresh eyes, and to give us a series of vivid impressions of a world which few of us will enter. Massine donning a hair net. Miscellaneous activity in the corners of the Covent Garden labyrinth. The designer (82-year old Albert Basserman in his last role) in tears because his door has been ruined. The egomania and delusions of grandeur so inseparable from great talent ('what we have created tonight the whole world will be talking about tomorrow morning.') The transition from overnight triumph to the cold rehearsal room next morning, with the old star taunting the new one ('Ca va? Any swelling? I mean the head.') The chaos of a press conference interrupted by telephone calls and administrative problems. Above all the great and typical Archers technical bravura: Vicki is dancing Swan Lake on a wet Saturday afternoon at the tiny Mercury Theatre, and the camera pirouettes with her before fixing on a close-up of Lermontov in the audience, followed by one of Vicki's startled, red-framed eyes.
The central 'Ballet of the Red Shoes' is an entertainment I am scarcely qualified to judge. It is pleasing, if rather self-consciously artistic: I have enjoyed other screen ballets better. My favourite sequence in a film overflowing with brilliant touches covers the evening when Vicki receives from Lermontov a curt note: 'I hope you are free this evening: my car will call for you at eight.' The impression of a warm Mediterranean evening is only slightly marred by the fact that when she emerges from her Monte Carlo hotel, dressed to kill the sun is so clearly casting shadows from overhears that the seen must have been filmed in midday. The limousine takes her as far as it can, to the foot of an apparently endless flight of stone steps overgrown with grass. 'Montes, mademoiselle,' says the chauffer, and she does, her voluminous bottle-green gown and twinkling tiara outlined finally against the blue seas of the south. As she steps through a formal garden on a shoulder of a hill, the image which comes to mind is that of Cinderella arriving for the palace ball. But the house proves to be as neglected as the plants, and when she finds Lermontov he is dressed in a blue smock, red scarf and old trousers, discussing the future of the ballet company with his intimates. Obviously, his surprised look says, he is too busy a man to take a lady to dinner, and within two minutes she is outside again; but he has promised to make her a star. Within, his friends grudgingly admit she is charming, but Lermontov has in his eyes the gleam of a fanatic: 'I know nothing about her charms, and I care less, but I tell you this, they won't wait till the end, they'll applaud in the middle'.
His colleagues warn him not to be too disappointed if she decides to break her career for marriage. He is scornful:
- The dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer.
- That's all very well, but you can't alter human nature.
- No? I think you can do even better than that. You can ignore it.
And there starts the plot, to prove him wrong.
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