1. It’s a spectacular rejection of realism
The Red Shoes (1948) followed a tremendous run of films by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Between 1943 and 1947, they made The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, “I Know Where I’m Going!”, A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus. For their next trick, they took a decisive step away from the tendency towards realism in postwar cinema, pushing the emotional expressiveness of Technicolor photography yet further, in collaboration with genius cinematographer Jack Cardiff.
Pressburger had originally worked on the idea for the film before the war. Producer Alexander Korda had hired him to write a script that combined the story of the dancer Nijinsky, and his time at Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, with the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale about enchanted shoes that force the wearer to dance on and on until death. He’d also instructed Pressburger to write a role for Merle Oberon, but as that passion cooled, so did the producer’s interest in the film.
Powell and Pressburger returned to the idea in 1946, convinced its time had come: “We had all been told for 10 years to go out and die for freedom and democracy,” Powell recalled. “Now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.”
The gamble paid off eventually. While the initial release in Britain was very small, as the Rank Organisation resented the fact that it had gone wildly over budget, The Red Shoes played for two years in New York – and was soon acclaimed a triumph.
2. It’s a dance film made by dancers
While some ballet films use stand-ins and cutaways to make it appear that their actors have the right moves, Powell and Pressburger cast dancers instead. Moira Shearer, who plays the heroine, rising star Vicky Page, was a featured dancer at Sadler’s Wells. French prima ballerina Ludmilla Tchérina played one here too – the glamorous Boronskaya. Léonid Massine, former choreographer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, played Grischa Ljubow, who so brutally coaches Page; while Robert Helpmann played the lead male dancer in the company, Ivan Boleslawsky, and also choreographed the astonishing extended ballet sequence.
Shearer proved an elegant and natural actress on camera – easily able to hold her own with co-stars Anton Walbrook as impresario Lermontov and Marius Goring as young composer Julian Craster. As for the other dancers, if their performances at times veer toward the high-key gestural style of ballet mime, then that all adds to the film’s heady, hyper-real excitement.
3. It’s inspired by one star… and created another
The film’s scenario is said to have been inspired by the moment when Diaghilev saw 14-year-old Diana Gould in the premiere of Frederick Ashton’s ballet Leda and the Swan. He intended to hire her for his own company but died before that could happen. Anna Pavlova was similarly impressed by Gould, saying she was the only English dancer “who had a soul”, but she too died before they could work together.
One of Lermontov and Vicky’s early exchanges sets up both the film’s morbid obsession and its central question: what is life without art? Lermontov asks Vicky: “Why do you want to dance?” Her ingenuous reply is: “Why do you want to live?”
In truth, there was probably more than a little of the Lermontov about director Michael Powell. His film made a star out of Shearer, as much as Lermontov’s ballet launches Vicky to fame. Shearer retired from ballet in 1953, but continued to act, becoming such a popular household name that her wedding to Ludovic Kennedy in 1950 was thronged by wellwishers – and she danced twice more for Powell, in 1951’s The Tales of Hoffman and in 1960’s Peeping Tom.
4. It’s about the agony of artistic expression
Lermontov chides Vicky: “Don’t forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit.” Few films reveal, either as cruelly or as eloquently as this one, the sacrifices that artists make. We see more bruising rehearsals than standing ovations, and yet, the Ballet Lermontov dances on.
Page’s final, anguished choice between love and art only makes tangible the decision that Lermontov clearly made long ago. Walbrook, who plays him so brilliantly, was gay, as was Diaghilev. Lermontov knows nothing of Page’s “charms” and cares less, he says; his “family” is his company, and he asserts that: “The dancer who relies on the comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never!”
As certain critics have noted, there is a striking gay subtext to The Red Shoes, but it is a tragic one – Lermontov is a lonely figure whose obsessive nature demonstrates the danger of living for art rather than love.
5. From Scorsese to La La Land, its influence lives on
The Red Shoes is one of the most widely influential movies of all time. Regularly hailed as a favourite in critics’ polls and by directors including Martin Scorsese (“It’s one of the true miracles of film history”), Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma, it has also been reworked by artists outside the cinema. Kate Bush’s 1993 album The Red Shoes was inspired by the film, for example. Coming full circle, Matthew Bourne choreographed the film as a ballet at Sadler’s Wells in 2017.
The film also has an afterlife in the classic Hollywood musical. Gene Kelly screened the film multiple times for the producers of An American in Paris (1951), as he persuaded them to let him include a ballet sequence in the film. He did, and in the following year’s Singin’ in the Rain too. The popularity of the ballet sequence as a genre trope was underlined when Damien Chazelle included one in his pastiche La La Land (2016).
There are several, pointed, references to the film in a very different musical, the 1985 Broadway adaptation A Chorus Line. That’s not a direct cinematic influence but rather a testament to the film’s impact on generations of girls. The book for that musical was based on interviews with New York dancers, several of whom confided that The Red Shoes inspired their choice of career.
In a 1970 interview with the New York Times, Shearer expressed a little self-deprecating regret on this score: “I’m a bit embarrassed whenever I hear how many girls were influenced by it. The dancing in it wasn’t terribly good.”
The Red Shoes is back in cinemas from 8 December 2023.
Pamela Hutchinson’s book on The Red Shoes in the BFI Film Classics series is available now.
Stream landmark cinema
Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.Try for free
Originally published: 6 September 2018