I am often asked why The Red Shoes, of all our films, became such a success in every country of the world. More than a success, it became a legend. Even today, I am constantly meeting men and women who claimed that it changed their lives...I think that the real reason why The Red Shoes was such a success, was that we had all been told for ten years to go out and die for freedom and democracy, for this and that, and now that the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.
--Michael Powell, A Life in Movies
Boris Lermontov: 'The Ballet of The Red Shoes' is from a story by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a young girl who is devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes and goes to the Ball. For a time all goes well, and she is happy. But at the end of the evening she is tired and wants to go home. But the red shoes are not tired. The red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the street, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the red shoes dance on.
Julian Craster: What happens in the end?
Lermontov: Oh! In the end she dies.
--from The Red Shoes, screenplay by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell
Melodrama! Kitsch! Ham! Entirely undistinguished choreography!
--Alastair Macaulay, New York Times Arts and Leisure section, Aug. 31, 2008
There are movie reviews that you read and disagree with, but enjoy for their spirited argument and wit. There are reviews that you disagree with and do not enjoy, but which you acknowledge are well-argued or have a certain misguided insight.
And then there are reviews that make you wonder why the critic bothered at all, so lacking is the piece in any affinity for the moviemakers, sense of history or ability to draw well-supported conclusions about the aims or accomplishments of the movie. Until today the Siren thought the 2008 Palme d'Or in such boneheadedness had been won by a certain ill-judged take on Sunrise. She was wrong. Alastair Macaulay, the dance critic for the New York Times, won it today with a "tribute" to the 60th anniversary of The Red Shoes.
He starts by observing the initial British release wasn't a huge financial success and that "nobody could guess that it would become one of the highest-earning British movies of all time." So right off the bat we realize Macaulay's research has been, let's just say light. Director Michael Powell didn't guess, he knew he had made a great movie and was extremely frustrated at the failure of the British distributors to give it a chance to build in U.K. cinemas. He found an ally in Bill Heineman of the board of United Artists, who lobbied hard to give the picture a chance in the U.S.: "If the public see this film, they'll go. Their kids will take them to see it." Heineman was right; the film was booked into a 200-seat New York theatre called the Bijou and marketed to balletomanes, which as Powell drily noted meant "half the little girls in America." It ran for two years and seven weeks.
This movie, filmed in a beautifully romantic style that was quite unlike anything seen before, and which influenced directors from Minnelli to Scorsese, to Macaulay "often looks as though it will turn into something much more conventional." It's about the "standard story of a woman's choice," you see, love or art. Standard, not classic or eternal, because isn't this life-versus-art thing something we've all worked out at this point? And the choice is "presented to the aspiring ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) at a melodramatically high pitch." This is the first occurence of the term melodrama used as a perjorative, but it will not be the last. Macaulay seems to think that the movie, with a central character based on two of history's most self-dramatizing impresarios and concerning itself with a theatrical art that conveys emotion through image, should really be toned down a bit. The best he can say for The Red Shoes is to point out a few scenes in which it "manages to transcend its own melodramatic and kitschy nature."
Other pearls follow.
"You look at the movie, and you marvel that these girls want to devote themselves to such an art." Because no one ever dreams of a consuming, lifelong devotion to a singularly beautiful and ephemeral art, especially not when it's lovingly filmed by the likes of Jack Cardiff.
"...its 'Red Shoes' ballet could never be danced onstage. (Its dissolving scene changes are sheer cinema, and the ballerina role is too nonstop for any dancer’s stamina.)" Right here we have the part that pissed off the Siren to the point that she sat down at the keyboard. Gosh no, no real dancer could magically jump into those shoes as Shearer does. Excuse me, Mr. Macaulay, but who gives a good goddamn? This is cinema, not a filmed performance. Those "dissolving scene changes" are what a cinephile calls "perfect editing" (by Reginald Mills). Show me the great movie production number that could be danced on stage. "The ballet ceased to be a naturalist conception," said Powell in his memoirs, "and became completely surreal...we were photographing images, not words...There was one contributor to our work whose collaboration was absolutely essential for the success of 'The Ballet of the Red Shoes,' and that was the audience." Preferably an audience that doesn't get all grumpy when they realize "The Girl Hunt Ballet" in The Band Wagon couldn't fit on a real Broadway stage.
"Wallbrook [sic] plays Lermontov not quite realistically; the story’s feverish melodrama comes from him, and he seems at once absurd and hypnotic." The Siren admits that even some lovers of The Red Shoes have had problems with Anton Walbrook's performance. They're wrong, however. Lermontov is generally seen as a stand-in for Sergei Diaghilev, but Powell said he was "really more like" film producer Alexander Korda, whose outsized manner the director wrote about at great length. Some personalities truly are much, much larger than life, larger even than a movie screen. Lermontov's job is to be imposing, a taskmaster who can fire up the artists under his control. In no sense is Walbrook overplaying, and here Powell agrees with the Siren, calling Walbrook "powerful" and "subtle...he goes underneath every line of dialogue, every emotion."
"The film pays fetishistic attention to all of ballet’s detailed contrivance: the elaborate makeup, the constant audience-consciousness, the endless attention to minutiae of musical timing and technical articulation." The Siren loves ballet but admits to a lack of formal knowledge. Still, correct me if I am wrong, but should a dance critic really be characterizing "musical timing and technical articulation" as "minutiae"? And again with the perjorative adjectives: "fetishistic." The movie is about a commitment to art that drives an artist to her grave, and Powell's dedication to showing the incredible preparation that must go into a single performance is part of the movie's realism.
I said realism and I meant it. The ultimate accomplishment of The Red Shoes is the way it combines the dream world of a ballet performance and the spiritual dedication to art, with the actual backbreaking work of the artist and the life sacrifices that ballet demands. Vicky's death scene is sneeringly described by Macaulay as "sheer Tosca" and "sheer Anna Karenina," as though either source is a hallmark of kitsch. Powell's memoirs, which Macaulay might greatly benefit from reading, remark on how the bloodiness of that scene struck the British critics as "bad taste." "The whole point of the scene," Powell countered, "was the conflict between romance and realism, between theatre and life." Indeed, that's the whole point of the movie.
Postscript: Yes, the Siren is back, and the jet lag is hitting her hard this time. She has been up since 5 am this morning and so reacted rather badly to having The Red Shoes, which hit her like a thunderclap when she saw it on the big screen years back, dissed by the paper of record.
I avidly read every comment on every post and ask my patient readers to forgive me for the lack of reciprocal comments on them. In Normandy I had no Internet access at all and in Paris time was short indeed. France was as wonderful as ever, however, despite the strange French habit of insisting "ça n'existe pas" when they can't find something (in this case, the Region 2 of Make Way for Tomorrow, which certainly does existe and which I bought.) I'll let Mr. Powell have the last word on France, where The Red Shoes was shot in part: "Everything that I had been missing over the bitter years came rushing back to me. I knew, as I have always known, that there is no culture like the French culture, taste like French taste, no ménage like a French ménage."