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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David Lean Cinema, Croydon - 8 April 2011
The Red Shoes (1948)
This film was released in 1948. Over 60 years ago. But a new restoration of it is still on tour around the world.
It was started in 1938 when Alexander Korda asked Emeric Pressburger to write a script for a ballet film that would star Merle Oberon as the leading ballerina. That never quite happened.
By 1947, when they were planning this film, Powell & Pressburger had made a feature film every year since 1939. They made a few more after this one but this was the culmination of their major run of films. All except 2 of those 10 films was based on an original story by Pressburger. He was much more than just "Michael Powell's scriptwriter" as some have described him.
Powell & Pressburger soon developed a reputation for making interesting films of a very high quality. So all the leading actors, cinematographers, designers, composers and other crew members were soon queueing up to work with them. They could select from the very best in every field. They gathered around them a group of like minded people. People who wanted to make high quality films who were prepared to take risks and push themselves to their limits to produce their best possible work. They called this group of people The Archers and most of their films began with an arrow hitting an archer's target.
For 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) they had hired one of the best editors available, a young man called David Lean. In fact it was David who suggested that a short scene in One of Our Aircraft ... could be made into a complete story. That idea led to their next film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943).
One day Noel Coward visited the set of One of Our Aircraft ... and after seeing how the crew staged and wrapped up an elaborate sequence in about 2 hours decided to use most of them on his film In Which We Serve (1942).
From 1942 Powell & Pressburger signed each film as "Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger". This was their way of declaring their independence and total control over their films. Martin Scorsese, a major admirer of The Archers who knew Michael & Emeric well, once said that they were like "experimental film-makers working inside a totally commercial system". They were funded by the people who ran the main studios in Britain but as long as their films remained popular and made a profit they managed to keep the studio bosses at bay. Nobody was allowed to interfere with their film.
They did all their own casting, they never used a casting director. Micky and Emeric had both seen a huge number of films over the years and they both had remarkable visual memories so they could recall an actor who they had seen many years ago who they thought would be suitable for a particular role. Micky also saw just about every play that was staged in London and the provinces and he could remember all of those actors as well. A lot of actors who had never worked on a film before but who had done some good work on stage were given their first chance to work in films by Powell & Pressburger.
When they had the cast & crew together and the script was written, they started making the film. But sometimes an idea didn't work out as well as they hoped and sometimes someone had another idea for how to make it even better. They were quite willing to change things part way through a shoot. Emeric was always on hand to make sure that any changes fitted in with the story. The Archers really were a collaboration of artists, everyone was equally important and they were all encouraged to make their own contribution to make the end result as good as possible.
Although Micky Powell was the main director he was more like a conductor or ring-master than an autocrat just issuing orders. He worked in collaboration with his cast and crew, accepting their ideas and suggestions. However, the ultimate decisions rested with him.
They bought Emeric's 1938 script for The Red Shoes back from Korda and re-worked it, extending and improving it.
When they decided to make The Red Shoes they decided early on that they wouldn't just have an actress who could dance a bit or who could be doubled by a dancer, they determined that they would only make it it they could find a dancer who could act, who could also star in a film. They also decided to have a real ballet in the middle of their film! Nobody had ever done anything like that before, not in a feature film.
They had previously worked with Robert Helpmann. He was a leading ballet dancer as well as an actor. He introduced them to people like Léonide Massine and Ludmilla Tchérina and helped them to form their own ballet company for the film.
They had also worked with composer Brian Easdale on their previous film, Black Narcissus. Easdale agreed to write the centrepiece ballet, which Helpmann choreographed.
The ballet, and the whole film, was designed by Hein Heckroth. He had been working with The Archers for their last few films, as had Jack Cardiff, the cinematographer and other members of the cast and crew.
It was hard to find the right dancer for the leading role, they tried quite a few but none of them were right. It was Stewart Granger who suggested that they look at Moira Shearer, a young dancer at Sadler's Wells (before it became The Royal Ballet) who was a bit in the shadow of Margot Fonteyn. It took a while to convince Moira that she should do the film, her eyes were set on the one prize of the ballet and of becoming the prima ballerina in the company.
So now they had everything they needed, they had the script, the cast, the crew. It took them 6 months to make this film with location trips to Paris, Monte Carlo & the Côte d'Azur and at Covent Garden in London.
Now let's see what they made. We can talk more about it afterwards.
Other P&P reviews