The Red Shoes (1948)


Directors: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. The Archers. (U)




Producers: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger.
Writers: Emeric Pressburger, Keith Winter, Michael Powell.
Camera: Jack Cardiff.
Music: Brian Easdale.
Sets: Hein Heckroth.

Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Robert Helpmann, Esmond Knight, Albert Bassermann.


Vicky (Shearer) is a talented young ballet dancer offered the chance of international success with a ballet company owned by Lermenotov (Wolbrook). She falls in love with composer Julian (Goring) who writes an opera called The Red Shoes specifically for her. But Lermenotov, who owns the copyright to the piece, is jealous and sacks Julian. Vicky leaves to marry to him but has to choose between love and arts as Lermenotov refuses to let anyone dance The Red Shoes, even beloved Vicky.


Based on a story by Hans Christian Anderson, this is one of the rare instances of ballet being produced for film, though Powell and Pressburger would make one more themselves, The Tales of Hoffmann in 1951.

This was a huge box office hit at the time, making more than 10 times what it cost to make internationally. Watching it nearly seven decades on, it beggars belief as to why.

One would expect that a filmed ballet might be a little slow to get going, perhaps drag it’s pointed toes somewhat, but it is not unreasonable to assume that directors of the calibre of Powell and Pressburger could have given us more than just a peep at the goings on behind the stage curtains.

This is a clear case of, as Mr Burns noted in an episode of The Simpsons ‘Too much prancing, not enough dancing!’, even though it is fascinating to peek into the preparation and perspiration poured into a ballet performance. From one who did a small amount of ballet toning/stretch classes in the past can attest to, it’s a physically punishing and mentally challenging art to grapple with, with many names for many different movements to remember and perfect.

We get beneficial insight into this and are able to get a good grasp of the dedication that Vicky has to climb her way to the top. Sadly, the real reason why one chooses to watch The Red Shoes is cast away and almost forgotten; to see ballet itself.

There could have been some actual dancing rather than rehearsal to break up the yawn inducing longueurs, a plie or arabesque, as least a half pirouhette. But no, all we get is stretching, mincing, bitching and then poncing (off to a cardboard Monaco to get married) until The Red Shoes are unboxed for our delight.

And what a thrilling spectacle it is! Choreographed by the celebrated Australian dancer Helpmann (who appears here as Ivan Bolesawsky), it’s a creepy, dazzling and frenetic affair, as if the Brother’s Grimm took up classy musical theatre with accompaniment by Sigmund Freud. It also allows them to show-off their formidable technical wizardry.

It allows Shearer the chance to finally show-off her extraordinary physical strength and talent, for she is no actress and has trouble holding up such a major production with only that straight back, those enviable deltoids and elegantly muscular thighs. Perhaps her vacuity explains the film’s soggy start. Her dancing certainly explains why the last section explodes with energy and passion. It’s just a shame our appetites aren’t whetted more along the way toward this fantastic moment.