Monday, December 11, 2017

The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes (1948)

(Written and directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook and Marius Goring. Winner, 1949 Academy Awards for Best Original Score & Best Art Direction. Not to be confused with the Red Shoe Diaries, the less said about the better.)

Backstage Drama

Based on a Hans Christian Anderson tale about a girl who dances herself to death after slipping into a pair of red shoes, The Red Shoes is a backstage ballet drama, not that you have to be a fan of toe dancing. It recalls a couple of American classics of the 1930s: Stage Door and What Price Hollywood?

It's Ginger Roger's character from Stage Door that sounds a warning all the more poignant in that it proved true in her real life: "At least she'll have a couple of kids to keep her company in her old age. And what'll we have? Some broken-down memories and an old scrapbook which nobody'll look at."

You'll be lucky to have that once you put those red shoes on.

What these movies have in common is the hard choices made by performers. In a broader sense, they are about placing anything ahead of the life God intended for us. If the lives of computer programmers filmed as well as backstage dramas, the same point might be made, so don't think you're off the hook because you don't have an audience.

Technicolor Pygmalion Dream

Vicky can't resist the red shoes.
Technicolor was a demanding and expensive method whose fullest expression enjoyed a relatively short life. The Criterion Collection's restored print is gorgeous (streaming via Filmstruck). From Moira Shearer's glorious red hair to the titular red shoes themselves, the colors are saturated in a way you just don't see anymore. There were many famous Technicolor features (The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind) but The Red Shoes is the definitive example.

The story, like all good morality plays, is simple. Moira Shearer plays Vicky Page, a talented young ballerina noticed by impresario Boris Lermantov, who develops a Pygmalion complex toward the talented beauty. German actor Anton Walbrook brings a self-possessed continental chic to Lermontov that makes his every scene a gem. Beneath the pleasant and assured exterior, though, is a demon of his art.

He does not demand much from Vicky: just that she denies herself the comfort of human companionship and everything else normal people call "life"  in return for becoming a great dancer.

The brilliant young composer Julian Craster (played by Marius Goring) wrote her star vehicle - a ballet called "The Red Shoes," which he conducts. He challenges Lermontov for Vicky when the young couple fall in love. Vicky gives up her career, Craster pursues his to the neglect of his new wife, and Lermontov bides his time.

And seethes behind his continental chic.

An Entertaining, if Trippy Ballet

To show how much Bears know about ballet, the only thing this one can say is that ballerinas were not made of boiled leather and whipcord  in 1948. Moira Shearer does all the stuff you expect from a gal in a tutu at a weight class above Ginger Rogers.

Much of "The Red Shoes" ballet is performed during the movie. Forget Swan Lake - or Black Swan. It has the look of a musical, with ballerinas in period costume en pointe. The Bear isn't much for ballet, but he enjoyed this ballet-within-the-movie very much.

During her dance, however, some odd elements start to be introduced, and before long we are in Vicky's Technicolor hallucinatory experience of her performance. Pretty trippy for 1948 and it reaches beyond the technical capabilities of its time, but is still compelling and psychologically revealing.

The ballet ends with her death from exhaustion. The red shoes are removed -  to claim their next victim, we presume.

What Are Your Red Shoes?

The patience of Lermontov pays off, and Vicky returns to once more put on the red shoes. It is the very night of her (neglectful) husband's debut of his opera. The ending is probably not too hard to figure out, but the Bear won't spoil it for you, since he hopes you'll watch this lush Technicolor beauty that is not as well-remembered by the culture at large as it deserves. It is a wonderful movie for those "something different" moods and a nice "movie date night" choice.

Whether we're driven by crass ambition or a more noble sounding quest for artistic perfection, the engine is the same: pride. The Red Shoes is a simple tale beautifully filmed about the consequences of a disordered life. A life devoted to art can be every bit as disordered and destructive as one devoted to alcohol or sex.

Worse, because you seldom receive applause for those.

This movie invites the viewer to ask the question: what are my red shoes?


  1. I saw the movie, or most of it, 15+ years ago. I thought it very good. The choreographer and one of the lead actors was a young Robert Helpmann who most know as the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

  2. Hmm... your post makes me want to see this movie. I'll have to keep an eye out for it on TCM. Although, TCM has started to replay the heck out of some of the same titles...

    1. I could only find TCM streaming through Sling, which is unwatchable due to buffering. Filmstruck is, among other things, the exclusive streaming source for the Criterion Collection. It's a must for film buffs.

      I can only imagine how often "It's a Wonderful Life" is begin crammed down people's throats now. The rights lapsed on it, which is why television played it to death. I think that got sorted out later, though.

    2. I checked TCM and they're showing it next month on a saturday morning! They even had an email reminder setting to let me know when it will be on. Who sez that technology is ALL bad! Thanks!

    3. Pretty coincidental. You are obviously destined to see The Red Shoes. Bear hopes you enjoy it. Anton Walbrook almost steals the show. He's like a Teutonic uptight version of Marcello Mastroianni in terms of chic and watchability; but you're not going to get an Italian shrug out of him. And it is well known that the Bears are attracted to bright colors like, oh, red haired ladies and, um, fire engines.

  3. This was a good film as I recall. There is simply no contemporary replacement for these classic films. And who wants to live in 2017 when for an hour and a half you can live in a better time. TCM is excellent, if it doesn't shoot itself in the foot by getting too leftist and political, which is apparently almost impossible these days.


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