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Written by Timothy Sexton
Director Michael Powell wrote in his autobiography that he made two stipulations before deciding to tackle collaborator Emeric Pressburger’s script for The Red Shoes. The second stipulation was that the actual twenty-minute long screen performance of the title ballet would have to be a completely original take on the Hans Christian Andersen tale. The first stipulation was that the character of ballerina Vicky Page would be played not by an actress with a dancer doubling for her in the ballet scenes, but by an actual prima ballerina. That stipulation was more than met with the casting of Moira Shearer who also happened to fortunately fulfill one of Powell’s unspoken stipulations for just about every movie he ever directed in color: that a major female character be a redhead. Redheads populate Michael Powell’s movies the way that blondes populate Hitchcock’s movies and that flaming red mane only serves to intensity the focus on Shearer who proved in her very first film appearance that she was just as talent an actress as she was a prima ballerina. A point she would prove to arguably an even greater extent a dozen years later in Powell’s controversial Peeping Tom.
Anton Walbrook’s career traces back to a time before it made any logical sense to make an attempt at adapting a ballet for the screen: he started out in the days of silent film. One can well imagine Lermontov capable of making a name for himself in those days with his striking angular appearance and intense stare, but he was an actor made for the talkies. Boris Lermontov is loosely based on renowned ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev who—like any impresario worth the name—put on a demand for perfection and love of the art on his dancers to the point that outsiders would mistake for sheer sadism. Lermontov would play Waldo Lydecker in a TV version of the film Laura in 1962 and it does not even take enjoying the rare opportunity to see that performance to realize that he would have lifted the original theatrical version to an even greater degree of brilliance than it already achieves. Shearer is breathtaking, but Anton Walbrook's Lermontov is the centerpiece of The Red Shoes. The manner in which Walbrook reveals Lermontov’s cruelty with merely an expression confirms he would have been a powerhouse silent film star. The extraordinary ability to keep that expression while speaking his dialogue in a way that reveals the layer of masochism beneath Lermontov’s sadism is simply the definition of great film acting.
One way of viewing The Red Shoes is a simple love triangle asking Vicky to choose between the struggling young composer Julian and Lermontov. Of course, taking that prosaic perspective puts the viewer on a collision course with disappointment. Much, much more is going on here than a simple love triangle and, if anything, The Red Shoes is more a bizarre love quadrangle. The weak link here, it must be said, is Goring. He simply doesn’t have the acting chops to allow anyone to take Julian as a serious challenger to either Lermontov or ballet when it comes to winning Vicky’s heart. Nor does he has the charisma of Shearer and the result is an inevitable sense of Julian disappearing into the background of every scene he’s in. Perhaps the fault lies not entirely with Goring, but it is supremely difficult to determine whether Julian really is as soporific as Goring play. In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter that Goring can’t keep up with his co-stars, because he really never had a shot anyway.
The only reason that Vicky becomes the focus of the Lermontov’s overpowering drive for perfection is because he has just lost his current diva to marriage. Get that: Irina Boronskaja opts out of ballet under the tutelage of the great Lermontov because she chose the other man in her life. So, when viewed with more depth, it becomes clear that the weakness of Goring’s performance is really not a huge lapse. Lermontov is not the type to lose two prima ballerinas to another man in a row. As for Tcherina, she fulfilled Powell’s stipulation of casting a dancer but never had a real shot at the role of Vicky because her dark sultriness would have been just totally wrong for the redheaded passion of Irina’s replacement.
Massine’s appearance as Lermontov’s choreographer ties The Red Shoes directly to Lermontov’s primary inspiration, Diaghilev. How? Because Diaghilev's foremost choreographer of the Ballet Russe was for a time none other than Léonide Massine
The actual ballet in The Red Shoes choreographed not by Massine, however, but Robert Helpmann who plays Vicky’s male counterpart. (Massine did choreograph his own part in the ballet, however.) Just like in real life, Helpmann’s male ballet dancer takes a notable back seat to the prima ballerina, but the actor would definitely take a legendary place in the annals of Hollywood. Interestingly enough, the role that would forever define Helpmann on screen on his way to becoming nightmare fuel for a generation of kids was as the sinister and macabre Child Catcher in the movie version of Ian Fleming’s children’s book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Worth nothing is that the most memorable character from that film does not appear in Fleming’s book.
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