Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s folk tale, the plot follows the career of Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) who rises to fame to dance the ballet of The Red Shoes. She falls in love with conductor Julian Craster (Marius Goring), but impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), fiercely protective of Vicky’s career, forces Julian to resign. Vicky follows him in loyalty but marriage fails to fulfil her. While holidaying in Monte Carlo, she agrees once more to dance The Red Shoes ballet, but Julian arrives to persuade Vicky not to dance, making her choose between ambition and love. Lermontov dismisses Vicky: ‘Go with him, be a faithful housewife, a crowd of screaming children and finish the dancing forever!’ But as she tells Julian that she does love him, the camera cuts to her red shoes. His realisation that she loves dancing more than him precipitates his departure. Lermontov raises his arms in a gesture of triumph but, as Vicky heads towards the stage, the shoes impel her to her death.
The Red Shoes is a significant British film in terms of both its melodramatic aesthetic and its representation of shifting gender roles in a post-war economy. While today we may wonder at the extremity of Vicky’s choice, it was very pertinent to British women in the late 1940s who had been mobilised for work for the duration of the Second World War. In the post-war period, official advice for a returning serviceman was that he should resume his rightful place as breadwinner of the household and the Treasury halved its subsidies for nurseries after 1945. However, the baby boom from 1947–1951, the establishment of a National Heath Service and the changes in welfare and education services, created new jobs for women in administration, nursing and teaching which contradicted the official message, reinforced by film-makers, that the real role for women still lay in ‘home-making’ (Braybon and Summerfield 1987: 259–77; Curran and Porter 1983: 291).
The Red Shoes explores these issues in terms of Vicky’s conflict between career and domesticity. Narrative closure offers only death but her strength of will and artistic aspirations are celebrated in the film through an extravagance of spectacle, colour and glamour. J.B. Mayer’s 1948 survey of Forties’ audiences showed that women enjoyed the colour, romance and exoticism of the melodrama films of that time.1 Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes thus provided the pleasure of a sparkling romance for a strong-willed heroine set for the most part in the sunshine of glamorous Monte Carlo.
Furthermore, as rationing still continued after the war, women began to resist government imposed utility fashion designs, and there was a hunger for romantic dressing. Christian Dior’s 1947 New Look design of wasp waists and longer, fuller skirts satisfied this war-weary desire for romanticism and in The Red Shoes the modern and stylish costumes designed by French couturier Jacques Fath for Moira Shearer followed this romantic trend. As Powell recalls:
“In 1948 England was still on rationing. Austerity was the cry. We had won the war. We had lost the Empire. Now we must tighten our belts and save Europe [ … ] But not the Archers. We thought the best way to save Europe was to make extravagant, romantic British films.” (1992: 23)
Powell’s insistence on extravagance may have been influenced by the Rank Organisation’s aspirations since 1945 to emulate Hollywood production values and fund ‘prestige’ rather than ‘quality’ British films, for export to the US market (Murphy in Barr 1986: 60–1). But in 1946, Powell also stated that he was searching for a new form of storytelling. He wanted an aesthetic that required ‘visual wit, movement, pantomime, comedy, eked out with music, songs and dialogue … only when it was needed’ (in Baxter et al. 1946: 109). This led him to draw inspiration instead from melodrama and silent cinema and to prioritise image over the dialogue, claiming that: ‘In my films, images are everything; words are used like music to distil emotion’ (Powell 1992: 168).
Powell’s first experiences of silent cinema in the Nice studios of Metro Goldwyn Mayer working on Rex Ingram’s 1925 silent film Mare Nostrum informed this aesthetic: ‘This was pretty heady stuff for a first picture, and looking back I am not surprised that I never had much taste for kitchen-sink drama’ (1992: 128). As in silent films, Powell wanted music, rather than dialogue, to be the master. He experimented with the composed shot in which acting is choreographed and edited to a previously composed musical score; for Black Narcissus (1947) he produced a 5-minute composed sequence and for The Red Shoes, a 17-minute composed ballet. ‘For me, film-making was never the same after this experience’ (1992: 583).
In The Red Shoes’ ballet, Brian Easdale’s Oscarwinning soundtrack leads the choreography of movement to music, allowing Powell and Pressburger to explore highly codified gestural language rather than dialogue, for the tension between dancing and love, ambition and domesticity and the expression of female desire. A shoemaker (Leonide Massine) presents a pair of red ballet shoes to a young girl who leaves her lover to dance downstage; in a magical jump-cut the scarlet ribbons wrap around her ankles and she is suddenly dancing in the red shoes. Her lover gradually recedes and from hereon we, like the girl, are caught in a spell of fantastical extravagance as we follow her balletic journey through Bauhaus-trained production designer Hein Heckroth’s painterly and expressionist sets and compellingly grotesque masks, heightened by Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor lighting. Vicky is driven relentlessly by the red shoes as she exhausts her dancing partners to the lonely heights and depths of fame. Forever lurking in shadows, dancing around her, is Massine as the tireless shoemaker. ‘Intensely musical, a superb mime and a good actor’ is how Powell recalls the great Russian performer (1992: 642).
Powell acknowledged that the ballet in The Red Shoes was a significant attempt on his part to ‘lift storytelling onto a different level and leave naturalism behind’ (1992: 652), and the theatrical gestural codes of the ballet draw on melodramatic practices to infuse the young woman’s struggle with a poignant dimension of pathos as, in the finale, she gestures to the preacher to remove the shoes and dies exhausted in his arms.
