The Red Shoes (1948)

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“Why do you want to dance?”

“Why do you want to live?”

“Well, I don’t know exactly why, but I must.”

“That’s my answer too.”

While many Postwar Era movies were largely uninspired quickies now lost and forgotten, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes managed to break out of the art-cinema circuit to become one of the top-grossing films of 1948. The story follows a young ballerina (Moira Shearer) who joins a renowned ballet company and becomes the lead in a new production of The Red Shoes based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale of the same name. She finds success and love, torn between the man she loves and her dream of becoming a prima ballerina.

Today we regard color as a realistic element in film, a given, an expectation. In the early 1930s, color filmmaking was undoubtedly the most striking innovation of the era. Silent filmmakers tested and played with various nonphotographic processes that colored the film after being shot, but Technicolor introduced a new system that could render vivid colors with live actors in the studio. In the 1930s and 1940s, color was often associate with fantasy and spectacle only used for exotic adventures or whimsical musicals. Powell and Pressburger are known for directing some of the most impressive, extravagant color films ever made and The Red Shoes is no exception. If anything, it’s one of their most popular films.

In The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger use ballet to motivate highly stylized cinematic strategy and breathtaking cinematography. With a screenplay that puts a particular emphasis on dance, Powell and Pressburger chose to use dancers who could act and not actors who could dance. Their choices paid off with this stunning fifteen minute ballet, choreographed by Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine, who created his own choreography for his role as the shoemaker, with an original score by Brian Esdale and conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.

It’s hard to look away from the expert dancing from some of the biggest names in the ballet world, the fantastic costumes and makeup and the creative use of color. Not only is the performance superb, but it’s also a triumph for film as a medium. This fifteen minute segment exhibits a mastery of film technique that filmmakers of the Silent Era just started to experiment with in the early 1900s. From the seamless editing that smoothly transitions from one space to the next to my personal favorite moment when the newspaper transforms into a man and dances with her, it’s easy to appreciate how far film has come and in under half a century.

The Red Shoes melds dreams and nightmares and dances around and between love and ambition. It exists and plays in the space between the grotesque and the beautiful, which puts it on my list of movies that all film lovers should see at least once, if not for the story or grand production than for the celebration of film innovation.