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The Red Shoes
Directors: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Screenplay: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (from an original screenplay by Emeric Pressburger; additional dialogue by Keith Winter)
Stars: Anton Walbrook (Boris Lermontov), Marius Goring (Julian Craster), Moira Shearer (Victoria Page), Robert Helpmann (Ivan Boleslawsky), Leonide Massine (Ljubov), Albert Basserman (Ratov), Ludmilla Tcherina (Boronskaja), Esmond Knight (Livy), Austin Trevor (Professor Palmer), Eric Berry (Dimitri), Irene Brown (Lady Neston)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1948
Country: U.K.
The Red Shoes Criterion Collection DVD
The Red Shoes When The Red Shoes, the seventh collaboration by the filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in as many years, was released in 1948, it was quite unlike anything audiences had seen before, even though it was constructed of parts that were quite familiar. There had been movies based on fairy tales. There had been movies that incorporated elements of backstage drama and romance. There had been movies with lengthy musical numbers. And there had been movies that had been shot in the magnificently lurid hues of three-strip Technicolor. Yet, in the legendary hands of Powell and Pressburger, cinematic alchemists of the first order, The Red Shoes became something gloriously original and provocative--a truly groundbreaking fusion of reality and fantasy that helped pave the way for future musicals.

Based on an unproduced original screenplay that Pressburger had first concocted in the 1930s for producer Alexander Korda, The Red Shoes is essentially a love triangle in which a young danger’s heart is torn between her intense love of her art and her equally intense desire for human love and companionship. The dancer is Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), a bright-eyed ingénue with great talent and potential who is swept under the wing of the Svengali-esque Boris Lermaontov (Anton Walbrook), an uncompromising ballet impresario who demands nothing less than total dedication from his dancers. We learn early on how uncompromising he is when he promptly dismisses his star dancer Boronskaja (Ludmilla Tcherina) when he learns that she has gotten married, because in his mind there is no room for “the doubtful comforts of human love.”

Boronskaja’s departure opens the door for Victoria, and she answers with a breakthrough performance in a new ballet based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale “The Red Shoes,” which is about a vain, selfish girl who is punished by her favorite red shoes when they take on a life of their own. The fairy tale’s thematic connection to the film is clear, as the red shoes, which are literally embodied in a pair that Victoria wears on stage while dancing, become symbols of desire for celebration, fame, and adulation, all of which tempt Victoria to leave anything resembling a “normal” life. Yet, she is drawn into another kind of love with Julian Craster (Marius Goring), the young, headstrong composer of the very ballet that made her a star, and she is ultimately forced to choose between romance and dancing.

The story is pure melodrama, heightened via the already dramatic setting of professional ballet, but it works, not least because the performers are so absolutely convincing in their roles. Walbrook’s Lermontov is a character for the ages, a man of such rigidity and uncompromising dedication to nurturing his art that he is simultaneously admirable and despicable, glorious and tragic, powerful and sad. The casting of Moira Shearer was a brilliant gamble because she was already a well-known professional dancer with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, but had no acting experience; she turned out to be a natural in front of the camera, and seeing her actual face during the ballet sequences (rather than having to rely on a double, which necessarily entails compromising the sequences’ visual potential in order to hide the dancer’s identity) makes them all the more absorbing.

The centerpiece of The Red Shoes is the 15-minute depiction of “The Red Shoes” ballet, a visually stunning sequence that heightens the beauty of dance by marrying it to the vast possibilities of the cinema. Prior to this film, ballet had not been the subject of a major motion picture, possibly because it was deemed too “highbrow” for mainstream audiences, or possibly because other filmmakers didn’t recognize how it could be adapted to film without taking on the stiltedness of “canned theater.” Like Busby Berekley, the great maverick choreographer of so many MGM musicals in the 1930s and ’40s, Powell and Pressburger, working with choreographer Robert Helpmann (who also plays the company’s flamboyant choreographer in the film) and production designer Hein Heckroth (who considered himself first and foremost a painter), did not limit themselves to the realities of a stagebound performance, but rather opened the ballet into the infinite possibilities of cinematic technique, which at its best is able to synthesize all art forms into a singular experience. The stage becomes impossibly large and, while there is rigorous attention to the realities of the dancers’ physical feats, the performance is enhanced with visual tricks like stop-motion animation, dissolves, and superimpositions. The ballet sequence becomes, in effect, a subjective experience, less about the reality of how an audience in the theater might see it with their eyes and more about how they would expand it in their imagination. It’s a fantastic conceit, albeit one that works only in a limited form, which Powell and Pressburger demonstrated three years later with The Tales of Hoffman (1951), a curious, but ultimately failed experiment in translating a full-length opera to pure cinema.

