Red Shoes, The (1948): Powell and Pressburger’s Masterpiece, Best Ballet Film Ever Made

A masterpiece from first frame to last, The Red Shoes is the most visually brilliant and most emotionally engaging ballet film ever made.

(Don’t even mention “The Turning Point” or “Black Swan”).

The film offers a feast to the eyes and the ears due to the glorious dancing, powerful music, striking cinematography, and lavish stage design.

Promotional flyer for the film

The great thing about “The Red Shoes” is that you don’t have to be a dance lover to enjoy the melodramatic story or admire the production values, which deservedly won the 1948 Oscars.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Based on a story by Emeric Pressburger, who co-directed with reliable partner Michael Powell, Red Shoes tells a bitter-sweet backstage story. After the successful staging of a new ballet, impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) admits two new members into his prestigious troupe: Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), a young, promising ballerina, and Julian Craster (Marius Goring), a talented composer.

Goring does a good orchestral arrangement and Lermontov asks him to collaborate on a new ballet, “The Red Shoes,” designed for Victoria. Based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fable, the ballet (also named “Red Shoes”) concerns a pair of magical shoes that allow the person who wears them to dance gloriously, but can’t prevent the dancer from ever stopping.

The ballet, a 17-minute sequence that’s nothing short of brilliant, brings acclaim to all the artists involved, particularly to Julian and Victoria, who are very much in love.

Narrative Structure

The first scene is set a performance by the Ballet Lermontov at the Covent Garden Opera House, where music student Julian is eager to hear the ballet score Heart of Fire, composed by his teacher, Professor Palmer.

Separately present is Victoria ‘Vicky’ Page, a young, unknown dancer from an aristocratic background, with her aunt, Lady Neston.

As Heart of Fire progresses, Julian recognizes the music as one of his own compositions. During the performance, Professor Palmer receives an invitation to an after-ballet party at Lady Neston’s residence, also asking Boris Lermontov, the company impresario to attend. Julian leaves the performance in disillusionment at his professor’s plagiarism of his music. Lermontov and Vicki meet, and he invites her to a rehearsal of the company.

Julian has written to Lermontov to explain the circumstances behind Heart of Fire, but then tries to retrieve the letter. Lermontov’s assistant Dimitri thwarts all attempts by Julian to gain entry to Lermontov’s suite, but finally Lermontov gives Julian an audience. Julian says that he wishes to retrieve his letter before Lermontov has seen it, except that Lermontov has already read the letter.

Lermontov asks Julian to play one of his own works at the piano. After hearing Julian play, he hires him for the company orchestra and assistant to the company’s conductor, Livingstone Montague (‘Livy’). Lermontov realizes that Julian was the true composer of Heart of Fire.

Julian and Vicky arrive for work at the Ballet Lermontov on the same day. Later, Vicky dances with Ballet Rambert in a matinee performance of Swan Lake at the Mercury Theatre, Notting Hill Gate, in a production with a company led by Marie Rambert (who appears in the film as herself in a cameo).

Watching this performance, Lermontov realizes her potential and invites Vicky to go with Ballet Lermontov to Paris and Monte Carlo. He decides to create a starring role for her in a new ballet, “The Red Shoes,” for which Julian is to provide the music.

The Ballet of the Red Shoes is a resounding success and Lermontov revitalizes the company’s repertoire with Vicky in the lead roles and Julian tasked with composing new scores.

Meanwhile, Vicky and Julian have fallen in love, but they keep their relationship secret from Lermontov. As Lermontov begins to have personal feelings toward Vicky, he resents the romance between her and Julian after learning of it.

The impresario fires Julian, and Vicky leaves the company with him. They marry and live in London, where Julian works on composing a new opera.

 

The last reel, one of the most emotionally effective ever filmed, results in a tragedy, the kind of which will linger in memory long after you watch the movie.

Spoiler Alert

Vicky receives a visit from Lermontov, who convinces her to return to the company to dance a revival of “The Ballet of the Red Shoes.” On opening night, Julian leaves the première of his opera at Covent Garden and heads to Vicky’s dressing room, intending to take her back. When Lermontov arrives, he and Julian contend for Vicky’s affections, each arguing that her true destiny is with him. Torn between her love for Julian and her need to dance, she eventually chooses her calling.

Julian, realizing that he has lost her, leaves for the railway station.  Lermontov consoles Vicky and tries to turn her attention to the evening’s performance. Vicky is escorted to the stage wearing the red shoes and, under their influence, turns and runs from the theatre. Julian, on the platform of the railway station, runs towards her. Vicky leaps from the balcony and falls in front of an approaching train, which hits her. Shortly after, a shaken Lermontov announces to the audience, “Miss Page is unable to dance tonight–nor indeed on any other night.”

