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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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TV Guide review

The Red Shoes (1948)

Magical. Although The Red Shoes is the ultimate ballet film, you don't have to be a balletomane to enjoy this backstage love story distinguished by glorious dancing, superb acting, and masterful direction. When this Powell-Pressburger classic was first released, many anticipated a disaster. It had gone well over budget, and the makers and distributors began to wonder if there would be a market for such a film. The receipts in England were not terrific, [It wasn't promoted] and it was only after it opened in the US and other countries that it took off, grossing many more millions than anyone had imagined it might. Walbrook plays a ballet impresario on the order of Serge Diaghilev, the Russian who masterminded the Ballet Russe. His company has just completed a performance of "Heart of Fire" -- a ballet written by Prof. Palmer (Trevor). Walbrook goes to a party and meets Shearer, a young ballerina. He abhors amateurs but is soon taken by her sincerity and arranges an audition with his company. Meanwhile, Goring, a fledgling composer, sends the stern and reclusive Walbrook a letter claiming that it was he who wrote "Heart Of Fire", and that the music was "appropriated" by his teacher, Trevor. Walbrook meets Goring, listens to him play, and sees that the lad is telling the truth, so he offers him a job as an arranger. Walbrook then watches Shearer dance and realizes that she is still raw but has unmistakable talent, so he signs her on as well. The lead dancer, Tcherina, decides that she would rather be married than dance, and Walbrook is stunned that anyone would give up the chance to perform in favor of a marriage. The company goes on tour and needs a new ballet, so Goring gets the job of adapting Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Red Shoes." The original story is not a pretty one. An impoverished young woman dons a pair of magical shoes and almost dies when her feet won't stop dancing. She is saved when her feet are cut off by an axe-wielding executioner. Her still-shod feet dance on, but she is given wooden feet, finds peace in religion, and hobbles through the rest of her life. Shearer, who has continued to impress Walbrook with her work (and whom he secretly loves [?]) is given the prima ballerina role in Goring's opus. She and Goring discuss it as he writes it: they fight, laugh, and fall in love. The ballet is summarily presented in a 20-minute sequence in the middle of the film and is breathtaking. Shearer, wearing white and blue that perfectly complement her rich, red hair, is surrounded by enormous, intricate sets. The debut is a critical and popular success, and Walbrook is thrilled, promising Shearer more leading roles. However, his mood turns dark when he learns that she and Goring are passionately in love. Walbrook begins to exact vengeance on the union. When Goring turns in a new score, Walbrook unfairly criticizes it, causing the pair to resign. They marry, and Walbrook feigns indifference. He tells his associates that her career is over, and she will never achieve prominence as long as she remains with Goring. Since Walbrook controls all rights to "The Red Shoes," he refuses to allow it to be danced by anyone outside his company, and Shearer soon finds that she cannot get work unless she can dance it. Some time later, Goring and Shearer are still happily married. He's in London to present a new musical piece at Covent Garden, and she has come to Paris, where Walbrook finds her at the train station and asks if she will agree to do one performance of "The Red Shoes" in Monaco. She agrees, although there is a domestic price to pay since she will not be able to attend the recital. Goring gives the job of conducting the orchestra to someone else in order to go to Monte Carlo and convince Shearer that she's making a mistake by dancing for Walbrook, who soon adds his voice to the disagreement. Meanwhile, the shoes have taken on a life of their own. Shearer cannot stop herself as the shoes carry her out of the theater and onto a high balcony overlooking a set of railway tracks. She is forced to leap from that perch and is hit by a train, the Nice Express. Goring rushes to her side, removes the red shoes, and she dies in his arms. Later, Walbrook tells the audience that Shearer is dead but that the performance will go off on schedule. A spotlight moves about the stage as though following her dance, but all one sees is an empty circle of light.

The Red Shoes won Oscars for Best Art Direction, Best Set Decoration, and Best Scoring and was nominated for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. The dramatic aspects of the plot can't be overlooked when it comes to evaluating the entire film. A happy ending would have been far more satisfying, but the authors were steadfastly against that. The history of the film began when Alexander Korda hired Hungarian Pressburger to write a script for Korda's wife, Merle Oberon. A dancer would double for her in the ballet scenes. As it turned out, the picture was scrubbed. Years later, Pressburger joined Powell, and the powerful team bought the script back from Korda and rewrote it for Shearer, a Sadlers' Wells ballerina who proved to be a much better actress than anyone had dreamed. As a matter of fact, all of the ballet people, Massine, Helpmann (who also did the choreography), Tcherina, et al, are excellent in their acting roles, and Goring, who had already made many movies, is weak by comparison. Walbrook is brilliant as the impresario. The movie was colorfully photographed by Jack Cardiff and had the added benefit of some picturesque locations in Paris, Monaco, and London. Easdale's music goes well with excerpts from "Giselle," "Swan Lake," "Les Sylphides," and "Coppelia." In the 1980s, Broadway producer David Merrick toyed with the notion of bringing the story to the stage as a musical-drama-ballet (with no songs), but his plans were put on hold when he suffered a stroke.

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