Drawing on exaggerated, mimetic acting codes and music, the subjective realm of dance and inner desire in The Red Shoes articulates the dancer’s aspirations beyond language into a life/death struggle. As Gledhill notes, melodramatic characters do not function in the interests of psychological interiority but as anthropomorphised, emblematic signs of social forces, personifying good, evil, virtue, vice, through exaggerated performance codes (in Gaines 1992: 139). And the young dancer in The Red Shoes ballet could emblematise Gledhill’s ‘victim of persecuted innocence’ (Gledhill 1987: 32) through the sacred/ secular struggle of the demonic shoemaker, the lover, and the preacher outside the church.
In the main narrative we see Vicky Page lured to career heights by the nineteenth-century Svengalilike figure of Lermontov, but prevented by patriarchal domesticity and the love of her husband. We can also identify a virtuous/fallen woman ideology in the mise en scène and camera angles as Vicky’s ambition and success are cinematically inscribed in terms of a melodramatic rise and fall. At one point, she climbs the steps to a villa: ‘a simple flight of steps up the mountain, but it has one hundred, two hundred, what do I know, maybe three hundred steps going heavenward, with no villa in sight’ (Powell 1992: 638). And on reaching the fairy-tale heights of her career, she is told she will be the principal dancer. But this success becomes spatially demonised through her histrionic fall in the film’s closure as her unadulterated artistic pleasure is morally punished.
Once Vicky has chosen dancing over marriage, and the red shoes impel her to her doom, the frame privileges a cast-iron spiral staircase. In extreme close-up the red shoes are followed running down the stairs, delineating the melodramatic fallen woman. Technically, this was a difficult sequence to shoot. In order to keep ahead of her shoes, the film-makers first tried putting the camera on an elevator, but so as to see more of her feet they used a spiral staircase on a turntable which rotated slowly as Moira Shearer ran down. By adjusting its speed to hers they kept her continually in view. They cut two takes of the same shot and edited them together to extend it to five seconds and thus draw out the suspense (Powell 1992: 652). The fall is further exaggerated as she throws herself over the edge of a balcony, her arms histrionically gesturing towards unspeakable desires which can find no place in her social framework. This image in itself thus becomes suggestive of the price the woman must pay for her deviance from patriarchal norms.
Vicky’s death, as in the dramatic plunging to death of the heroine in both Black Narcissus and Gone to Earth (1950), shows that the dizzying heights that women aspire to in Powell and Pressburger’s films also provide the locus for their fall. Hence, the Archers’ post-war films have been read by some as belonging to a trend of films that aim to bring strong women down to size (Aspinall in Curran and Porter 1983: 284–5). But the energy and daring of their heroines create an excess of pleasure for female audiences that runs the risk of diminishing the punishing endings, and scholars such as Harper have warned against an overarching feminist analysis: ‘For Powell and Pressburger, females were not passive bearers of tradition but key speakers of it. Nor were they sacrificial victims of it’ (in Higson 1996: 110). In this sense, The Red Shoes conforms more to the spirit of Gainsborough melodramas, such as Madonna of the Seven Moons (Crabtree, 1943) and The Wicked Lady (Arliss, 1945), which ‘were popular with wartime female audiences, not because good triumphs over evil, but because the case for pleasure is made so convincingly,’ (Aspinall in Curran and Porter 1983: 276). Hence, while the all-important tension between Vicky’s career and home life is melodramatically realised through the extremity of the punishing closure that confirms the status quo and the prevailing ideology of femininity as homemaker, the melodramatic conventions of excess offer a more open reading of female resistance which allow us to sympathise with the pleasure of Vicky’s artistic aspirations and the unfairness of her social position indicating a tension very pertinent to post-war British women.
1. J. B. Mayer, British Cinemas and Their Audiences: Sociological Studies, London, Dennis Dobson, 1948, p. 107.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: UK. Production Company: The Archers. Directors and Screenwriters: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Cinematographer: Jack Cardiff. Editor: Reginald Mills. Music: Brian Easdale. Cast: Moira Shearer (Vicky Page), Anton Walbrook (Boris Lermontov), Marius Goring (Julian Craster), Leonide Massine (Grischa Ljubov).]
Sue Aspinall, ‘Women, Realism and Reality in British Films, 1943–53’, in James Curran and Vincent Porter (eds) British Cinema History, London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1983, pp. 272–93.
Gail Braybon and Penny Summerfield, Out of the Cage: Women’s Experiences in Two World Wars, London, Pandora Press, 1987.
Christine Gledhill (ed.) Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film, London, BFI, 1987.
Christine Gledhill, ‘Between Melodrama and Realism: Anthony Asquith’s Underground and King Vidor’s The Crowd’, in Jane Gaines (ed.) Classical Hollywood Narrative: The Paradigm Wars, Durham/London, Duke University Press, 1992, pp. 129–67.
Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music, London, BFI, 1987.
Sue Harper, ‘Madonna of the Seven Moons’, History Today, Vol. 45, No. 8, August 1995.
Sue Harper, ‘From Holiday Camp to High Camp’, in Andrew Higson (ed.) Dissolving Views: Key Writings on British Cinema, London, Cassell, 1996, pp. 94–116.
Robert Murphy, ‘Under the Shadow of Hollywood’, in Charles Barr (ed.) All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema, London, BFI, 1986, pp. 47–54.
Michael Powell, ‘Your Questions Answered’, in R. K. Nielson Baxter, Roger Manvell and H. H. Wollenberg (eds), The Penguin Film Review, London, Penguin, 1946.
Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography, London: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1992.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.