Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Angels Want to Wear Elvis Costello's

Film: The Red Shoes
Format: VHS from Putnam County Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.

I went into The Red Shoes believing it to be a musical, and that really is the easiest way to classify it. It is not, however, a musical at all, but a dance movie in the classic sense. In fact, it is even more of a dance movie than the classic Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers or Gene Kelly films of the same era. While those films frequently turned on dance numbers, there were just as frequently singing parts and much of the plot hinged on what people sang at each other. Not so with The Red Shoes. There is no singing here (except to demonstrate other parts of an orchestration), and ballet takes center stage, both literally and figuratively.

The film takes its name from a story of the same name by Hans Christian Anderson. In the fairy tale, a young girl encounters a pair of magical red shoes. She puts them on, and the shoes make her dance. At first, she enjoys herself, dancing herself silly. At the end of the evening, when she is tired, the shoes refuse to stop dancing; they are never tired. She dances and dances until, finally exhausted and unable to do anything else, she cuts off the shoes (and her feet still in them) and dies horribly. Sorta warms the cockles of your heart, doesn’t it? So cheery.

Fortunately, there is no foot removal in this film. We start instead at the performance of a new ballet being attended by a group of students. One of these is Julian Craster (Marius Goring), a young composer, who discovers as the show begins that the music is quite familiar. It appears that the music of the ballet, ostensibly written by his instructor, is actually his own work. He goes the next day to see the man who runs the company, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), who hires Craster as an assistant.

Lermontov also takes on a young woman who claims that for her, dancing is like living—she isn’t sure why she must do it, but she must. This is Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), who despite her wealthy upbringing is no dilettante. Lermontov recognizes that beneath her still untrained exterior there lurks a true dance prodigy, someone who can set the dance world on its ear. When the star of Lermontov’s company gets married, it is Victoria who becomes the new prima ballerina.

Her first major triumph is an adaptation of “The Red Shoes,” with a score written by Craster. She puts everything into the performance and the rehearsals, and while Lermontov believes she has a long way to go until she is truly great, she is well received. He promises her the dance world, with shows in every major city in Europe and America. Sadly for Lermontov, Craster has promised her something else—a lifetime of love and his devotion. And thus we come to the point of the film. Will Victoria leave the dream of becoming a truly great dancer for a life with Craster, or will she devote herself to the stage, shunning everything else to become the greatest dancer the world has ever seen?

The film is surprisingly effective at times, and surprisingly ineffective at times. The romance between Victoria and Julian, for instance, just seems to happen because it’s supposed to. There’s no build up, or at least not much of one, and it feels short changed, if not flat out cheap. On the other hand, Victoria’s relationship with Lermontov is nicely established. Lermontov is a true Svengali, and a terribly wicked man determined only to get exactly what he wants when he wants it. He stops at nothing to get Victoria to stay with him, stooping even to true cruelty.

Much of the film is the stage production of the ballet of the title. Here, the film both hits and misses for me. It’s absolutely a stunner, and Moira Shearer is a hell of a dancer. She made her living mostly on the stage, and while I understand that, it’s also very much a shame that there’s not a lot of footage of her in films of this sort. She’s absolutely incredible as a dancer, and despite the fact that she made only a half dozen films or so—and many of those without dancing parts—she’s one of the best to ever star in a film.

The ballet itself, though, is surreal. Much of what is happening on stage simply couldn’t be staged the way it is, and so I find that for me, much of it doesn’t work. For instance, when she puts on the red shoes, she simply appears in them, and they tie instantly. My kids are both in ballet, and I’ve seen people put on pointe shoes—it isn’t instant. The stage shifts into bizarre landscapes and backdrops, yet is always a stage. In fact, the only way the sequence makes sense (aside from people appearing and disappearing instantly and the whole “instant shoes” thing) is to understand that much of the scenery at least is taking place in Victoria’s head. There’s precedent for this—Craster tells her that she’ll be able to see what he wants her to with his music. For me, that’s the only way this ballet makes sense as both a cinematic piece and a piece being performed in front of an audience on a stage.

Beyond this, I’m not totally thrilled with how simplistic the story really is. Victoria’s decision doesn’t happen until the very tail end of the film, and it doesn’t even become obvious that she has a decision to make until just before that. It works here slightly better than it might otherwise because so much of the focus is on the dancing itself, which is really how it should be with this movie.

In short, don’t watch The Red Shoes for the plot or the acting. Watch instead for dance performances that are rightly considered some of the best in the history of musical cinema.

Why to watch The Red Shoes: Truly epic dance sequences.
Why not to watch: Simplistic plot.


  1. This seems to be one of your early reviews. I wonder if you are as negative of the stage sequence today as back then. Considering Hollywood musical have always given the "stage" some cinematic magic (Busby Berkeley did it all the time) I think this is in the light end and it actually works very well to give the performance a dreamlike quality.
    You are of course right about the romance. It really happened out of the blue with nothing leading up to it.

    1. You're right--I've softened a great deal on the ballet sequence, which I see now as being a masterpiece of the form. It's not real, but it's not supposed to be.

      I'd be a little nicer to this today. Not a ton nicer because it still has problems, but I think I'd appreciate it more now.

  2. I'm so glad the List made me watch The Red Shoes. I was kind of blown away by it. I tend to make fun of Classic British Cinema because a lot of it (pre-1960 anyway) is pretty dreadful, aside from a handful of classics like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Thief of Baghdad and a few of Hitchcock's 1930s movies.

    But when you run into a REALLY GOOD ONE, it's worth the trouble to sift through the rest of it.

    The Red Shoes may well be my favorite British film made before 1955. I do love The Thief of Baghdad though. And The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

    I mean, there's a few low-budget British films that I like a lot, like The Mystery of the Marie Celeste, The Human Monster, Ghost Train and Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, but I don't think I like any of them enough to rate them so high.

  3. It's a fine movie, but there's not a great deal of plot here. I think it's beautiful to look at, but the plot really doesn't work for me in large part.