Davis, de Havilland, Flynn, Cagney, Bogart ...

Davis, de Havilland, Flynn, Cagney, Bogart ...

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Powell and Pressberger Masterpiece - The Red Shoes


Leonide Massine and Moira Shearer
The Red Shoes, created in 1948 by the unmatchable team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger, is a film of conflict, love and tragedy, without doubt the most famous ballet-themed movie ever made.  The film is adored by many and disliked by some – it’s unusual, at times unearthly, certainly larger-than-life telling of the story has engendered much discussion among film-lovers for decades.  In this article, I am spotlighting the actors and dancers in front of the camera whose talents made Powell and Pressberger’s vision come to life.  

Structured as a story within a story, Hans Christian Anderson’s tale about a girl who covets a pair of red shoes, only to find that they dance her to her doom, is mirrored in the story of ballerina Vicky Page (Moira Shearer).  Her love of dancing and fascination with ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) collides with her wish for normal life and love with composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring).  This conflict is portrayed on a melodramatic and epic scale.  The brilliant Ballet of the Red Shoes is a marvel of impressionistic artistry (certainly a precursor and inspiration for Gene Kelly’s 1951 American in Paris ballet).  The ballet was choreographed by the great premier danseur Robert Helpmann.  Celebrated choreographer and premier danseur Leonide Massine brings his eccentric brilliance to the role of the demonic shoemaker.  With luminous music by Brian Easdale, glorious cinematography by Jack Cardiff, and the genius of writer-producer-directors Powell and Pressberger, The Red Shoes has earned its high place in cinema history.

Moira Shearer

Already a principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet in England, 22-year old Scottish-born Moira Shearer was chosen to play the part of Vicky Page.  Several actresses had been discussed for the part, including Merle Oberon, Ann Todd and Hazel Court.  However, none of the women were dancers and the ballet would have to be performed by a double.  Powell was adamant that the part must be played by a professional ballerina, and the difficult search was on for someone who could carry the entire performance – act, dance and be radiantly beautiful at the same time.  When Shearer came to the team’s attention, she knocked out all competition.  To their distress, Shearer was not at all interested in starring in a movie.  Unlike today, the world of ballet at the time frowned upon seeing its celebrated dancers become involved in movies, considering the ballet a higher form of art.  It took a year for the team to persuade Shearer to accept the part.   

At the Royal Ballet, Shearer was considered second only to the great and immensely popular Dame Margot Fonteyn, who was in her prime.  Shearer knew there would be little chance to step into Fonteyn’s shoes, and this may have had something to do with her decision to accept The Red Shoes.  Filming of the movie was not a good experience for Shearer.  Accustomed to dancing classical ballet on the stage from start to finish, she found the constant stops and starts in filming to be frustrating.  She had to dance on unsprung concrete floors, and was plagued with swelling of her legs and feet.  A special bright spotlight, extremely hot, had to be used to light her during the ballet.  Shearer really disliked the long periods of time she had to spend in harness with a wind machine blowing on her during portions of the ballet’s filming.  In her defense, the making of a movie and the performance of a ballet on stage are worlds apart, and Shearer had no experience with movies.  She said in later years, “Isn’t it strange that something you’ve never really wanted to do turns out to be the very thing that’s given you a name and identity? … (The Red Shoes) ruined my career in the ballet.  They never trusted me again.

Shearer went on to dance again after The Red Shoes, but, as one who had not yet attained world-class status as a ballerina, she had lost her prominent place in the line-up of the world of ballet.  She made only a few more movies, one with Michael Powell, The Peeping Tom (1960).  Her other movies of note were The Tales of Hoffman (1951) and The Story of Three Loves (1953), both renowned.  But it is as Vicky Page that Shearer will always be remembered, and without her The Red Shoes would not have attained the magnitude of great film that it is.

Anton Walbrook

It would be hard to imagine anyone but Anton Walbrook playing the complexity of the dominating, sometimes ruthless, sometimes poignant part of  Boris Lermontov, impresario of the ballet.  The character of Lermontov was based upon real-life master of the Ballet Russes during the golden age of Nijinsky, Fokine and Stravinsky in the early 20th century.  Walbrook pulls out all the stops in his portrayal of Lermontov, sinister, charming, ruthless and driven to control Vicky Page, in whom he saw greatness and for whom he felt a frightening love. Walbrook, an Austrian actor, was 52 years old and well-established when The Red Shoes was released.  Walbrook used his facial expressions, body language, knife-edged speech and mesmerizing eyes to create a dynamic performance, just short of ham acting but close enough to be unforgettable.

Walbrook starred with Diana Wynyard in the British version of the famous movie Gaslight (1940), which was released before the American version with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman.  Hollywood squashed the British version in favor of their own, and Americans did not see it for many years.  In my opinion, as much as I liked Charles Boyer, Walbrook was superior in the part of the cruel tormentor in Gaslight.  Walbrook’s career was a long one. He made another popular movie with Powell and Pressberger in 1943, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.  Also of interest, in 1962 he starred as Waldo Lydecker in an American television adaptation of Laura.  What a good part for such an actor.

