Director Michael Powell and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, BSC teamed up for a memorable pas de deux on the 1948 dance classic, which set the standard for cinematic "choreophotography."
There have been other movies that espoused art for art's sake, but most were for specialized audiences; The Red Shoes' melodramatic treatment of ballet managed to touch a vast public.
Prior to the film's realization, director Michael Powell and writer-producer Emeric Pressburger had established an independent company called The Archers. Separately, both men did excellent work; together they were a superb team. The duo had earned extravagant praise for the 1946 films A Matter of Life and Death (released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven) and Black Narcissus. Pressburger had written The Red Shoes in 1939 for Alexander Korda as a vehicle for Korda's star and future wife, Merle Oberon. During May of 1946, The Archers bought the script for £9,000 and Pressburger rewrote it as a darker, heavier yarn.
During the project's planning stages at Pinewood Studios, the film's art direction was assigned to Alfred Junge, the great German designer responsible for the superb decor of most previous Archer productions. However, Powell decided that Junge's style was too stolid for the ballet sequence. Without informing Junge, he assigned the ballet sequence to Hein Heckroth, a German artist previously hired by Junge to design costumes and title art for A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus. When Junge became privy to this reassignment, he walked off the production. Heckroth inherited the whole show, with art director Arthur Lawson at his side to provide technical know-how.
Assigned to compose a ballet "of concert hall quality" was Allan Gray, another past Archers contributor. He was unable to deliver the sort of music the producers had in mind, though, and his work was eventually scrapped. Replacing Gray was Brian Easdale, 38, who had scored Black Narcissus and whose first opera was produced when he was 17. In addition, Easdale conducted all of the score save for the ballet, which he insisted should be conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, who recorded the soundtrack with the Royal Philharmonic.
At the picture's core is the "Ballet of the Red Shoes," much of which is staged as a dream-fantasy in the mind of the heroine as she performs onstage. In the film, the fanatical ballet impresario Lermontov describes the piece thusly: "The 'Ballet of The Red Shoes' is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a young girl who is devoured with an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes and goes to the dance. For a time, all goes well and she is very happy. At the end of the evening she is tired and wants to go home, but the red shoes are not tired. In fact, the red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the street, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by but the red shoes go on. In the end, she dies."
This ballet is, in fact, a bizarre version of the real-life drama which engulfs the central figures of the surrounding story: Lermontov, who, it is said, "makes your dreams come true, but at a fearful price"; Victoria Page, a neophyte ballerina; and young composer Julian Craster. Lermontov views ballet as a life-dominating religion, and demands the same zealousness from his artists. When Victoria and Julian fall in love, the ensuing conflict between the two men tears the young dancer apart. She can't live without ballet, yet she is overcome by her emotions. Forced to a decision, she leaps or falls to her death, much to the devastation of both Lermontov and Craster. This tragic denouement is notable for two deliberately ambiguous points: when Victoria stops, turns and flees from the theater, her death is staged in a manner which suggests that the red shoes forced her fall; in addition, it is never made clear whether she merely falls or deliberately leaps to her death.
The principals of The Red Shoes live in a separate universe where none of them even the youthful lovers resemble the folks next door. To depict the joys and terrors of artistic creation required a strong cast and brilliant artists; the filmmakers had to form their own ballet troupe and envision a unique world. The Australian choreographer Robert Helpmann, a premier danseur at Sadler's Wells and leading actor at the Old Vic, portrayed Boleslawski and choreographed the ballet. The legendary Léonide Massine, protégé of the great Sergei Diaghilev and producer-choreographer of numerous ballets, was secured to portray Ljubov, as well as to create and dance the role of the Shoemaker. Dominating the acting is Austrian Anton Walbrook, an international star who gives an unforgettable performance as the almost satanic but ultimately vulnerable Lermontov. Popular assumption holds that Lermontov is based on the tyrannical Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who died in 1929. Powell and Pressburger both insisted that Lermontov had a bit of Diaghilev in him, but in reality he was more a combination of Alexander Korda, Powell and Pressburger perhaps with an added dash of Svengali. Throughout the picture, Walbrook is suave and implacable as he cajoles his charges or snarls memorable aphorisms such as "The dancer who relies on the doubtful comfort of human love will never be a great dancer." He also provides a truly shattering moment at the end of the tale, stepping onstage to cry out in agony that "Victoria Page cannot dance tonight."
The other male lead of the dramatic triangle was oddly cast. Not only was Marius Goring considerably older than the character of Julian Craster, but the actor was famous for his stage and screen portrayals of homicidal psychopaths. Nevertheless, he does a remarkable job as a romantic lead. The film's other players proved equally adept. The great 80-year-old German star, Albert Basserman, brings a realistic presence as the designer, Ratov. Esmond Knight, a prewar romantic actor partially blinded during his tenure as an officer aboard the ill-fated H.M.S. Prince of Wales amid the battle in which the Nazi sea-raider Bismarck was sunk is excellent as the conductor, Livy. The beauty and talent of Ludmilla Tcherina, star ballerina of the Monte Carlo Ballet, are strong assets to her role as a dancer named Boronskaja.
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