Thursday, May 26, 2011

1948 - The Red Shoes

My bruised rib and I are back in New York City once more. While it continues to heal, I have already started rehearsing for another show - another fast-paced, energetic production rife with rib-bruising opportunities. Performing as part of the NY Comic Book Theater Festival, Batz follows a bunch of nerdy office workers as they pay homage to the Dark Knight by re-enacting classic Batman comics using only office supplies for props and costumes.

After a short hiatus, I continued yesterday with my review of 1948's nominees for Best Picture by watching...

The Red Shoes
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger and Keith Winter
(based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson)
Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, Anton Walbrook, Leonide Massine, Robert Helpmann, Albert Bassermann, Esmond Knight, Ludmilla Tcherina
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
2 wins, for Best Art Direction and Best Original Score

Before Black Swan grabbed the tragic ballerina mantle, there was The Red Shoes. This much-revered classic of British cinema centres on the Ballet Lermontov, a touring company headed by perfectionist taskmaster Boris Lermontov (Walbrook). New to the company are Vicky Page (Shearer), an up-and-coming ballerina with an innate love of dance, and Julian Craster (Goring), a budding young composer hired as the orchestral coach. Soon, Julian is entrusted with composing the score for a new ballet based on the tragic story The Red Shoes, which will see Vicky dance the leading role. When Vicky and Julian fall in love, Boris is furiously opposed to the affair, believing romance to be a fatal distraction for any artist.

With its spectacular design and cinematography, The Red Shoes is visually stunning. The vibrant colours are particularly striking for a film of this vintage. As a film about ballet, it unsurprisingly also features a great deal of delightful music and dancing, including an elongated sequence that presents an actual staged ballet, which brings us to the subject that will occupy the majority of this review.

Now, I'm by no means a ballet fan, but it's hard to deny that the presentation of The Red Shoes as a ballet is simply exquisite. Extravagant and innovative, it utilises creative special effects along with accomplished choreography to produce a truly magical experience. Gratuitous, but magical nonetheless. Undoubtedly, this picture paved the way for the final dance sequence in An American In Paris three years later, a similarly spectacular yet gratuitous display.

The problem, if you can even call it a problem, is mostly due to the way in which this sequence oddly disassociates itself with reality. As visually pleasing as the cinematic effects are, they push the film into surreal territory by presenting instantaneous costume changes on stage and stunning visions of beach scenes superimposed over the audience. On their own, these events add to the magic of the sequence, but in the context of a live staged performance, they are a little confusing. Yet, we don't appear to be in the world of The Red Shoes, either, since Vicky experiences hallucinatory visions during the performance of Craster and Boris, who are clearly not characters within the narrative of the fairy tale. So, are we in the world of the fairy tale or the world of the Ballet Lermontov? The answer seems to be "neither".

Once the ballet sequence has concluded, the story kicks into gear becoming especially engaging. The stakes are high and the characters are forced to make gravely important decisions about art and love. Particularly compelling is Boris' internal struggle. His passion for Vicky and her potential is most probably merely that of a mentor, but it could perhaps also be interpreted as unrequited love. No doubt, my fascination with this character was influenced by Anton Walbrook's passionate and nuanced performance. While Moira Shearer (pictured) is sweet and delectable as the prima ballerina, for me, it is Walbrook that steals the film.

I am left in two minds about The Red Shoes. I genuinely enjoyed both the magical ballet sequence and the intriguing narrative. Considered separately, they are equally engrossing, yet somehow, they don't quite fit together perfectly.

(For an interesting perspective on the similarities between The Red Shoes and Black Swan - apart from the similar publicity shots - check out Andrew O'Rourke's article on The Playground.)


  1. This is Mike Kelly posting. I downloaded IE 9 this morning and have nothing but problems ever since. I can't seem to post under my name, so I'm anonymous.

    I'm glad The Red Shoes received a Best Picture nomination for several reasons, not the least being it allows commenting on the remarkable team of The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Their films, particularly during the 1940s were quite astonishing from story to visualization. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I'm Going, A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus join The Red Shoes as must see movies.

    The Red Shoes is groundbreaking cinema and plays to The Archers strengths. I read the article you linked and found it quite informative, particularly relating to the cinematography advances. Considering how long ago The Red Shoes was made, its look is still breathtaking. My biggest bone of contention with The Black Swan was that there was such of lack of the joy of dance in it. The Red Shoes however seemed to exude the love of ballet. It is interesting to note the differences in body shape of the female dancers. They are much more toned today, but I kind of like the roundness of those of the forties.

    I too felt that Anton Walbrook gave the standout performance. You may be happy to know that Danny Peary in his Alternate Oscar book gave his Oscar also to Walbrook, over his other nominees which included Laurence Olivier, Humphrey Bogart, Montgomery Clift, James Stewart, John Wayne, Clifton Webb and John Garfield.

    I wish I still had the movie to re-watch the Red Shoes Ballet sequence. I was captivated by its imagination, but didn't notice how it contrasted with the reality of the rest of the story. While this film didn't borrow much from noir, it still didn't escape from the melodramatic style of the time. Another strong contender for top honors for 1948.

  2. If Internet Explorer gets in your way, there's always Google Chrome. Hopefully, this test should work.

    To keep this post on target, I'll mention that another book I have by Danny Peary (Alternate Oscars) is Cult Movies. One of his selections is The Red Shoes, and in his review, you have support to your theory on the reality/fantasy disconnect with The Red Shoes Ballet. Peary says: "My main objection is not that the "Red Shoes" sequence is poorly done-it is a visual delight-but that it does not fit. Remember: this ballet was staged by Boris-not by Powell and Pressburger....Boris, the ultimate ballet purist who says "Ballet is a religion" and that he won't tolerate ballet being performed in the wrong atmosphere. If Boris would lower himself to allowing someone to film the ballet he conceived, he would insist on a stationary camera, and no special effects! As for the music, he would certainly object to the jazzy interludes."

    Peary also was disappointed at the tragic ending, and as a fairy tale, grim as it was, it should have had an uplifting ending.

    Regardless, The British Film Institute has it listed as the ninth greatest British film.

  3. Chrome all the way :-)

    Yep, Peary pretty much sums up how I feel. The ballet is an excellent cinematic interpretation, perfect for its medium. It's just not appropriate for the narrative. Still enjoyable - you just have to turn your story-brain off while it's happening.