The Red Shoes isn’t the flashiest Technicolor film ever made – I’d nominate The Wizard of Oz for that honor – but it may be the definitive one.
More than most Technicolor extravaganzas, this Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger production matches up the rich, saturated hues with the theme of the story, in this case the full-blooded artistic passion – obsession, really – of three artists at the world-renowned Ballet Lermontov.
Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) runs his ballet company with a domineering ruthlessness. Serve his vision and you are blessed. Question or undermine it and you become invisible to him. At the film’s start, he brings an aspiring composer (Marius Goring) and dancer (Moira Shearer, making her acting debut) under his wing. (When he asks Shearer’s Vicky Page, “Why do you want to dance?” she wins a spot by answering, “Why do you want to live?”)
The trio enjoys initial success with an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes,” a grim tale in which a pair of magical ballet slippers forces a girl to dance to her death. Soon, though, the source material proves omniscient. The couple becomes crushed under Lermontov’s demands and is eventually forced to choose between their art and their burgeoning romance.
The Red Shoes brilliantly, subtly melds stage and screen. When we first see Vicky at a cocktail party, the camera glides across the room to meet her; in a sense the movie is dancing before she does. Later, when she’s on stage during a small community production, the camera spins to mimic her twirling POV.
Then there is the “Ballet of the Red Shoes” at the center of the film, a set piece so intricate and elaborate that it receives its own credits. Beginning on a traditional stage, the sequence includes dollops of special effects – Vicky sees herself dancing in a mirror – and eventually expands into a full-out fantasy, with Vicky soaring through a multi-colored sky. The Red Shoes could have worked without Technicolor, but watching the movie you still get the feeling that Technicolor was invented for it.