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The Red Shoes (May 5, 2011)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made The Red Shoes from June to November, 1947, and it was released in Britain in September, 1948 and in the United States in October, 1948. Britain’s post-war austerity, including rationing and currency controls, was more severe than the regime that was in place during the war, and this extravagant film, in Technicolor with music and ballet, was in sharp contrast to everyone’s everyday life in that country at that time. J. Arthur Rank, who produced the movie, feared it wouldn’t make back its budget (552,000 pounds, the equivalent of $2.2 million in 1947 dollars), but in time, and with the enthusiasm that the film was greeted with by dancers, ballet-lovers and others in America and elsewhere, the movie made a lot of money.

The script was written by Pressburger from the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale and directed by Powell and Pressburger. Powell had grown up on the Riviera, where his father ran a hotel, and had often seen the Russian ballet impresario, Diaghilev, who had based his Ballets Russes there. The cinematography is again by Jack Cardiff, who had worked with them in Black Narcissus. The choreography is by Robert Helpmann, who was principal dancer at Sadler’s Wells Ballet in London at that time, and who also plays the dancer Boleslawsky. We’ll see him again in Henry V, our next film. The seventeen-minute ballet in the middle of the picture, paralleling the story of the movie itself, was a new departure in film, and one that would be imitated later, most notably in Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris, which we will see later in this series.

Bosley Crowther, in the New York Times in 1948, said, “The. . .staging of this ballet, conceived in cinematic terms, is a thrilling blend of movement, color, music, and imagery. For it quickly evolves from the confines of the limited settings of the stage into sudden and fanciful regions conceived in the dancer’s mind.” Roger Ebert has written that the movie had two stories, and that there was tension between them. “One story could be a Hollywood musical,” he wrote, “A young ballerina falls in love with the composer of the ballet that makes her an overnight star. . .The other story is darker and more guarded. It involves the impresario who runs the ballet company, who demands loyalty and obedience. . .The motives of the ballerina and her lover are transparent. But the impresario defies analysis. In his dark eyes we read a fierce resentment. No, it is not jealousy, at least not romantic jealousy. Nothing as simple as that.”

I’ll let the director, Michael Powell, have the last word. He wrote of the star, 21-year old dancer, Moira Shearer, “Her cloud of red hair, as natural and beautiful as any animal’s, flamed and glittered like an autumn bonfire. . She had a magnificent body. She wasn’t slim, she just didn’t have one ounce of superfluous flesh.” He told J. Arthur Rank, the producer, “I never knew what a natural was before. But now I do. It’s Moira Shearer.”