Between 1946 and 1948 the writing-directing-producing team of Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell released one film each year that are all deserving the designation of “classic.” Which of those three films each individual will consider the greatest achievement is entirely up to the personal connection that can be made, but there is no doubt that every little girl who ever grew up with dreams of becoming a ballerina will choose the final entry in that extraordinary trio as the best of the best: The Red Shoes. Which is hardly to suggest that one need to be female or even a fan of ballet to enjoy this remarkable demonstration of the power of film as a medium.
The unique partnership of Pressburger and Powell is as convincing an argument against the fundamental silliness of the auteur theory as one will never need. The titles of The Red Shoes—like all their other collaborations—indicate that the film was co-written, co-directed and co-directed by the two men. In fact, Pressburger wrote the scripts and Powell directed them. The suggestive quality of the equal distribution and shared responsibility for writing and directing is always fascinating in light of screenwriter’s historically inexplicable placement at the lower end of the Hollywood totem pole, but it takes on even greater ironic significance in the case of The Red Shoes.
As the title borrowed from a Hans Christian Andersen about shoes endowed with magical properties indicates, the film is about dancing and, more specifically, ballet. From a greater perspective, however, The Red Shoes is only ostensibly about the ballet and more directly about the concept of the artist who thinks he is a god. Since the film was produced before the auteur theory had even had a chance to gain ground, it would be in appropriate to suggest that any aspect of its intent was directed toward undermining the concept of such a theory. In retrospect, however, when the co-credits of Pressburger and Powell and are taken into considering, it becomes impossible for any serious lover of film not to read into the story of the oppressively dominating ballet impresario who manages to convince otherwise intelligent men and women that art is more important than their very lives.
Moira Shearer was an actual prima ballerina who was pursued vigorously by Pressburger and Powell for more than a year before finally agreeing to make her film debut as Vicky. Anton Walbrook delivers his most memorable performance as the Mephistophelian impresario barely able to control the streak of cruelty that is apparently a necessary component for artistic achievement in some. What sets Walbrook’s performance above so many similar characters is that he subtly reveals not just the malevolence required to bring out the brilliance in others, but benevolence that spurs such cruelty. It is a truly remarkable job of acting and even if The Red Shoes was not a sumptuous visual delight to behold and even if it were not one of the films that solidified the potential of the three-strip Technicolor process to becoming a vital creative component of the filmmaking process, Walbrook’s performance alone would be more than enough to justify it viewing by even the most rabid hater of ballet dancing.
The Red Shoes was nominated for five Oscars—including Best Picture—winning Best Art/Set Decoration for Color and Best Music Score. The legacy of The Red Shoes has been enhanced and extended by virtue of being one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite films (thus directly leading to a full-scale restoration released on DVD), the title of a song and album by British singer Kate Bush and an ill-fated 1993 stage musical adaptation which became one of the most infamous Broadway bombs of all time.