"The Red Shoes," the rapturous 1948 British film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is not just a great backstage film, it’s about the burning hunger that great artists have within them to create. In fact, "The Red Shoes" even goes as far as to suggest that art is something worth dying for. In the freshly post-war England, this must have been a daring thematic choice. After all, citizens for years had been dying for crown and country, and now, for dance? But for the artists of "The Red Shoes," dance they must.
The film’s origins go back as far as the early thirties, when the British producer and director Alexander Korda was considering a project based on the Ballet Russes. The character of Boris Lermontov, who proclaims that a dancer who relies on the comforts of human love will never be a great dancer, was based in part on the great Ballet Russes impresario Sergei Diaghalev. Diaghalev’s most famous star, Vaslav Nijinsky, was a troubled man that spent the latter part of his life in institutions.
In "The Red Shoes," conflict arises when the young star played by Moira Shearer finds herself torn between Lermontov and her newfound love, composer Julian Craster, played by Marius Goring. Craster accuses Lermontov of being jealous of Victoria. And he is, but not in that way. She’s not in love with Lermontov, and neither is he with her, but both of them know greatness, what it takes to achieve it, and the alternative to feeding that artistic hunger—oblivion.
The centerpiece of the film is the “Red Shoes Ballet,” ostensibly a stage production, but in the film, it’s a fifteen-minute sequence that draws upon the conventions and techniques of silent film to create something that could only be produced on the screen. Camera tricks, flashy cutting, and the placement of the frame on stage give the viewer the sense that we’re in the ballet, rather than watching it from seats in an auditorium. It’s all quite magical. So effective was the sequence that dancer Gene Kelly had his colleagues watch it somewhere between fifteen and eighteen times while they were preparing An American in Paris a few years after this film’s release.
Moira Shearer is perfectly cast as Victoria Page. It was Powell and Pressburger’s decision that they find a real ballerina for the part, rather than an actress that would be doubled on stage by a dancer; it was their luck that Page was as splendid an actress as she was a dancer, and with her fiery red hair, a striking presence on screen. As Lermontov, Anton Walbrook creates and artistic dictator that actually demands sympathy and understanding for his point of view. Like the artists that work for him, Lermontov is driven to create.
Scoring the picture was Brian Easdale, who had worked with Powell and Pressburger before. Musically, Easdale recognized that the ballet, like popular taste, had not yet caught up with the modernism of mid-20th century classical music. There was no way this dark fairytale could be brought to life with twelve-tone music! So Easdale created a romantic score fitting of "The Red Shoes’" 19th century origins, but brought it into the 20th century with the use of the Ondes Martenot, a unique musical instrument with an eerie sound akin to the Theremin.
"The Red Shoes" was badly in need of restoration when in 2006, the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Film Foundation were approached to work on the film. As "Red Shoes" enthusiast Martin Scorsese so clearly explains on the new Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray of the film, "The Red Shoes" was one of the prime examples of the three-strip Technicolor process, which provided radiant hues on screen. But the original negatives were in poor condition, suffering from mold damage, dirt, and color problems. 579,000 frames of film were scanned and cleaned to create a new master print of "The Red Shoes."
Now, the movie is on DVD and high-definition Blu-ray for all to enjoy, and it looks and sounds spectacular. The Blu-ray is about as close to the experience of seeing a great 35mm print in a theater as you can get on your home screen. There’s a great demonstration on the disc of the restoration process, a documentary on the making of the film, behind the scenes photos, and two commentary tracks. One of them includes interviews with the film’s stars, as well as with composer Brian Easdale and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, both of whom won Oscars for their work on "The Red Shoes." The other audio track, a very curious one, features actor Jeremy Irons reading excerpts from the novelization of the film.
Martin Scorsese, a huge fan of "The Red Shoes," says he’s seen the film countless times since he was a young boy of 7 or 8. It’s a good bet that if the DVD or Blu-ray finds its way to your shelf, you may find yourself returning it to it many times, too.