Last night, something rare and wonderful happened. My little brother decided to let me show him a movie of my choosing. If you knew my family and our film craziness, you’d know just how rare it really is. I decided to show him a film which inspired me when I first saw it and with that in mind, here’s a little background on how I was originally introduced to the film.
Years ago, I saw a documentary called A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies. Prolific fimmaker Martin Scorsese talks about all the films that inspired him when he was young, the films and artists that made him fall in love with movies. One of the films he talked about was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. It was only shown for a moment in the documentary but I knew I had to see it.
As Roger Ebert explains in his review of the 1948 film, The Red Shoes is really an amalgam of two kinds of stories. Powell and Pressburger melded multiple genres to create something truly original and daring, especially for the time it was made in.
“One story could be a Hollywood musical: A young ballerina falls in love with the composer of the ballet that makes her an overnight star. The other story is darker and more guarded. It involves the impresario who runs the ballet company, who demands loyalty and obedience, who is enraged when the young people get married” (Ebert 2005).
Moira Shearer turned down the role for a year before giving in. She was just starting out as a ballet dancer and didn’t want her reputation to be tarnished by the film. However, she ended up giving in and although the process of making the film was apparently arduous, the film has gone on to be considered a revered classic of British cinema.
Personally, I tend to be drawn to dialogue and storytelling over the visual nature of a film. But, I have to say The Red Shoes is all about the visual. What stuck with me after I saw it were images and the glorious color that just doesn’t exist anymore. There was fluidity and beauty is every shot. Now, I understand, that much of the credit for that goes to the prolific cinematographer of the film, Jack Cardiff.
It is said that this film inspired a generation of young girls to become ballerinas. I can see why to some extent, but I also feel that, had I seen this as a young girl, it would deter me from dancing professionally. While it doesn’t take as harsh a view as Darren Aronovsky’s 2010 film, Black Swan, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the sacrifices it takes to make it as a ballerina. The film purports to say that you can have love or art, but not both. Never both.
Another aspect of the film which interested me as a teenager was the character of Lermontov played by Anton Walbrook. He was interesting because he wasn’t simple. There was obviously jealousy and resentment and possessiveness of Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) but it wasn’t clear why. It wasn’t romantic. I interpreted it as almost as a jealousy of Victoria being able to have everything she wanted: both love and a great artistic career. Maybe it was something he wanted to have earlier in life, but couldn’t. It isn’t clear.
For me, a great film inspires conversation. Whether it be about the story or the cinematography or the acting or the dancing is not important. Someone created something which made you think. I think there is something for everyone to appreciate in this film. It certainly has stuck with me over the years. We’re just lucky that Scorsese championed the restoration of this film so that it can still be seen in all its beauty 68 years after it was made.
Vintage trailer below:
Added tidbit: Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor throughout his long career, was actually married to Michael Powell. Scorsese met him through a publicist and introduced the pair. Sadly, they were only married a few years before Powell’s death in 1990.