The Red Shoes (1948). 133 minutes. Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Starring Moira Shearer (as Vicky 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 Montague), and Austin Trevor (as Profesor Palmer).
The Red Shoes has been praised over the years by film titans such as Martin Scorsese and Gene Kelly for its striking images and dramatic ballet centerpiece. Scorsese has in particular touted its exquisite use of color, and Kelly used its lengthy and accomplished central dance sequence to convince executives that the extensive ballet at the end of An American in Paris (1951) would work. The movie’s art-minded directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (who together were known in the industry as The Archers) have long been recognized for their visually distinguished productions, and The Red Shoes was only one movie in a string of creative triumphs directed by the pair in the 1940s. However, some critics have found fault with Pressburger and Powell’s plots; writer George Perry has said that “Archers films looked better than they were”—in other words, that The Archers’ stories were weaker than their visuals. This, it must be admitted, is partly true. But in the case of The Red Shoes, the movie’s unique overall look enhances its plot, with the result that what seems weak in the story is nevertheless evocative and moving on the screen. The movie is a fascinating study in how strong visuals can transform a story and enable its success.
In the movie’s opening scenes, we are introduced to the esteemed Lermontov Ballet and its director, Boris Lermontov. In London, Boris hires the ambitious young composer Julian Craster to direct the company’s orchestra. Meanwhile, ballerina Vicky Page lands a position as a Lermontov dancer and makes a splash at her debut performance. Boris believes she has the potential to be a great artist. The company travels to Monte Carlo, where Boris has Julian first rework and then completely rewrite the score to a company property, a ballet entitled “The Red Shoes,” to which he assigns Vicky the principal dance role. “The Red Shoes” tells the story of a young woman who acquires a pair of red ballet slippers from a sinister shoemaker: the slippers have a mind of their own and compel her to dance in them until she is dead.
The ballet is a great success, and soon Julian and Vicky are involved in a romantic relationship. Boris is jealous and begins punishing Julian, who quits and takes Vicky with him; the two are soon married. A few months later Vicky, who still has dreams of becoming a great dancer, makes her way back to the Lermontov Ballet in Monte Carlo and arranges to reprise her role in “The Red Shoes” on the night of the debut of Julian’s first opera in London. Julian abandons his performance to come to Monte Carlo and confront her. She is torn between Boris and his promises to make her a great dancer and Julian with whom she is in love. Distraught and wearing the red shoes she will dance in that night, she seems to grow possessed and dances her way out of the theater, off of a balcony, and into the path of a running train. The ballet offers its performance that night with a spotlight in Vicky’s place.
The Red Shoes resides at the start of a Golden Age tradition of including color film ballets in lavish musical productions. It would be joined most prominently only a few years later by ballets in the aforementioned An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), another Gene Kelly musical. In An American in Paris, the ballet is the protagonist’s personal fantasy; in Singin’ in the Rain, it is a part of the movie within a movie that the protagonist labors to create. While all three movies commonly use their ballets to narrate a story, the theatrical ballet in The Red Shoes actually has more in common with a Busby Berkeley musical such as Dames (1934), whose climactic Broadway finale similarly seeks to stretch beyond the confines of its theater and expand into the realm of the fantastic. The Red Shoes and Berkeley musicals share specific qualities: scene changes that would be impossible to render so quickly and fluidly on a real stage, effects that could not be used in live theater in 1948 (the double appearance of the red shoes dancer in one shot), and instantaneous costume changes. Making use of these elements, the “Red Shoes” ballet becomes not a realistic ballet but a ballet of dreams, with little fealty to the confines of a traditional ballet theater.
What emerges as a ballet of dreams underscores the extent to which we are watching, in terms of visuals, a movie of dreams, and part of what makes it so heavenly is its fabulous use of color. The film, made in a time when color productions were not the norm, relies on three-strip Technicolor technology to achieve its vivid palette. The carefully costumed ballet looks especially vibrant, but even banal details such as hair color also stand out on screen. For example, dancer Moira Shearer and actor Marius Goring (who play Vicky and Julian, respectively) wear red hair, and its look is warm and electric, almost indescribable. Color is communicative in The Red Shoes, whether it takes the form the blue-grey evening gown that Vicky regally wears to learn of her impending stardom at a meeting with Boris at a Monte Carlo villa; or the cacophony of color in the ballet’s carnival sequence that conveys chaos, stimulation, and temptation; or the film’s central image—the bright red shoes that lead to danger and death in the ballet performance and then later in Vicky’s real life. If you have never seen a movie in which color actually helps to tell the story, you are in for a real treat; The Red Shoes embraces color technology in a way that few other films have.
