Director Michael Powell always said that The Red Shoes had the power to change lives. A lush, bizarre, baroque melodrama, a movie pageant of music and ballet, featuring legendary dancers like Leonid Massine and Robert Helpmann, it was originally released just three years after the end of World War II.
The Red Shoes was an instant legend amongst picture goers and the millions who dreamed to dance, and danced to live. For Powell, who once said that “all Art is one”, The Red Shoes was a manifesto of sorts, a statement about Art and artists in all their beauty and obsessive cruelty, as well as cinema itself.
Near the beginning of the film, the ambitious young ballerina, Vicky (Moira Shearer) is confronted by Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the imperious impresario of the world's leading touring dance company (modeled partly on Diaghilev of Ballet Russes). “Why do you want to dance?” he asks her. “Why do you want to live?” she replies. Not expecting such a puzzle, Lermontov, who's nobody's fool, is instantly intrigued. “I don't know, but I must,” he ponders. “That's my answer too,” Vicky replies. For a generation of film fans there's never been a movie scene that better encapsulates the way Art can possess the soul.
The plot of the film, deriving from a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, has Vicky caught between two men who want her and need her to fulfil their own private, tortured longings: Julian (Marius Goring), the brilliant young composer who adores Vicky and wants to marry her; and Lermontov, who made her a star with the 'Red Shoes' ballet and its story of a girl who dances herself to death. Lermontov believes that Vicky's romance with Julian will murder her Art (and her will to live). Vicky longs for the indefinable power that comes with artistic expression, but in equal measure, she is drawn to the grounding comfort of a healthy love affair. For Vicky the dilemma is endless and the denouement, echoing Andersen's original yarn, is bloody and tragic.
Written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Red Shoes seemed a climax to their stunning and rich collaboration. As 'The Archers' they had by the late 1940s, already made such great films as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Black Narcissus (1947). But The Red Shoes eclipses those works in visual ambition and scale; the film's centrepiece, the 'Red Shoes' ballet of the title, is a brilliantly sustained piece of movie making; not a true ballet, but a 'film ballet' deploying the key elements of the filmmakers' art – editing, camera movement and colour – and combining it with dance, fantasy, and an array of stunning visual effects.
Praised by critics the world over and a major box office hit, The Red Shoes, Powell says in his autobiography, was treated with suspicion and distaste at home in Britain, even though the film's violence was tactful compared to the gruesome fairytale: “Why all [the] blood? [they asked]. The poor bastards had obviously never read Andersen's original story, in which the girl got a woodcutter to cut off her feet with an axe, with the Red Shoes still on them!”
In 'A Life in Movies' published in 1986, just a few years before his death at 85 in 1990, Powell says he came to believe that The Red Shoes drew its power from the way it tapped something beyond ideology. “I think the real reason why it was such a success, was that we had all been told for ten years to go out and die for freedom and democracy…and now that the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go and die for art.”
Kevin Powell, the director's son, says his father's sentiment was deeply felt. This was an important distinction, says Powell, for the famous director had a notorious tendency for making grand statments with a tongue planted firmly in his cheek.
“I think he really meant it,” Kevin Powell told SBS from his home on the central coast of New South Wales. "He belived in Art."
For decades now, both Kevin and his father's widow and second wife, Oscar winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, have worked long and hard to keep The Archers' legacy alive. There was the second volume of his autobiography Million Dollar Movie, published in 1992, which was a tortuous and lengthy edit job for Schoonmaker, assisted by Powell and Tony Buckley, both of whom had worked with the director on the second of his Australian pictures Age of Consent in 1969. The restored Consent was re-issued in the US and the UK last year (on a double disc pack with A Matter of Life of Death). Powell says that "as we speak, Blimp is being digitally restored... but just as it is difficult to raise finance for new projects, it is very difficult to find support for these restorations!”
For decades, Powell says, The Archers were overlooked, undervalued or side lined amongst those British filmmakers who were ordained 'great', like Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean and Carol Reed. But, he says, that all changed when the British Film Institute restored a clutch of The Archers' films in the 1970s. This encouraged critics and scholars to take a second look.
It was in the 70s that Martin Scorsese, already a fan from childhood, first met Michael Powell, and it was the American who introduced Powell to his editor, Schoonmaker. Ever since those days, says Kevin Powell, Scorsese has used his imprimatur wherever he could to restore and advance Powell and The Archers' reputation.
Scorcese's preservation organistion, Film Foundation, undertook the task of reconstituting The Red Shoes, with assistance from the BFI, ITV and Janus Films. Schoonmaker told Powell that the elements (the picture and sound materials) were recovered from all over the world. When they finally examined the condition of what they had, it was clear what lay ahead was an epic undertaking; Powell says The Red Shoes was in dreadful condition – full of scratches and colour blemishes and worse.
“It took two-and-a-half years to digitally restore The Red Shoes,” he says. "The job was supervised by Robert Gitt at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.” The majority of the $500,000 restoration budget came from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, as well as the Film Foundation and the Louis B Mayer Foundation.
Kevin Powell says the result is astounding and worthy of a film that the Technicolour company once described as “their greatest achievement.” For Powell, The Red Shoes' legacy is about Art with no boundaries. “My father told me a long time ago he thought The Archers made bloody good films and that, 'One day they'll be worth a lot of money', and here we are over 50 years later and The Red Shoes is going around the world again.”
Watch 'The Red Shoes'
Monday 6 April, 5:00pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Director: Michael Powell
Starring: Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, Anton Walbrook
What's it about?
'Why do you want to dance?" asks imperious artistic director Boris Lermontov (Walbrook) to ballerina hopeful, Vicky Page (Shearer), who can answer only with another question: 'Why do you want to live?" Under the authoritarian rule of Lermontov his proteges realise the full promise of their talents, but at a price — utter devotion to their art and complete loyalty to Lermontov himself. Vicky is begrudgingly admitted into Lermontov's troupe, soon becoming its star while falling in love with the equally driven young composer, Julian (Goring).