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 first 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 second 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, and Shearer's flaming red mane only serves to intensify the viewer's focus on her. In The Red Shoes, her first film appearance, Shearer proved that she was just as talented an actress as she was a prima ballerina—a point she would reinforce a dozen years later in Powell’s controversial Peeping Tom.
Anton Walbrook’s career traces back to the days of silent film, well before his appearance in The Red Shoes. With his strikingly angular appearance and intense stare, one can easily imagine how Walbrook's presence lent itself well to silent cinema—but he continued to shine even with the advent of "talkies." Boris Lermontov is loosely based on renowned ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, famous for demanding perfection and unfaltering love of art from his dancers. The manner in which Walbrook reveals Lermontov’s cruelty with merely an expression confirms he would have been a powerhouse silent film star; his extraordinary ability to maintain such expressive physicality while reciting dialogue testifies to how, unlike many silent film actors, Walbrook's talent carried over into the era of sound film.
With his neatly-coiffed hair and constantly furrowed brow, Marius Goring portrays Julian Craster, Vicky's love interest, as an early incarnation of the lovable nerd. Well-groomed and well-educated, Julian represents the possibility of a loving, quiet, and leisurely domestic life—the exact opposite of the star-studded intensity that characterizes a career in Lermontov's company. Goring's gentleness stands in opposition to Lermontov's demanding nature until the end of the film, when he insidiously begins to transform, becoming as demanding as Lermontov. The subtlety of Goring's performance means that, in relation to the more expressive Walbrook and Shearer, he doesn't exactly shine—but it's precisely this subtlety that allows his sinister turn at the end of the film to create such a chilling effect.
Ludmilla Tchérina's Irina represents everything that a ballerina in the Company Lermontov ought to be: gorgeous, graceful, and dedicated, Tchérina is the ideal prima ballerina. Just like in the film, Tchérina was a celebrated prima ballerina in real life. In 1942, at 18 years old, she became the youngest principal dancer in the history of ballet, debuting the role of Juliet in Serge Lifar's Romeo and Juliet. She danced in several of the world's most famous companies, from the Paris Opera Ballet to the Kirov and the Bolshoi.
Lermontov's character was allegedly inspired partially by Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes. Léonide Massine provides a direct connection between Diaghilev and Lermontov: in addition to playing Lermontov's choreographer in the film, Massine was Diaghilev's choreographer in real life from 1915-1921. His real-life skill as a choreographer was broadly celebrated: Massine created the world's first symphonic ballet, in addition to choreographing a variety of celebrated works for the Ballets Russes. Massine was also married four times and enjoyed numerous affairs, proving, contra Lermontov, that one truly can be dedicated to both art and romance.
The actual ballet in The Red Shoes is 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.
The Red Shoes Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Red Shoes is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.