The Red Shoes (1948)

Voted one of the top ten films of the century!

The story and beyond

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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[1], 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 is unimportant".

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 occupied.


The ballet
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.

Plot holes
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?

Production
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.[citation needed] The principal dancers were Robert Helpmann (who also choreographed the main ballet), Léonide Massine, Ludmilla Tchérina and Moira Shearer.

Subsequent history
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 Mills )

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 Paris.

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 five performances.

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.

Home | Cast | Cast photographs | The film | The ballet | The story | Making the film |
Little known facts about the film
| Moira Shearer | Posters and stills| Links | My father's Red Shoes Diaries | Letters from Moira | After the Red Shoes