Before The Red Shoes, there were films with dance numbers. After it, there was a new medium which combined dance, design, and music in a dreamlike spectacle. Hollywood musicals were quick to pay tribute—An American in Paris was the most obviously inspired—and filmmakers from Minnelli to Scorsese have acknowledged its influence. Like Diaghilev’s legendary “Rite of Spring,” it marked a triumph of artistic collaboration and has since become a benchmark of modernity.
And yet The Red Shoes was considered a disaster by its backers in 1948. The long ballet sequence which Powell and Pressburger considered their finest achievement seemed sheer indulgence to executives of The Rank Organisation. The film had gone over budget and seemed to have no commercial potential. It was given a perfunctory release in Britain, and its international fame only began after an astonishing two-year unbroken run in New York.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who called their unique creative partnership The Archers, were no strangers to controversy. Each film they made together in the five years before The Red Shoes had aimed its barb at complacency and tackled a new creative challenge. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) cheekily mocked the British establishment in the midst of war, while revealing a subtle new Technicolor palette; A Matter of Life and Death (1946) played outrageous tricks with time and brought their experiments with color even further; and Black Narcissus (1947) finally demonstrated a mastery of studio techniques to create a dreamlike suspension of disbelief.
Looking for a new challenge amid the gloom of postwar Britain, The Archers turned to an idea that Pressburger had first drafted in the ’30s, a film about the backstage life of a ballerina. Now they wanted to develop this into nothing less than a manifesto for the claims of art over mundane life. As Powell later reflected, “For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.” To a generation hungry for new peacetime ideals, the neo-romantic world of total devotion to art was irresistible.
Through the eyes of a dancer—unforgettably played by a rising star of the Sadlers Wells Ballet, Moira Shearer—and a young composer, played by the versatile Marius Goring, we enter the charmed circle of an international ballet company which embodies the artistic legend of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. And with one of Diaghilev’s own stars, Leonide Massine, and leading dancer and choreographer Robert Helpmann, the atmosphere is rich in authenticity.
At the center of the company and the film is the most complex and riveting character The Archers ever created: the impresario Boris Lermontov, played with malevolent, devastating charm by Anton Walbrook. Lermontov lives through his creations. People and relationships are ruthlessly subordinated to a drive which inevitably reminds us also of the passion to create films.
More than any other film, The Red Shoes deals with the dangerous, magical process by which art is distilled from preparation and effort. And, not content with creating and showing at full length “The Red Shoes” ballet which links all the characters’ destinies, it dares to take us into the inner world of fantasies which art can unleash.
At a time when “realism” was the fetish of so many filmmakers and critics throughout the world, this was a bold gamble. It was the same gamble that Eisenstein had taken in his operatic Ivan the Terrible, the Ophüls would soon take in La Ronde (also with Anton Walbrook), and that Kelly and Donen took in Singin’ in the Rain. None of these received their critical due when they first appeared. But the passage of time has shown them to be among the most powerful and evocative of all films. The Red Shoes belongs in their company: a parable about the demands of art, as well as a stunning demonstration of cinema’s claim to have united the traditional arts in a new synthesis.
Ian Christie is the author and editor of several books on Powell and Pressburger, including Arrows of Desire. He is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Kent, Canterbury, England.