To honor her work and spirit, the company performs “The Ballet of the Red Shoes,” with a spotlight focused on the empty space where Vicky would have been.

In the last scene, as Vicky bleeds to death on a stretcher, she asks Julian, ‘take off the red shoes, which he does, just as at the end of the ballet.

End of Spoiler Alert

You may have seen other backstage films set in the art world, but The Red Shoes is one of a kind, a movie with such meticulous attention to detail that it makes you treasure every minute of it, perhaps even restore your faith in the power and imagery of art.

Though unfolding as a romantic melodrama, The Red Shoes tells a darkly haunting, uncompromising story.  The movie shows the obsession and commitment that go into one’s creative work, be it writing, music, choreography, or dance performance.  Lermontov expresses the controversial notion that one can’t be an accomplished artist and at the same time have a fulfilling personal life.

The parallels between the ballet’s story and Victoria’s own life offstage grow stronger and more haunting as the film goes along.

Turbulent Production

Originally, Pressburger’s story was commissioned by producer Alexander Korda for his wife-star Merle Oberon (Oscar nominated for “Wuthering Heights” in 1939). Problem was, Oberon could not dance and Pressburger did not think she was right for the part.  Pressburger then bought the story back and decided to co-direct it with his partner Michael Powell, featuring Moira Shearer, a professional dancer who could also act, in the lead.  At the time, the red-haired Shearer (who looks a bit like a younger version of Greer Garson) was a ballerina at Sadler’s Wells.

In the film, she is joined by such skillful dancers as Massine, Tcherina, and Helpmann (who also worked on the choreography).

It’s hard not to notice the technical–almost fetishistic–aspects of the production, with physical objects, such as the piano and ballet shoes–getting unprecedented attention.  The red shoes get as many close ups as Vicky’s  face, and at time, it feels as if the red shoes are looking at us.  This red pair also feature prominently in the opening and closing credits.

Ideological Interpretation–Then and Now

No film has illustrated so vividly–and so tragically–the inevitable performers’ conflict between art and personal life.  For director Powell, the film’s message was clearly “about dying for art,” and that “art is worth dying for.”  However, Victoria’s final leap to her death is more ambiguous than that, and thus open to alternate interpretations.  Her choice of death may support Powell’s notion, but it may also suggest a sensitive and frail woman who’s torn between two ruthless men, who wish to possess her and control her (each in his own extreme way), without ever considering a more sensitive, if also compromising strategy.

There’s more ambiguity: was Victoria’s leap in front of the approaching train a conscious suicide or a murder, and was the real murderer Lermontov or the Red Shoes (as in the fable).

Commercial Appeal

Upon its initial release in the UK in September 1948, the film was not a major success. The Rank Organization did not spend much on promotion due to financial flop of Caesar and Cleopatra.  But despite lack of advertising, the film went on to become the sixth most popular film at the British box office in 1948.

Distributed by Eagle-Lion Films, the film premiered in the U.S. at New York City’s Bijou Theatre on October 21, 1948. By the end of the year, it had earned $2.2 million rentals. The success of this run convinced Universal to take over the distribution in 1951. The Red Shoes went on to become one of the highest-earning British films of all time, with a record-breaking gross of over $5 million.

Oscar Nomination: 5

Picture, produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Motion Picture Story: Emeric Pressburger

Film Editing: Reginald Mills

Art Direction-Set Decoration (color): Hein Heckbroth; Arthur Lawson

Scoring (Dramatic or Comedy): Brian Easdale

Oscar Awards: 2

Art Direction-Set Decoration

Scoring

Oscar Context:

The winner of the best Picture Oscar was “Hamlet,” directed by and starring Olivier.  The Motion Picture Story award went to “The Search,” and the Film Editing to “The Naked City.”

Cast

Moira Shearer as Victoria Page
Marius Goring as Julian Craster
Anton Walbrook as Boris Lermontov
Léonide Massine as Grischa Ljubov
Robert Helpmann as Ivan Boleslawsky
Albert Bassermann as Sergei Ratov
Ludmilla Tchérina as Irina Boronskaya
Esmond Knight as Livingstone ‘Livy’ Montague
Austin Trevor as Professor Palmer
Jean Short as Terry
Gordon Littman as Ike
Eric Berry as Dimitri
Irene Browne as Lady Neston
Jerry Verno as Stage Door Keeper
Yvonne Andre as Vicky’s Dresser

Credits

Running time: 133 minutes

Produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Motion Picture Story: Emeric Pressburger

Screenplay: Powell, Pressburger, and Keith Winter

Cinematography: Jack Cardiff

Film Editing: Reginald Mills

Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color): Hein Heckbroth; Arthur Lawson

Scoring (Dramatic or Comedy): Brian Easdale

Choreography: Robert Helpmann

Costumes: Hein Heckroth