Thus, like the best of films, The Red Shoes works on multiple, intersecting levels, drawing you into the fascinating backstage drama of an internationally renowned ballet company before unfolding a tragic love story that forces us to reckon with the all-consuming nature of art, which is most likely why successive filmmakers (including Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg) have all cited this film as a singular inspiration in their desire to pursue cinematic careers. It is unfortunate that The Red Shoes was not better appreciated during its initial theatrical release (the film’s distributor, J. Arthur Rank, loathed it, especially the lengthy ballet sequence, and refused to distribute it properly in Britain), but like all great works it has found an audience and taken its rightful place among the truly inspirational and groundbreaking.

The Red Shoes Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set
The Red Shoes is also available from The Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray (SRP $39.95).
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Audio English Dolby Digital 1.0 surround
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Introductory restoration demonstration with filmmaker Martin Scorsese
  • Audio commentary by film historian Ian Christie, featuring interviews with stars Marius Goring and Moira Shearer, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, composer Brian Easdale, and Martin Scorsese
  • “Profile of The Red Shoes” documentary
  • Video interview with Thelma Schoonmaker Powell
  • Audio recording of actor Jeremy Irons reading excerpts from Powell and Pressburger’s novelization of The Red Shoes
  • Audio recording of Irons reading the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Red Shoes”
  • Collection of rare publicity stills and behind-the-scenes photos
  • Gallery of items from Scorsese’s personal collection of memorabilia
  • The Red Shoes Sketches” featurette
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic David Ehrenstein and a description of the restoration by UCLA film archivist Robert Gitt
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateJuly 20, 2010

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    The remastered 4K high-definition transfer of The Red Shoes, which replaces Criterion’s previously available disc from 1999 (which itself replaced their earlier laser disc), was taken from the original Technicolor negatives, which underwent a massive two-and-a-half-year digital restoration effort by the UCLA Film & Television Archive that was funded by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, the British Film Institute, ITV Global Entertainment, and Janus Films. The restoration has made all the difference in the world, as the image is demonstrably sharper, clearer, and brighter, and has corrected the instances of color fringing (resulting from the three Technicolor negatives shrinking and warping over time) without losing a genuinely filmlike appearance. The film’s transformation is genuinely amazing, and even on a standard-def DVD the difference from the previous disc is monumental. The intense hues of the Technicolor look especially good, which makes the film really pop off the screen, and the restoration has also removed all instances of age (including scratches, dirt, and some significant instances of mold). The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack is also excellent, with great fidelity and no aural artifacts or ambient hiss to detract from Brian Easdale’s beautiful music.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    The majority of the supplements on the second disc of this two-disc sets are ported over the previously available DVD, although there are some great new additions for Region 1 viewers, starting with a brief introductory restoration demonstration with Martin Scorsese, who shows us just how much of a difference the work has made. Also new are “Profile of The Red Shoes,” a 25-minute documentary on the making of the film produced in 2000 that features interviews with members of the production team, and a 14-minute video interview with Thelma Schoonmaker Powell from the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, in which she discusses her late husband Michael Powell, the film, and its restoration. Returning supplements include an excellent audio commentary by film historian Ian Christie that is intercut with interviews with actors Marius Goring and Moira Shearer, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, composer Brian Easdale, and Martin Scorsese; an extensive gallery of rare publicity stills and behind-the-scenes photos; a gallery of items from Scorsese’s personal collection of memorabilia, which include a pair of red shoes worn in the film by Moria Shearer, Pressburger’s working script, and a number of international posters and lobby cards; “The Red Shoes Sketches,” an animated film of Hein Heckroth’s painted storyboards of the ballet sequence, which you can watch alone or in a side-by-side comparison with the sequence from the film itself; audio recordings of actor Jeremy Irons reading excerpts from Powell and Pressburger’s novelization of The Red Shoes (which you can listen to while watching the film) and the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale (which you can listen to while watching “The Red Shoes Sketches”); and the original theatrical trailer. The insert booklet features a lengthy new essay by critic David Ehrenstein and a description of the restoration by UCLA film archivist Robert Gitt.

    Overall Rating: (4)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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