Time­less pas­sion, re­newed

The Red Shoes, tragic bal­let ro­mance, not rated, The Screen, 4 chiles

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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

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