As I work my way through the list, I’ve started to get more and more comments from my friends on Facebook. I predict that this 1948 ode to art and passion-edging-towards-obsession is going to bring a bumper crop of reactions from my theater-based friends list. The Red Shoes may be about the world of ballet rather than theater, but there are still definite parallels.
Just as there are parallels between the show-within-a-show and the main plot. The original story of “The Red Shoes” was a fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, in which a young girl becomes fascinated by a pair of cursed red shoes; when she puts them on, the shoes start dancing of their own accord, carrying her along with them and forcing her to dance for days to the point of exhaustion, and some retellings see her dance herself to death. It’s not that big a leap to see this as being a story about obsession, particularly about obsession with art. The story of the artist who is absolutely driven to paint (or write or act or compose or sing or dance or sculpt or what have you) is a familiar one, especially with the artist feeling like the work itself has taken them over, pushing them to work to the point of starvation, exhaustion, poverty, isolation and misery.
The three main artists in our tale don’t seem quite that obsessed at first. We kick things off at a ballet performance in Convent Garden in London, with a new work produced by the ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). In the audience is a young music student, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), who’s there because the score is ostensibly by his teacher. Elsewhere in the audience is Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), an aspiring ballerina herself. Page’s mother is a countess who spends most of the show sending messages backstage to Lermontov, trying to persuade him to give her daughter an audition; meanwhile Craster is realizing with horror that his teacher’s “original composition” was actually plagiarized – from Craster. He leaves the show early and writes a scathing letter to Lermontov, demanding his due, as Lermontov finally relents and agrees to see Page dance.
Of course, Page and Craster end up working with Lermontov. And for a while things kinda truck along with Craster as an assistant rehearsal conductor and Page as a backup dancer, with bits that felt a lot like all of the backstage bits from the old Busby Berkeley musicals, all backstage sniping and in-jokes. And sure enough, there’s the moment when the established star of the company has to drop out and both Page and Craster get their big break – Craster is tapped to write a full score for a new ballet based on “The Red Shoes,” with Page featured as the star.
But in a movie like 42nd Street that would have been the climax, with Craster and Page both hitting it big and the story reaching a happy ending. Here, instead, it’s where we first see a mean side to Lermontov; the company’s prima ballerina isn’t dropping out from an injury, she’s simply taking a leave of absence to get married. But when she announces the news and asks for leave, Lermontov fires her outright; he doesn’t believe that love and art can mix. Page’s break comes only partly because of her talent – Lermontov also believes that she’s going to be more dedicated to art alone. Craster too.
….But then working on The Red Shoes and other subsequent works throws Page and Craster together, and sparks start to fly between them as well. Lermontov doesn’t take that well, taking out his frustrations on the pair; Craster pushes back, with Page caught in the middle and finally having to choose: love, or art?
The details of Page’s choice are actually a little unfair; both Lermontov and Craster are giving her some cruel ultimatums. But some time midway through the film, I stopped thinking of this realistically and started seeing it all as a parable – sure, the choice that Lermontov and Craster are asking Page to make would be a cruel one in real life, but for someone under the sway of the Red Shoes, it is exactly what a more realistic choice would feel like. It’s very similar to a choice I found myself making years ago, when I was deciding whether to keep studying to be an actress or whether I should accept that maybe being a stage manager was a better fit. Ultimately I chose to give up acting, since it would also bring a much smoother life path – I wasn’t good enough, frankly – and now, nearly 30 years later, I know that I absolutely made the right choice. But back then, the thought that “if I just worked even harder I could keep chasing that dream” was awfully tempting.
I realize I’ve spoken of this film as a parable, and not really addressed it as a film – so really quick, the look of it is gorgeous, with gloriously staged ballet sequences throughout, especially the big premiere of The Red Shoes that comes midway through the film. And you do get to see the full ballet, in a 17-minute sequence that pushes the edge of what true stagecraft can do. Busby Berkeley bent the rules of stagecraft as well, but where Berkeley was doing so for the sake of spectacle, here it adds to the fairy-tale magic of the film, with the famous Red Shoes magically tying themselves onto Page’s feet and a newspaper magically transforming into a person, and back again. To be fair, if you’re not really all that into ballet this can drag a bit. But it is beautiful to look at. As are other scenes; there’s a sequence set at a restaurant where the head choreographer is throwing himself a birthday party, and I’m convinced that the look of the scene was inspired by Renoir’s painting “Luncheon Of The Boating Party“.
But the film grabbed me most strongly as a parable. At the very end – for reasons I can’t explain without spoiling the film – Page says to Craster, “Take off the red shoes.” What she’s actually asking him to do is to help her take off a piece of her costume. But until he did so, I actually thought she was giving him some advice – urging him to reconsider his own priorities, and cast off his own pair of Red Shoes.