The Red Shoes is a British feature film about ballet, written, directed and produced by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known collectively as The Archers. It tells the story of a young ballerina who joins an established ballet company and becomes the lead dancer in a new ballet called The Red Shoes, based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen about a woman who cannot stop dancing. The film stars Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook and Marius Goring and features Robert Helpmann, Léonide Massine and Ludmilla Tchérina, renowned dancers from the ballet world, as well as Esmond Knight and Albert Basserman. It has original music by Brian Easdale and cinematography by Jack Cardiff, and is well regarded for its creative use of Technicolor.
Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?Lermontov takes her on as a student, where she is taught by, among others, Grisha Ljubov (Léonide Massine), the company's chief choreographer.
Vicky: Why do you want to live?
Lermontov: Well, I don't know exactly why, but... I must.
Vicky: That's my answer too.
After seeing her dance in a matinee performance of Swan Lake , Lermontov realises her potential and invites Vicky to go with the company to Paris and Monte Carlo. When he loses his prima ballerina (Ludmilla Tchérina) to marriage, Lermontov begins to see Vicky as a possible successor. Backstage, as Vicky is waiting to make an entrance with the corps de ballet, he pronounces that:
A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.When Ljubov objects that you cannot change human nature, Lermontov responds "I think you can do even better than that — you can ignore it." He decides to create a starring role for Vicky in a new ballet, The Red Shoes, the music for which is to be written by Julian Craster (Marius Goring) a brilliant young composer engaged as orchestral coach the same day that Vicky was brought into the company.
As the premiere of the ballet approaches, Vicky and Julian lock horns artistically, and then fall in love. The ballet is a great success, and Lermontov talks with Vicky about her future:
Lermontov: When we first met ... you asked me a question to which I gave a stupid answer, you asked me whether I wanted to live and I said "Yes". Actually, Miss Paige, I want more, much more. I want to create, to make something big out of something little – to make a great dancer out of you. But first, I must ask you the same question, what do you want from life? To live?
Vicky: To dance.
Lermontov revitalizes the company's repertoire with Vicky in the lead roles, but when he learns of the affair between the two young lovers, he is furious at Julian for distracting Vicky from her dancing.
Julian refuses to end the affair, so he is fired, and Vicky decides to leave the company with him. They marry and live in London where Julian works on composing a new opera. Lermontov relents his decision to enforce Vicky's contract, and permits her to dance where and when she pleases. The one exception is The Red Shoes: Lermontov retains the rights to the ballet and ownership of Julian's music, and refuses to mount it again or allow anyone else to produce the ballet.
Some time later, while joining her aunt for a holiday in Monte Carlo, Vicky is visited on the train by Lermontov, who convinces her to return to the company to dance in a revival of The Red Shoes. On opening night, as she is preparing to perform, Julian appears in her dressing room; he has left the premiere of his opera at Covent Garden to take her back with him. Lermontov arrives, and he and Julian contend for Vicky's soul:
Julian: You're jealous of her.Torn between her love for Julian and her need to dance, she cannot decide what to do. Julian, realising that he has lost her, leaves for the railway station, and Lermontov consoles her:
Lermontov: Yes! I am. But in a way you'll never understand.
Sorrow will pass, believe me. Life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before.
While being escorted to the stage by her dresser, and wearing the red shoes, Vicky is suddenly seized by an irresistible impulse and runs out of the theatre. Julian, on the platform of the train station, sees her and runs helplessly towards her. Vicky jumps from a balcony and falls in front of an approaching train. While lying on a stretcher, bloody and battered, she asks Julian to remove the red shoes, just as in the end of The Red Shoes ballet.
Shaken by Vicky's death and broken in spirit, Lermontov appears before the audience to announce that "Miss Page is unable to dance tonight, nor indeed any other night." Nevertheless, the company performs The Red Shoes with a spotlight on the empty space where Vicky would have been.
The inconsistency can also be explained by Vicky's desire to check the red shoes before the performance, intending to remove them before the ballet begins. She is prevented from doing so by the encounter between Lermontov and Julian. Whatever the explanation, the dramatic necessity for her to be wearing the red shoes at the end is clear.
She attempts to return home to her mother, but the red shoes, controlled by the shoemaker, keep her dancing. Finally she falls into the netherworld of the demimonde, where she dances with a piece of newspaper which turns briefly into her boyfriend. She is beset by grotesque creatures, including the shoemaker, (who converge upon her in a manner reminiscent of The Rite of Spring), but who abruptly disappear, leaving her alone. No matter where she flees, the shoes refuse to stop dancing.
Near death from exhaustion, clothed in rags, she finds herself in front of a church where a funeral is in progress. Her boyfriend, now a priest, offers to help her. She motions to him to remove the shoes, and as he does so, she dies. He carries her into the church, and the shoemaker retrieves the shoes, to be offered to his next victim.
The ballet was choreographed by Robert Helpmann, who plays the role of the lead dancer of the Ballet Lemontov and danced the part of the boyfriend, with Léonide Massine creating his own movement for his role as the shoemaker. (Both Helpmann and Massine were major stars of the ballet world.) The music is an original score by Brian Easdale, which he also arranged and conducted.
Powell and Pressburger decided early on that they had to use dancers who could act rather than actors who could dance a bit. To create a realistic feeling of a ballet company at work, and to be able to include a fifteen minute ballet as the high point of the film, they created their own ballet company using many dancers from The Royal Ballet. The principal dancers were Robert Helpmann (who also choreographed the main ballet), Léonide Massine (who also choreographed the role of The Shoemaker), Ludmilla Tchérina and Moira Shearer.
At first, the film received only a limited release in the U.S., in a 110-week run. However, the success of this run showed Universal Studios that The Red Shoes was a worthwhile film. Universal took over the U.S. distribution in 1951 and it became one of the highest earning British films of all time.
When it was first previewed, many ballet critics in the UK and in the US wrote positively, pleased to see ballet portrayed so well on screen, but when they realised that it was universally popular, their reviews suddenly became quite dismissive of the film.
Brian Easdale's score won an Oscar for "Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture" in 1948. The film also won an Oscar for "Best Art Direction-Set Decoration" for Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson (designer). It was also nominated in the categories "Best Picture" (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), "Best Writing, Motion Picture Story" (Emeric Pressburger) and "Best Film Editing" (Reginald Mills)
The Red Shoes led to a few other films that treated ballet seriously. It was only after he made the studio executives watch The Red Shoes a few times that Gene Kelly was able to include ballet in An American in Paris.
The Red Shoes is also arguably the most famous work done by Powell and Pressburger and is considered one of their great works as well as a classic of British cinema. The film is particularly known for its cinematography, particularly its use of colour. In the introduction for The Criterion Collection DVD of Jean Renoir's The River, Martin Scorsese, who has long championed Powell and Pressburger's works, considers The Red Shoes, along with the Renoir film to be the two most beautiful colour films.