The Red Shoes makes keen use of the language of color, but it also makes use of the language of fairy tales. The ballet is based on a dark Hans Christian Anderson story in which a young woman, full of enthusiasm and desire, purchases a pair of red shoes that cause her to dance endlessly. Anderson’s narrative is reminiscent of some of the stories collected in Germany by the Grimm brothers. In particular, it reminds me of the story of Snow White, which culminates in the death of the evil queen at Snow White’s wedding (the queen is forced to dance while wearing red-hot iron shoes until she falls down dead). This ghoulish tale refigures joyous wedding dancing in terms of torture and death, and Anderson’s “Red Shoes” similarly takes the delightful and renders it in unsettling and ominous terms. Both stories work to punish their characters—the witch for her murderous cruelty, and the red shoes dancer for her curiosity and desire at the shoemaker’s shop—but it is less obvious what the red shoes dancer has done wrong. The movie ballet conveys the powerful sense of greater sinister forces at work in the world and the transformation of everyday longing into something that can undo us.
That being said, some of the more frightening qualities of Anderson’s story are lost in the movie ballet. This is simply because we are used to seeing dancers constantly dancing on stage, so seeing the girl with the red shoes dance at length at the behest of the shoes does not result in different activity for the dancer. As it is, the many landscapes that she passes through as the slippers carry her across multiple terrains and through the mountains more effectively convey the torture of the shoes than the dance performance itself. To admit that is to give more power to the scenery than to the dancing, but it is fair to say that throughout The Red Shoes, scenery is always at least as important as the actions of the actors’ and dancers’ bodies.
Whether Vicky is truly possessed by the shoes at the end is unclear, but it does not seem necessary for her to be overwhelmed by a supernatural force in order for the conclusion to make sense. We can see how she could be moved rationally to make her life parallel with the red shoes girl’s; they have a great deal in common. Part of what makes The Red Shoes so sublime is that we learn a great deal about the characters by watching the central ballet that speaks metaphorically to the turmoil in their private lives. The ballet of the shoes invokes all of Vicky’s central problems: the problem of desire (for her, the competing desire to be involved with Julian and to be Boris’s protegé) and the problem of an art practice and an ambition that become a runaway preoccupation. Just as in real life she wavers between Julian and Boris, in the ballet we see a boyfriend character who offers her companionship and a shoemaker character who offers her the dream of dance. In other words, while the ballet may be fantastic, it is not escapist—at least, not for Vicky. Director Emeric Pressburger once explained in a creative manifesto, “No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.” In both performance and in death, Vicky engages with truth that is cloaked in fancy, but for her, whether she is on or off stage, it still resonates as truth, not as a distraction.
Fundamentally, from a dramatic perspective, the best thing about The Red Shoes is the way that the three principal actors infuse their characters with creative ardor. Vicky, Julian, and Boris are filled with ambition and desire, all three are devoted to their arts, all three are subject to the universal sadness of aesthetic endeavors, and we watch as they practice, perform, and meditate while they engage in creative work. The Red Shoes binds this study of creative passion with a story about romantic passion. For this reason, this movie reminds me of other movies about fine art that offer tragic love stories, such as the less-accomplished Deception (1946), in which Claude Rains plays a cruel musical genius who tortures poor Bette Davis as she tries to advance the career of her cellist lover Paul Henreid. Another Claude Rains film, The Phantom of the Opera (1943), makes an esteemed nineteenth-century opera house seem like the place to go for obsession, scandal, and lurid drama. In these movies, what might seem like a traditional art form, stiff and leaden, becomes soap opera-like, tempestuous, and fascinating in both professional and personal terms.
Compared to The Red Shoes, later movies such as Black Swan (2010) would offer a more nightmarish rendition of this subject matter. The Red Shoes may seem softer and is certainly less gritty, but the fact that the 1948 movie revels in visual allure does not diminish its depiction of ambition and artistic anguish. Its beauty is a feast for the eyes, but it also has the power to haunt us. The Red Shoes is not easily forgotten.