October 28, 2013

The Red Shoes: A Fairy Tale Film, By Christina Ruth Johnson, Vintage Fairy Tale Sleuth

Editor's note: Christina digs into the treasure trove of film to bring us her latest vintage fairy tale find. And get a load of the fabulous images she dug up!
Today, fairy tales seem to be popping up in one form or another everywhere we look, especially in popular visual media (as Nora’s columns continue to affirm). It is fun to look back, however, and realize that fairy tales have been inspiring the film world for decades, and not just by way of Disney.

In 1948, a movie was released that critics to this day herald as one of the most influential films ever to grace the early screen: The Red Shoes.
This British film, released in 1948, was written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the same title. In fact, the very first image of the film is a gothic still-life of a wax candle atop an old book with this author’s name flourished across the spine. A pair of red ballet shoes rests in front of the book. Blood-red, painted letters spell out the film’s title in the background, their presentation subtly presaging the tragic, culminating scene of the story to come.

**SPOILER ALERT: Do not read further if you wish to watch the movie uninformed of its main events and ending. NOTE: I watched it fully aware of what was to come and still enjoyed it completely.**

Many people with a much greater ability to critique movies have analyzed and lauded and elevated every nuance of The Red Shoes. I will not attempt to add to this large corpus. Rather, I wish to look at it from the perspective of the original fairy tale. In what way did elements of the original tale manifest on screen?

In Andersen’s story, the young protagonist, Karen, is given a pair of red shoes by her guardian. The beauty of the shoes distracts Karen in her daily life, especially at church where she cannot concentrate on her prayers. Though aware of their power, Karen dons the shoes to attend a ball, where they begin to dance of their own accord and whisk her through tortuous night after tortuous day and into the dark woods. “Dance you shall,” repeats an unmoved angel who watches from the church steps. Finally, Karen prevails upon an executioner to cut off her feet with his axe. Her devout contrition is rewarded with a sign of forgiveness, her heart breaks with joy, and her soul rises to heaven. (Read it here: http://surlalunefairytales.com/redshoes/index.html)
"The Red Shoes," by Anne Anderson
The film follows the rise and fall of the beautiful ballerina, Victoria Page. Boris Lermontov, the ambitious owner of a famous ballet company, offers Vicky the lead role in a new ballet, written by the young composer Julian Craster. The new ballet is, of course, Andersen’s The Red Shoes. The show is a success, and Lermontov is captivated by his new prima ballerina. Then, Vicky and Julian fall in love. She leaves the company, giving up her dream of dancing to get married. But Vicky’s desire to dance weighs on her, and Lermontov manipulates this desire to convince his muse to return to the stage to once again perform The Red Shoes.

Christina Ruth Johnson, vintage fairy tale sleuth
Julian confronts her backstage. She cannot choose. He leaves. Suddenly Vicky is chasing after him, and we do not know if it is her own feet or the red ballet shoes she wears that fling her off a balcony to a bloody and broken death on the train tracks below. Her last request is for Julian to remove the shoes.

Like in the original tale, the red shoes in the film ostensibly lead to the protagonist’s death. But where vanity was Karen’s downfall, what was Vicky’s? Was it her passions or desires that led to her demise or was she innocent of her own blood? And who, really, was the personification of the red shoes in her life? Was it Lermontov, who tempted her with dance; or was it Julian, who tempted her with love?

If you have seen the movie, I encourage you to discuss these questions in the comments. I would love to hear your thoughts! If you haven’t seen the movie, you should. The color! The music! The dance! You could watch this film without understanding a word of the dialogue and still be entranced. And yet, the dialogue and the story add a whole other level to the film. One critic poignantly describes the movie as a folktale in its own right, dedicated to the idea that art is worth dying for.

What do you think?

Christina Ruth Johnson recently received her Masters in Art History with a focus on the ancient Mediterranean and a side interest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her other great love is fantasy literature from ancient times to present day.


Caedmon said...

An entertaining footnote: Moira Shearer, who played Vicky, taught the technicians on the set the Dance of the Cygnets from Swan Lake, and they performed it with her every morning before they started work.

A.L. Loveday said...

I absolutely love this film! I think you could argue for the same cause of downfall in each story: loss of control. In the Andersen, the girl's obsessive vanity grows out of control and the red shoes then personify that. In the film, Vicky is being pushed and pulled between love and dance and being manipulated by both men in her life so that she loses all autonomous control. Both women wanted too much and couldn't have it - it consumed them.

I'm pleased you emphasised the visual spectacle of the film, I remember this blew me away when I watched it. It taught me not to have such low expectations of older films!

Thanks for another great post :)

Laura B. said...

Wonderful post. I ust confess this is not my favorite HCA story but you have convinced me to watch the film. Fairy tales are so powerful because they transcend different media: oral, literary, performance, musical, video games, television shows, commercials, you name it.

Lissa Sloan said...

Thanks for introducing me to this film! The ballet was lovely, and I especially enjoyed Anton Walbrook as Lermontov. My take on it was that Vicky's dilemma (I would not exactly say downfall) was the conflict between work and family. I would argue that it's difficult for someone of either sex even today, but certainly a woman in the 1940s. And, as has already been pointed out, she was surrounded by two pretty inflexible people.

Christina Ruth Johnson said...

What great comments! Thank you for sharing your own insights on such an enthralling film.