Marius Goring

Strikingly handsome 36-year old English actor Marius Goring played composer Julian Craster, Vicky Page’s lover.  Goring, in my opinion, was the only fly in the ointment in The Red Shoes.  Unlike Walbrook, who although playing his part to the hilt, was able to keep it in controlled context of the character, Goring was all ham.  His over-acting in  many scenes was noticeable even amongst the extremely dramatic style of the other actors. Much of the blame for this has to land on the back of director Michael Powell, who should have reined him in during much of his performance.  Goring was not a bad actor, as can be seen in later performances, but this was not one of his best.  He had a long acting career, and got better as he got older.  Some of his work included Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) with James Mason and Ava Gardner, the television miniseries Holocaust (1978), and a run in the hugely popular Dr. Who series playing Theodore Maxtible. 

Robert Helpmann 

Australian-born Robert Helpmann was 39 years old when he acted, choreographed and danced several parts in The Ballet of the Red Shoes.  Helpmann was principal dancer in England’s Royal Ballet from 1933 to 1950, dancing predominantly as partner to Dame Margot Fonteyn.  Helpmann could do it all.  His one-of-a-kind personality of humor, charm and talent made him a great favorite with audiences of all types of media.  He was an actor on the English stage, at one point playing Hamlet on alternating nights with the great Paul Scofield.   His movies showed a remarkable range of talent, from the more serious (The Tales of Hoffman, partnering again with Moira Shearer), to the comic (Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang, in which he played the funny and dreaded Child Catcher.)
Two quotes from Helpmann show both his serious and comic side:


"Theatre remains the only thing I understand.  It is in the community of the theatre that I have my being.  In spite of jealousies and fears, emotional conflicts and human tensions; in spite of the penalty of success and the dread of failure; in spite of tears and feverish gaiety, this is the only life I know.  It is the life I love.”

“The trouble with nude dancing is that not everything stops when the music does!”

Leonide Massine
Massine was born in Russia in 1896.  He created and danced the part of the Shoemaker in The Ballet of the Red Shoes.  As Ljubov in The Red Shoes, Massine played his part well, with a unique emotional range of humor, outrage and sorrow.  As the Shoemaker, he choreographed himself and danced brilliantly.  Massine’s career as a dancer and eventually seminal choreographer was astonishing.  He was discovered at the age of 16 by Sergei Diaghilev, who immediately took him in to replace the great Nijinsky, with whom Diaghilev had a falling-out.  Massine was not a trained dancer, and developed an unusual style of his own.  During that period of the Ballet Russes’ golden age, Massine danced and began to choreograph works with the music and designs of Stravinsky, Michael Fokine, Picasso, Dali and Chagall.  Massine was ahead of his time in his desire to create a new form of dance, one that utilized the human body in contour and line different from traditional ballet. He was first to showcase ballet using great symphonies and other musical pieces not composed strictly for ballet.  His uniqueness in dance and choreography were world-renowned during his long career, and he was considered the first and only premier choreographer of dance from the early 20th century until George Balanchine came on the scene.

Of his vision of the dance, Massine once said:

“I am firmly of the opinion that there is more to dancing than conveying a legend, story or fairytale, and more than simply a display of virtuosity.  I believe that the harmonious form of the human body is capable of creating dynamic and graphic shapes to coincide with a symphony, in a way that is as convincing as the symphony itself.”



The principal actors and dancers of The Red Shoes came from all over the world.  Yet in their partnership for this great film, they became one culture in the world of truly great film art.



(This article is my contribution to the Classic Film and TV Café’s blogathon for the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger, known as the Archers.  Fellow blogger Christian of Silver Screen Modiste, www.silverscreenmodiste.com, will be posting an article with his own unique point of view about The Red Shoes on Tuesday, March 27th.  Don’t miss it!)

50 comments:

  1. Becky, your insightful look at the wonderful individuals who brought “The Red Shoes” to life on the screen also reveals the great affection you have for this film. This film brought together many of the elements that have become lifelong passions: art, dance, literature, music and even design. I remember being so obsessed with this film the first time I watched it; I went home the same night and attempted to sketch a chair that fascinated me.

    The background on Moira Shearer hints at her experience with the conflict facing Vicky Page: a struggle between artistic relevance and personal fulfillment. I am so glad she chose to appear in the film; I cannot image anyone else in the role. I think Anton Walbrook is a marvel and a wonder (yep, both), in my opinion he could do no wrong and he created Boris Lermontov with equal parts genius and stalker. I have always been a bit ambivalent about Marius Goring, but as you said, he was capable of so much more in other films (I had no idea he was associated with the Dr. Who series, which Doctor?).

    I want to thank you, Ms. Becky, for giving me one of the best laughs I have had in weeks. I stopped reading your marvelous review briefly because I couldn’t see your words; my vision became blurred from laughing so hard, “The trouble with nude dancing is that not everything stops when the music does!” If only I could work this line into a conversation.

