Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger.
Starring: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring. UK 1948. 135 mins.
The Red Shoes is not one of the best-loved tales by Hans Christian Andersen. In his dark little story, a girl called Karen wears red shoes to church, and is punished for her vanity and lack of godliness by being forced to dance day and night in the dancing shoes that won’t come off her feet. Her torment ends when an executioner takes pity and chops her feet off. The shoes (and feet) continue their dance while Karen is crippled and finally dies (having found redemption first).
The 1948 film adaptation is arguably better known than the fairy tale that inspired it. Pressburger’s screenplay follows a very different storyline, stripping the story back to the idea that the heroine Victoria (Shearer) becomes the centre of attention (because of her talent rather than what she wears) but then cannot reconcile her all-encompassing desire to dance with the complicated relationships she has with two important men in her life: the dance impresario who made her famous, and her lover (a composer).
Victoria’s dilemma – choosing between marriage and career – perhaps rang true with the post-war reality of women in Britain whose war-time independence ended when peace was declared and their jobs were given back to the returning men.
The Red Shoes was remarkable for its time – a lush and extravagant film made during a brief period of financial optimism in the British film industry. After the drab black-and-white propaganda films of the war it must have seemed impossibly exotic to British cinemagoers who watched it in cinemas still surrounded by the broken and impoverished landscape of war. In a 1948 review, Telegraph critic George Campbell Dixon said: “This new Powell-Pressburger production is set in a world as remote from the average man as Atlantis.”
The Rank Organisation provided the money to make The Red Shoes, trusting Powell and Pressburger because of the success of their previous projects. But J. Arthur Rank was so shocked by the finished film that he walked out of the preview screening and completely underestimated how successful it would become. When the post-war filmmaking bubble burst (and Rank nearly became bankrupt) the reins were drawn in again, and it’s unlikely Powell and Pressburger would have been allowed to make their film if they had tried even a few years later.
In The Guardian, Charlotte Higgins wrote that Andersen’s original tale is a “thoroughly disquieting piece of work”. However far the film adaptation strays from the original, this quality is preserved. The gothic forests where Karen’s dancing feet are cut off are replaced by ballet sequences on surrealist sets that echo similar dreamlike sequences in films by Cocteau and Hitchcock. Sets by Hein Heckroth are reminiscent of paintings by de Chirico but also the drama of German Expressionism.
Powell and Pressburger were at the height of their creative partnership when they made The Red Shoes, and Pressburger’s skilful screenplay, combined with Powell’s expertise directing the visual elements of the story, creates scenes that veer from dark comedy to impassioned melodrama. There is no attempt to be realistic – even the ‘real’ scenes take place on sets, or in the stylishly perfect (and unattainable) Monaco. The fairytale quality remains, and in the end both plots return to a pair of deadly shoes which cannot be abandoned but draw the heroine inexorably towards death.
The Red Shoes screens as part of The Enchanted Screen: A Season of Folk and Fairytale Films and Vintage Sundays on Sunday 12 November.
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