Is it possible to be a great artist without sacrificing everything to the craft? That is the question at the heart of The Red Shoes, released 70 years ago this month. The film is considered to be not only a classic of cinema but also one of the greatest films ever made.
Loosely based on the fairy-tale by Hans Christian Andersen, young ballerina Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) must choose between her romance with composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) and achieving her ambitions as a dancer in the ballet company dominated by its owner Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). The Red Shoes is a story about the quest for artistic perfection and its consequences. It also features a ballet performance within its runtime.
You’re probably wondering what’s so extraordinary about The Red Shoes? First, it is a film starring working dancers who performed the routines themselves. There are no body doubles or cutaway shots to give the illusion that the actor is dancing. Its lead star, Moira Shearer, had been working as a professional ballerina in London before being cast as Vicky.
Second, The Red Shoes is an Archers production, the name used by collaborators Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The pair created some extraordinary and influential works during the 1940s including One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Black Narcissus (1947). Powell and Pressburger drew on the skills of Jack Cardiff as Director of Photography to use Technicolor to full effect onscreen for The Red Shoes, a film which might represent the peak of their creativity during this period.
But, The Red Shoes was also a risk that current nostalgia for this period in cinematic history often overlooks. The film was an ambitious production that ran significantly over budget. As a result, the film received a small release in the UK. A review for The Daily Telegraph by George Campbell Dixon in 1948 lists the film’s many faults (and a few spoilers) before concluding that any flaws “may well be outweighed by the ballet sequences and music, by the skill with which Mr. Powell always uses colour”.
The limited release and lukewarm critical reaction didn’t prove to be fatal. The Red Shoes won two Academy Awards and was a modest success on release in the United States.
Finally, The Red Shoes is a magical realist exploration of the price of artistic excellence. Powell and Pressburger has explored similar themes of love and obsession in A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus. Yet, The Red Shoes went further than either of its precursors. As Pamela Hutchinson notes in a retrospective of the film for the BFI, the film was “a decisive step away from the tendency towards realism in post-war cinema”. The result is one of the most beautiful technicolour films that continued to inspire filmmakers for the last 70 years.
Martin Scorcese and Steven Spielberg are among the directors who name The Red Shoes as a favourite. Its influence can be seen in films as different as An American in Paris (1951), Black Swan (2010) and La La Land (2016). If that wasn’t enough, the film inspired Kate Bush’s 1993 album, The Red Shoes. In recent years, the film has come full circle as an inspiration for ballet and theatre shows.
The Red Shoes is an extraordinary achievement in filmmaking. Such beauty must be enjoyed with the knowledge of possible tragedy. To achieve anything significant requires commitment. The only issue is at what cost?