The Red Shoes – Station Screening Notes (May 2012)

“Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the red shoes dance on.”

Loosely based on a fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson, The Red Shoes is a lavish drama about a ballerina (Moira Shearer) torn between two men. Impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) demands she makes the most of her talent and gives everything up for her art including the affections of composer Julian Craster (Marcus Goring). Early on Lermontov asks her “why do you want to dance?” and she replies “why do you want to live?” Eventually she must make a choice between what she loves and whom she loves.

The work of writer/director team Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell has proven influential over the years. You can see their hand in the work of Baz Luhrmann while the recent Black Swan (2010, Darren Aranofsky) owes much to The Red Shoes.Pressburger was a Hungarian émigré who moved to Berlin to work as a journalist before turning to screenwriting. After the Nazi’s rise to power Pressburger leftGermany for England finding work in the film industry with Alexander Korda’s studio. Michael Powell worked prolifically in the 30’s providing quickly made features to meet the British film industry’s quota for home grown films. However The Edge of the World (37), loosely inspired by the evacuation of St. Kilda showed a developing style and an interest in mysticism.

Korda put Powell and Pressburger together on the war film The Spy in Black (39) and they became friends. Forming their own production called The Archers and working with total autonomy within the Rank Organisation they began to make highly distinctive and idiosyncratic films often in Technicolor, a process which saturates the frame with bright colours and would later become synonymous with the musical. During the 1940’s they created a series of classics, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp(43), I Know Where I’m Going! (45), A Matter of Life and Death (46), and Black Narcissus (47).

Despite its success The Red Shoes went over budget bringing them into conflict with Rank who cut them loose. They returned to low-budget filmmaking for the underratedThe Small Back Room (49), about a troubled bomb disposal expert, and then back to Technicolor for the opera Tales of Hoffman (51) but neither made much impact at the box-office. Their films became increasingly compromised by studio interference and they separated in 1957. Powell effectively destroyed his career with the haunting serial killer film Peeping Tom (1960) which caused outrage in Britain on its release. In the 60’s British cinema tended towards realism and Powell and Pressburger’s movies with their love of the fantastical, high emotions, and bright gaudy colours fell out of fashion.

A critical reappraisal of their work began in the 70’s when Martin Scorsese began to champion Michael Powell and cited The Red Shoes as being his favourite film.

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