The Red Shoes
THE RED SHOES
Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Production: The Archers; Technicolor; running time: 136 minutes; length: 12,209 feet. Released July 1948.
Producers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; screenplay: Emeric Pressburger; photography: Jack Cardiff; editor: Reginald Mills; production designer: Hein Heckroth; art director: Arthur Lawson; choreography: Robert Helpmann; music: Brian Easdale, performed by Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.
Cast: Marius Goring (Julian Craster); Jean Short (Terry); Gordon Littman (Ike); Julia Lang (A Balletomane); Bill Shine (Her Mate); Leonide Massine (Ljubov); Anton Walbrook (Boris Lermontov); Austin Trevor (Professor Palmer); Eric Berry (Dimitri); Irene Browne (Lady Neston); Moira Shearer (Victoria Page); Ludmilla Tcherina (Boronskaja); Robert Helpmann (Ivan Boleslawsky); Albert Basserman (Ratov).
Awards: Oscars for Best Color Art Direction and Best Drama Music Score, 1948.
Franks, A. H., Ballet for Film and Television, London, 1950.
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The success of their previous collaborations, most notably A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus, permitted Powell and Pressburger to make The Red Shoes, a "ballet" film, an "art" film whose commercial prospects were dim indeed. Powell describes the reaction of executives at an early screening: "They . . . left the theatre without a word because they thought they had lost their shirts. They couldn't understand one word of it." The Red Shoes went on to critical acclaim and, less predictably, to sustained popularity with the public. The lushness of its colour-drenched images and its passion-drenched depiction of the characters were not, in themselves, the factors that determined the initial appeal. It was the dancing, the very thing that had made those executives so leery of the film's viability with something approaching mass audience.
As so often happens to films that are deliriously received, The Red Shoes later fell subject to revisionist readings that dismissed its plot as excessively melodramatic, its characters as absurdly overdrawn, even its depiction of the world of ballet as false. Although Powell and Pressburger have been canonized as filmmakers, and a number of their works subjected to the kind of analysis that is the warrant of seriousness, The Red Shoes has continued to be neglected, in the main, as an object of critical concern. The Red Shoes has suffered for its glamour and for its apparently simplistic, reductive tale of the beautiful ballerina torn between art and love. Yet it has been frequently revived and continues to exert its allure.
One of the primary keys to the persistent audience appeal of The Red Shoes is precisely the persistence (and the complexity) with which the film depicts audience appeal. From the opening sequence— the rush for seats to an evening of ballet at Covent Garden, the detailed reactions of the music students, the balletomanes, the aspiring ballerina, the snobbish impresario—to the climax—a performance of the ballet The Red Shoes in which the dead ballerina is represented by a spotlight, the film dramatizes a variety of responses to art, of connections to the performance of art. We find the range of our own experience as spectators echoed on the screen by the actors who play an array of dancers, musicians, and other creative members of a ballet troupe. Caught in the shifting points of view, we are given access to the expertise and the knowledge of those "inside" the world of ballet. The fervour of spectatorship, manifested by all the principal characters, is summed up in the obsessive gaze of the impresario, for whom art is a matter of life and death, a level of vision the film challenges us to meet. As we watch the ballet of The Red Shoes, staged with the illusionistic freedom afforded only by techniques of cinema, we are reminded of our privileged point-of-view as moviegoers.
We also come to believe the phrase reiterated throughout the course of the film: "The music is all that matters. Nothing but the music." It is music that goes beyond the banalities of plot and character, that liberates the film from its dramatic conventions. It is music as wordless, storyless sensation that finds its analogy is the film's memorable images—the redhead in the long green dress climbing on interminable staircase on a hillside in the south of France, her precipitous descent down other staircases just before leaping to her death, the repeated gestures of the ballet in rehearsal and performance, the images of eyes watching in ecstatic concentration. These hyperboles of gesture and attitude, sometimes condemned, are the best proof of its success in finding a place in the sound film for the close affinities of the mimetic discourses of ballet and of silent cinema.