Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Red Shoes


In A Chorus Line Val (“Dance: Ten; Looks: Three”) has this to say: “Oh, yeah, let’s get one thing straight. See, I never heard about The Red Shoes, I never saw The Red Shoes, I didn’t give a fuck about The Red Shoes.” For some reason, that was my attitude for a long time, too, and now that I’ve seen it I’m trying to figure out why. I love dancing in the movies, and this was sure to be about dancing. Maybe I heard some disparaging remarks about the movie. Maybe I thought it was some sort of lame fairy tale. I just don’t know. But better late than never. I have finally seen this amazing masterpiece, and it’s so good I could watch it again tonight.

It is the creation of the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, “The Archers.” who seem to have been the Coen Brothers of the ‘40s and ‘50s, writing and directing together. (Gay? No, but who gives a shit?) The inspiration was the Hans Christian Anderson story about the woman whose red shoes forced her to dance until she was dead. (Well, she would have, but a man kindly cut her feet off … and what in the world made HCA think this was a story for children?) The center of this backstage story is the ballet of “The Red Shoes,” danced by a newcomer who is being groomed as a star by a Svengali-like impresario. He believes that to be a great dancer there must be nothing else in her life, not even love, but of course she is in love with a young composer. The pressure from these two jerks eventually leads her to take her own life when she feels the shoes are controlling her.

But that’s just the rather routine story. The glory here is in how it is told. This movie is in glorious super-saturated color and way ahead of its time in terms of special effects and photography. The camera is used imaginatively and the editing is first-rate. The centerpiece is the 15-minute ballet itself, which begins with the curtain rising on a normal stage, and then opening out to a gigantic space filled with dancers and whirling colors. This is filming to rival the later An American in Paris ballet, and in fact it is said that it was the appearance of The Red Shoes that enabled Gene Kelly to sell the MGM execs on that movie and Invitation to the Dance. There were plenty of song-and-dance musicals at that time, but not really any movies just about dance. Kelly famously used sets patterned on the great French impressionists, and that idea clearly came from this movie, which often reminded me of the work of Van Gogh, Dali, and even Edvard Munch. It is a masterpiece. The dancers are all professionals, and the movie shows the life of a dancer, with the hard work and the endless lessons and practice. Moira Shearer is simply luminous in every shot. There are many close-ups of her face, and it seems to glow from within. This is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen, right up there with Barry Lyndon, with each shot composed liked a painting. I can hardly praise this movie enough.