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In terms of acting, however, the film's true grandeur was provided by the radiant thespian who took the part of the ballerina, as Powell once told interviewer Maurice Ambler: "The salient feature of the film is simply Moira Shearer. Before this film could be started, it was necessary to find a dancer on the brink of becoming a ballerina, about 20 years of age. [She had to be] beautiful, [with an] exquisite figure and legs and strength of character. [We needed someone] who could dance all the classical parts a dancer who could act, and not an actress who could pretend to dance. If we had not found Moira Shearer, we could not have made the film."
Powell discovered his 20-year-old star early in 1946. Shearer was a beautiful red-headed Scot who belonged to the Royal Ballet. Fiercely dedicated to her art, she had no interest in movies, and rejected The Red Shoes because the script was too unlike the real ballet world. For nearly a year, the producers tried to persuade her, while Mme. Ninette de Valois, the founder and head of the Royal Ballet, insisted that she remain with their company. Powell considered using Ann Todd or Hazel Court with real dancers doubling the ballet scenes, but Helpmann, Pressburger and Heckroth dissuaded him from doing so. Two American dancers were also considered.
Suddenly, Shearer relented; fed up with Powell's bothersome visits, Mme. de Valois had asked her to accept the offer and then return to the ballet posthaste. She performed a screen test in May of 1947, and began work on the film the following month. The day after the picture wrapped, Shearer was at Covent Garden dancing in Massine's new ballet, Mam'zelle Angot.
Principal photography of The Red Shoes commenced on June 5, 1947, at the Gare de Lyon in Paris. After a week, the company moved to the south of France, where Powell and Pressburger searched the coastline between Monte Carlo and Nice for a setting that resembled Heckroth's sketches of Lermontov's villa. They found their site in the Villa Leopolda, near Villefranche, which was approached via the long, weed-choked stairway ascended by Victoria Page in the film.
Shearer arrived at Monte Carlo in late June. One Saturday night she left the stage at Covent Garden, boarding a plane the following morning to make a four a.m. makeup call on Monday. An hour later, she was on-set for her first scene: Victoria's death on the train tracks. Shearer had to lie for hours under the Mediterranean sun, partly beneath a train dripping oil onto her. A battery of huge silver reflectors amplified the heat and glare, causing the actress to suffer a sunburn and sore eyes. When she was placed on the rubber stretcher, which had lain in the sun, her back became blistered. Needless to say, Shearer's first day before the camera did little to improve her attitude toward movies.
Shearer executed the close shots of her death leap at Monte Carlo, doing three takes as she jumped onto a concealed box. (Joy Rawlings was her double her for the long shots.) On one take, Shearer tottered forward and nearly fell. Much later, at Pinewood, she played the scene in which she is shown falling through empty space. Refusing to be doubled, she jumped headlong from a 15-foot parapet onto two mattresses placed over hay. During the first take, she landed on her head and shoulder with no harm done; on take two, however, she struck headfirst and wrenched her neck quite badly.
Upon returning to London, the company filmed exteriors at Covent Garden, beginning workdays at 7 a.m. Posters announcing the Lermontov Ballet were mounted over the Sadler's Wells Ballet signs. Soon thereafter a queue formed, with patrons waiting for the box office to open! Photos and drawings were made of the stage door on Flower Street, which was duplicated in detail at Pinewood.
Jack Cardiff, BSC, who had just won an Academy Award for his Technicolor photography on The Archers' Black Narcissus, was the obvious choice to film The Red Shoes. [Ed. note: Mr. Cardiff was also a member of the ASC at the time, but later withdrew from the organization because he primarily worked in Britain.] When Powell initially asked Cardiff how much he liked ballet, however, the cameraman replied, "Not much. It's so precious all those sissies prancing about." Nonetheless, Powell sent him to Covent Garden every night to watch performances of the Sadler's Wells Ballet Company, and Cardiff soon became intrigued by the possibilities of a ballet film.
"Michael was a cameraman's dream," Cardiff wrote in his autobiographical book Magic Hour. "He nearly always accepted any ideas I put forth with enthusiastic support. He very rarely dithered or had doubts about things. Like all good minds, he possessed a nervous vitality."
After completion of The Red Shoes, the American-born Cardiff offered a London reporter the following comparison regarding the differing types of Technicolor offered on either side of the Atlantic: "As a member of the American Society of Cinematographers, I wish I could say Hollywood's Technicolor is better than Britain's, but unfortunately, such is not always the case. For several years the British studios' Technicolor has surpassed Hollywood's in many respects. I attribute this superiority not to any greater proficiency or artistry of British cameramen but, oddly enough, to the recent World War. The war-induced coal shortage in England forced rationing of electrical power Since Techni-color requires more intense illumination than does black-and-white, many studios eliminated color photography altogether, but a few struggled on under rationing conditions.
"To the surprise of everyone, Technicolor was improved by the reduced lighting," he added. "Instead of blatant, glaring colors, the underlit film produced soft, pleasing pastel tints. I used the same technique in shooting The Red Shoes, and to good advantage, particularly in recording the beauty of lovely Moira Shearer. . . and the gorgeous settings by Hein Heckroth."
Because many of the picture's interiors were of considerable scope, the 150-amp lights available in England proved insufficient, so Cardiff went to Hollywood to confer with lighting experts. Peter Mole, of Mole-Richardson, told him that M-R had just made a powerful 225-amp arc lamp with a wide beam "the Brute," a name which persists even today. Two prototypes had been built, but the light was not ready for marketing. Cardiff persuaded Mole to ship the prototypes to England, and the Brute made its highly successful debut in The Red Shoes.
Such an abundance of light, however, created another problem: a spotlight would be needed for the ballet sequences, but at the time, there was no spot of sufficient power to register as such through the general lighting of a scene. Conferences with Mole and lens manufacturer Taylor Hobson Cooke led to the design of a new water-cooled, 300-amp spot that could place 1,200 footcandles on a subject some 100 feet away.
Christopher Challis, a distinguished lighting cameraman in his own right (whose credits would later include The Archers' subsequent 1951 picture The Tales of Hoffmann), temporarily demoted himself to operate the camera for Cardiff on The Red Shoes. "It was a decision I never regretted, for the picture turned out to be one of the most memorable I have ever had the privilege of working on," Challis says in his book Are They Really So Awful?.
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