Timeless passion, renewed
The Red Shoes, tragic ballet romance, not rated, The Screen, 4 chiles
The shoes have never been redder.
The color of passion that drenches the Technicolor world of The Red Shoes, the ballet film masterpiece from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and that defines leading lady Moira Shearer from her titian tresses to her slippered feet, has been restored to its original luster by the techie geniuses at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, under the auspices of Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation. Scorsese and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, who is Powell’s widow, presented the restored print to great acclaim at Cannes last May.
“There’s no question,” Scorsese said in a statement made shortly before the festival, “that it’s one of the most beautiful color films ever made, and one of the truest to the experience of the artist, the joy and pain of devoting yourself to a life of creation.”
Vicky Page (Shearer) is a society girl with blue blood and red hair who also happens to be a hell of a dancer. She catches the skeptical eye of ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (AntonWalbrook) at a party. “Why do you want to dance?” he asks her patronizingly. “Why do you want to live?” “Well I don’t know exactly why,” he shrugs, “but I must.” “That’s my answer too,” she replies. This wins her a coveted place in the corps de ballet of the Lermontov company. Vicky rises quickly through the ranks and is given the lead in The Red Shoes, a new ballet scored by young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). It is based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen about a girl who puts on a pair of red shoes and can’t stop dancing. “At the end of the evening, she is tired,” Lermontov says, recounting the story. “But the red shoes are never tired.”
The conflict in the film is between an uncompromising dedication to art and art as a part of life; it is ars gratia artis pitted against ars gratia vitae. Lermontov, played with a magnificent cool intensity byWalbrook, epitomizes the former. “The dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love,” he sniffs, “will never be a great dancer.” Vicky and Julian fall in love, and irresistible force meets immovable object.
The Red Shoes is much more than a film about ballet. It is a film about the consuming passion of art, and it has been a transformative experience in the lives of countless creative artists. Santa Fe resident Ted Flicker (writerdirector of The President’s Analyst), who had a successful career in theater, film, and television before turning to sculpture, remembers the movie as the event that changed his life.
“In 1949, when I was 19 years old and an acting major at Bard College, I had experienced that moment of artistic ecstasy that comes when you do art right and you make a connection with the unknown. But I was untrained, and I kept struggling to find that feeling again.”
The Red Shoes had just opened in New York, and Flicker went to see it. “When AntonWalbrook, as Lermontov, says, ‘ For me, art is a religion,’ it struck me like the lightning hitting Alvin York’s rifle [in Sergeant York]. And I knew in that instant that art was my religion as well. At 19 I had no idea of what it meant to me and what it would mean to me.” The revelation propelled Flicker to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, “which, thank God, was a Victorian acting school; and it was all about discipline. And the discipline was about the idea that the audience that comes on a dreary, damp Tuesday night is entitled to the same electrifying performance that the Saturday-night audience got.”
Film is a different situation, and a different kind of discipline. Shearer, a prima ballerina with the Sadler’s Wells company, turned Powell down when he approached her to play the lead.
“ Red Shoes was the last thing I wanted to do,” she recounts in Barbara Newman’s 1982 book Striking a Balance. But Powell persisted, and finally Sadler’sWells director Ninette de Valois had had enough. “For goodness’ sake, do it. Get it off your chest and ours, because I can’t stand this man endlessly ’ round bothering us any longer.” Shearer took the part.
Powell remembers the drama differently. In his 1986 memoir A Life in Movies, he recalled that Shearer was wracked with second thoughts about her decision to turn the part down, as the filmmakers assembled a stunning company of ballet legends for the film. Then Pressburger came to Powell with a mischievous look.
“Michael, have you heard the phrase ‘ a sprat to catch a mackerel’? It is in The Oxford Book of Quotations.” “You mean a red-headed mackerel?” “Yes. You go to America, you find another girl, you bring her to England with lots of publicity to make a test for the part, and Bob’s your uncle.”
Powell followed this advice, and Shearer took the bait. “She wanted to play and dance that part,” he remembered with satisfaction. “So, is it any wonder that Emeric had such a seraphic smile when he announced that Moira Shearer was Vicky Page? His sprat had caught his mackerel.”
Powell and Pressburger had originally written the movie in the late ’ 30s as a vehicle for Merle Oberon, who was the wife of their boss, film titan Alexander Korda.
A dancer would have doubled for the ballet sequences. But the war intervened, and when it ended, they bought back the rights and looked for a dancer who could play the part. When they found Shearer, Powell knew he had to have her. “I never knew what a natural was before,” Powell told studio executives. “But now I do. It’s Moira Shearer.”
There is, of course, a world of pain between even a natural and a fully realized work of art. When the movie opened in New York in the fall of 1948, The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote, “There has never been a picture in which the ballet and its special, magic world have been so beautifully and dreamily presented.” But dreamy or not, it was hard work, and Shearer was never satisfied with the results.
“It was usually half a minute and then they would cut. Well, you can’t get up any steam at all that way, or any flow— you can’t really dance. This is why I’m sad that it’s what I’m always remembered for. People can still look at it now and think, ‘Oh, that’s the way she danced,’ but I was just at a stage where I was about to make a big jump forward, technically, artistically, in every way.” In Newman’s book, just three paragraphs of Shearer’s 20-page interview are devoted to the movie.
Despite Shearer’s reservations, The Red Shoes remains the quintessential movie about the dedication and passion of art. “What really stuck with me,” Scorsese told an interviewer at a screening of the restored print last fall, “besides the provocation of the film, the intensity, and the passion of the picture, was the fact that it has more to do with the need to create something — whether it’s dance, music, painting, acting, or, in my case, we just started making pictures. There is an obsession— you don’t know why you want to, but you want to, and you may not be very good, but you have to do it anyway.”
Flicker would agree. The epiphany that hit him like a lightning bolt when he first saw The Red Shoes informs “everything I do. We call it inspiration sometimes, we call it the muse, but I have learned over my six-plus decades that I’ve been engaged in it that it’s a fleeting contact with the unknown.”
In the film, Lermontov advises Vicky, “Don’t forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit.” The filmmakers have done that work for us, and the restorers have made it sparkle again. For an audience, it’s simply wonderful.
If the shoes fit: Léonide Massine, left, and Robert Helpmann with Moira Shearer; top, Shearer
If these sets could talk: Helpmann, Shearer, and Massine; top right, Helpmann and Shearer
Well-red: right and below, Moira Shearer