Victoria 'Vicky' Page (played by Shearer)
is a young, unknown dancer from an aristocratic background. At an after-ballet
party, originally staged to provide a means for her to audition for him,
she meets Boris Lermontov (Walbrook), the single-minded, ruthless, but
charismatic manager of the Ballet Lermontov, who recruits her as a student,
where she is taught by, among others, Grisha Lubov (Massine).
After seeing her perform in a matinee performance of Swan Lake, Lermontov
realises her potential and invites her to go with the company to Paris
and Monte Carlo. Lermontov has lost his prima ballerina to marriage and
intends to create a title role for Vicky in a new ballet, The Red Shoes.
The music is to be written by Julian Craster (Goring) a brilliant young
composer engaged as orchestral coach the same day that Vicky was brought
into the company.
As the premiere of the ballet approaches, Vicky and Julian lock horns
artistically, and then fall in love. The ballet is a success, but when
Lermontov learns of their affair, he is furious at Julian for taking Vicky
away from dancing. Lermontov had once pronounced backstage that "a
dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never
be a great dancer"—and Vicky had overheard him. Julian refuses
to give up Vicky and is fired by Lermontov, and she decides to leave with
Julian. They marry, and Lermontov relents on his decision to enforce her
contract with the ballet. He permits Vicky to dance where she pleases,
but forbids her to perform The Red Shoes and keeps all the music Julian
wrote for him, convinced that the young composer will amount to nothing
on his own.
Some time later, while joining her aunt for a holiday in Monte Carlo,
Vicky is visited on the train by Lermontov. He convinces her to dance
in a revival of The Red Shoes, which he had removed from his company's
repertoire after the couple left. As she is preparing for the opening
night, Julian leaves the premiere of his first opera at Covent Garden
to go to Vicky's dressing room at Monte Carlo. He demands that she leave
with him. Torn between her love for Julian and her love of ballet, she
remains reluctant to perform the ballet while Julian leaves for the railway
station. Lermontov assures her that her sorrow will pass and that "life
While being escorted to the stage by her dresser and wearing the red shoes,
Vicky suddenly runs out of the theatre. Julian sees her and runs helplessly
towards her. She jumps from the balcony — from the same spot where
she and Julian first realized their feelings for each other — falling
in front of an approaching train. While lying on a stretcher, bloody and
battered, Vicky asks Julian to remove the red shoes — just as in
the finale of the ballet.
Heartbroken, Lermontov announces that Miss Page will not be able to perform
"this or any other night" and says that the company will perform
The Red Shoes with a spotlight on the empty space that she would have
The ballet roughly follows the Andersen story. The setting is a carnival
in which a young woman dances with her boyfriend. In one booth stands
a slightly demented-looking shoemaker who offers her the red shoes. She
puts them on and seemingly forgets about her boyfriend as she dances with
every man in the place. Her boyfriend is carried away and nothing is left
of him but a piece of paper, which she tramples. She attempts to return
home to her mother, but the red shoes keep her dancing. Finally she falls
into a kind of netherworld where she is beset by grotesque creatures (including
the shoemaker) engaged in an orgy. They converge upon her in a manner
reminiscent of The Rite of Spring, but abruptly disappear, leaving her
alone. No matter where she flees, she has to dance. Now near death from
exhaustion, clothed in rags, she finds herself in front of the church
where her mother's funeral is in progress. The church father offers to
help her. She motions to him to take the shoes off, and as he does so,
she dies. He carries her into the church, and the shoemaker retrieves
the shoes, to be offered to his next victim.
The film contains a possible plot hole: Vicky is wearing the red shoes
in the final scenes, even though she doesn't put them on until part of
the way though the ballet. This problem was discussed by Powell and Pressburger
themselves and has been much discussed since. Powell decided that it is
artistically right for Vicky to be wearing the red shoes at that point
because if she isn't, it takes away the ambiguity over why she died: did
the shoes drive her to it, did she fall or did she jump?
Pressburger originally wrote the screenplay for Alexander Korda as a vehicle
for Korda's future wife Merle Oberon. After some years had passed without
the film being made, Powell and Pressburger rewrote the screenplay as
a more heavyweight affair, included more dancing, and produced it themselves.
Powell and Pressburger decided early on that they had to use dancers who
could act rather than actors who could dance a bit. To create a realistic
feeling of a ballet company at work, and to be able to include a fifteen
minute ballet as the high point of the film, they created their own ballet
company of over 50 dancers. The principal dancers were
Robert Helpmann (who also choreographed the main ballet), Léonide
Massine, Ludmilla Tchérina and Moira Shearer.
The Red Shoes received good reviews but did not make much money at first
in the UK, because the Rank Organisation could not afford to spend much
on promotion due to severe financial problems exacerbated by the expense
of Caesar and Cleopatra (1945). The financial directors also did not understand
the artistic merits of the film.
At first, the film received only a limited release in the USA, in a 110-week
run at The Bijou. However, the success of this run showed Universal Studios
that The Red Shoes was a worthwhile film. Universal took over the US distribution
in 1951 and since then it has become one of the highest earning British
films of all time.
When it was first previewed, a lot of ballet critics in the UK and in
the USA wrote very good reviews about it, pleased to see ballet portrayed
so well on screen. But when they realised that it was universally popular,
their reviews suddenly became quite dismissive of the film.
Brian Easdale's score won an Oscar for "Best Music Score of a Dramatic
or Comedy Picture" in 1948. The film also won an Oscar for "Best
Art Direction-Set Decoration" for Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson
(designer). It was also nominated in the categories "Best Picture"
(Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), "Best Writing, Motion Picture
Story" (Emeric Pressburger) and "Best Film Editing" (Reginald
The Red Shoes led to a few other films that treated ballet seriously.
It was only after he made the studio executives watch The Red Shoes a
few times that Gene Kelly was able to include ballet in An American in
The Red Shoes is also arguably the most famous work done by Powell and
Pressburger and is considered one of their great works as well as a classic
of British cinema. The film is particularly known for its cinematography.
In the introduction for The Criterion Collection DVD of Jean Renoir's
The River, Martin Scorsese, who has long championed Powell and Pressburger's
works, considers The Red Shoes, along with the Renoir film to be the two
most beautiful colour films.
Musical theatre adaptation
The film was adapted by Jule Styne (music) and Marsha Norman (book and
lyrics) into a Broadway musical, which was directed by Stanley Donen.
The Red Shoes opened on December 16, 1993 at the Gershwin Theatre, with
Steve Barton playing ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, and Margaret Illmann
playing Victoria Page. The choreography by Lar Lubovitch received the
TDF's Astaire Award, but the musical closed after 51 previews and only
Song and album
There is a song and an album called The Red Shoes by Kate Bush, inspired
by the film. The music from that album was subsequently used in a film
The Line, the Cross and the Curve (1993) made by Kate Bush, starring Miranda
Richardson and Lindsay Kemp. It references the 1948 film.