Movies often take viewers behind the scenes to show us how art and entertainment are created. For instance, "42nd Street," the Lloyd Bacon-Busby Berkeley musical from the early 1930s, told the inside story of a Broadway musical production, while Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's "Singin' in the Rain" gloriously celebrated the transformation of Hollywood films from silents to talkies.
More recently, Mike Leigh's "Topsy-Turvy" offered a vivid depiction of the creation of a Gilbert & Sullivan musical, while Rob Reiner's "This Is Spinal Tap" hilariously dissected a sagging British rock band on a disastrous U.S. tour.
But " The Red Shoes," Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's hauntingly beautiful examination of the inner workings of an internationally renowned ballet company and the creation of a new ballet, has stood out ever since its release in 1948. It was a smash hit in the United States, where it ran for 110 straight weeks in New York City, and Great Britain. The film was nominated for five Oscars, winning for best art direction and original score, and was named by the British Film Institute in 2000 as one of the Top 10 British films of all time.
Always noted for its spectacular Technicolor look, a new, high-definition digital restoration has returned "The Red Shoes" to its original luster, leading director Martin Scorsese to remark that "Our breath was taken away by the richness of the color which was still there 60 years later." Scorsese discusses the restoration process and contributes to the audio commentary on a wonderful new DVD and Blu-ray edition of "The Red Shoes" released this week by the Criterion Collection ($39.95 for each version, not rated).
The filmmaking team of Powell and Pressburger was known as The Archers, with Powell directing, Pressburger writing and both sharing the producer duties on such memorable films as "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," "Stairway to Heaven" and "Black Narcissus" (the latter also out on DVD this week in a newly restored edition). For "The Red Shoes," they adapted a rather dark Hans Christian Andersen story about a dancer whose magical red shoes cause her to keep dancing until she dies.
The story revolves around a ballet impresario, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) —a character based on both the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev and the British film producer Alexander Korda — and the world-renowned ballet company he runs. A keen eye for talent and a believer that art should dominate all other aspects of life, he adds a young dancer named Victoria Page (played by real-life, 21-year-old ballet star Moira Shearer, who had been dancing with Britain's Sadler-Wells troupe) and a young composer named Julian Craster (Marius Goring) to his company.
The life vs. art theme develops as dancer and composer fall in love, and the impresario tries to stop their new relationship from interfering with their work. Adding striking authenticity to the performances are real-life ballet stars Robert Helpmann, Leonide Massine and Ludmilla Tcherina.
As the ballet troupe travels from London to Paris to Monte Carlo, Lermontov and his associates create a new, 15-minute ballet, "The Red Shoes," that stars Page and is performed to the music of Craster. Whereas the behind-the-scenes preparations and rehearsals are presented with an eye to realistic detail, in the filming of the performance (choreographed by Helpmann) in its entirety director Powell pulls out every cinematic trick at his disposal to create a dazzling visual spectacle.
As the story of the ballet darkens, the images and cinematography change from bright and jovial to hallucinatory, dark and dangerous.
Shearer is exceptional throughout in a performance that has been raved about for decades. She's a gifted dancer and natural actress whose flaming red hair, so beautifully photographed by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, lights up every scene she's in.