In the 1940s and 50s, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known collectively as "The Archers," wrote, directed, and produced a litany of films that are now considered classics. Contrary to the typical Hollywood studio arrangement at the time, wherein directors were mostly subject to a producer's will and creative control, Powell and Pressburger insisted that they contributed equally to the creative process and publicly shared credit for their work. Typically, the two would write scripts together, with Powell primarily directing as Pressburger produced and edited. However, this division of labor is masked as the pair are credited in The Red Shoes, as in most of their films, as co-writers and co-directors, underscoring their belief that all of the roles in the filmmaking process are equally important to the production of the final product.
The Red Shoes gets its title from the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of the same name, which also appears in the film as the basis for Lermontov's celebrated ballet. As the title indicates, dance is central to the film; through ballet, The Red Shoes addresses broader questions about art, with special emphasis on the trope of the supposedly godlike artist who seeks to control those around him. Powell and Pressburger's insistence on equality between writer and director, emphasized by the fact that they are credited as collaborators, could also be seen as a rejection of this trope. Although The Red Shoes came out years before the "auteur theory"—the claim that films are, in essence, "written" by a powerful director who exercises complete creative control—was popularized by critics such as Andrew Sarris, it serves as a powerful counterexample. In this sense, Powell and Pressburger's process rejected the standard division of labor of both the classical studio system and the modernist auteur theory, making their partnership truly unique and revolutionary.
The Red Shoes was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture. While it didn't take home the Best Picture prize, it won Best Art Direction and Best Original Score. Although the film is now remembered as a classic, its initial release in the United States was limited to a single theater. However, it still managed to earn $2.2 million in rentals in 1948, buying it wider distribution and becoming one of the most successful British films in history. Martin Scorcese has championed The Red Shoes as one of his favorite films, citing its use of color as one of the most beautiful in film history. Through a fundraising effort undertaken by Scorcese, the film was restored in 2009, culminating with a debut at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and a new DVD release by Criterion.
The film's legacy can also be seen in 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.