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  2. Becks,
    I've been looking forward to your visiting Red Shoes for us. A beautifully done piece. Your love for the film certainly shines through here!

    Thanks for including the bit of info on Moira. It really is sad that her dancing career suffered from appearing in Red Shoes.

    As for Walbrook. He really was perfect for this role. On a side note though. Have you been fortunate enough to see the British version of Gaslight? I've wanted to see it for so long but I've not been able to find it.

    I have faith that you'll be able to utilize the 'nude dancing' quote somewhere so I'll be waiting for that!

    A wonderful start to the Blogathon. It makes me want re re-watch this gorgeous piece with the new info you've provided us here.
    Page

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  3. Gypsy, thank you so much for your complimentary words. I do love the film, and was equally obsessed with it after I first saw it. I bet I've watched it 100 times over the years, no kidding. Walbrook was so wonderful, and like you, I laughed a good belly laugh over Helpmann's opinion about nude ballet! By the way, I've never watched the Dr. Wo series, and Goring's part was only described with the name, no Dr. in front.

    Page, I did mention that I saw Walbrook in Gaslight, and that I think his performance was better than Boyer's, although Boyer was good. Walbrook was perfect. Hope you get to see it sometime. Oh that nude dancing quote -- we won't forget THAT soon!

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  4. Becks,
    I'm losing it of course! I misread the quip about Gaslight. Now jealous that you've seen the British version.

    Going to email you with some info on our secret project. : ) Came back because I forgot to mention the screen grabs you chose for The Red Shoes. A few are quite frightening but they do leave you intrigued.
    Page

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  5. Oh Page, don't worry -- you haven't lost it -- it was gone a long time ago. Yuck Yuck Yuck! I love those pictures too. Looking for your email!

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  6. Becky,

    I think somewhere along the line we previously discussed you love of this film. If I remember correctly you Dad introduced it to you. Moira Shearer had another role, a smaller one in Powell's PEEPING TOM as kind of an inside joke. It love this film, and watched it via Martin Scorsese who always talks about it. Great job here looking at the fantastic cast.

    John

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    1. John, I did write about my Dad taking me to see The Red Shoes in the monthly Two Dames Dishing article. It was a marvelous experience. Thanks so much, John, for your kind words!

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  7. Becky, I thoroughly enjoyed your informative profiles of the principal performers in THE RED SHOES. Well done! In regard to Moira Shearer, I was always amused by Michael Powell's description of when he first met her. After describing her physical traits in detail, he wrote: "Her eyes were blue. Her hands were--what's the use of describing her, you all know her. After a few minutes conversation, I offered the part. I would have offered it the moment we met, but I didn't want to seem frivolous." According to Powell, the two never really got along, though she danced again in The Archers' TALES OF HOFFMAN (though her singing voice is dubbed) and, as John said, appeared in the controversial PEEPING TOM.

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    1. Rick, I'm so glad you liked it -- it was fun discussing the cast and backgrounds. Isn't it strange that Powell and Shearer didn't get along -- he sounds mesmerized by her. It couldn't have been that bad since they did 2 more movies together!

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  8. The story of the people who came together to make "The Red Shoes" is as fascinating as the film itself. Thank you, Becky, for an intriguing post highlighted by your personal insights.

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    1. Thank you so much, CW! They are an interesting bunch, aren't they? I love to learn what goes on behind the scenes.

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  9. Great background information on a striking film.

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    1. Thanks, Jacqueline -- it was fascinating finding out about the cast and what lay behind the scenes.

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  10. Wonderful as always, Becky. It's a brilliant film, and the actors are so vivid in it.

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    1. Thank you, CFB! I have such a passion for this film.

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  11. Becky - this film is so "you" and you do it justice. It is just luscious and your post is a fitting tribute to a magical film. Great work.

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    1. Chick, you know me well -- it is the type of film I love the most. I'm so happy you liked my work.

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  12. I loved reading your beautiful tribute to "The Red Shoes" because every word reflects your passion for this masterpiece. It was truly sad to read that Moira Shearer could not return to the ballet she loved more than anything because of her taking the role of Vicky Page. Thank you for all your research because you made the film come alive on multiple levels, knowing these back stories. Beautiful job, Becky!

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    1. Toto, it's so good to hear from you! You are so complimentary, and it means a lot! It is sad about Shearer, isn't it? But at least she will continue to be loved by those of us who adore this movie.

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  13. Fabulous post on The Red Shoes Becky, I purposefully didn't read it until my take on the film was written -just so I wouldn't steal all your ideas. But as much as I researched the subject I still learned so much from you. It is an inspiring film and you wrote an inspired piece. Bravo to you.

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    1. Christian, bless your heart for your lovely compliment. I am dying to read your article -- I'm sure it will be every bit as good as your pieces always are!

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  14. Becky, I go back and forth about which P&P film is my favorite: Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes--it matter what day you ask me or which I have seen most recently. Shearer's career after the film is interesting. I suspect M. Fonteyn most probably didn't like the idea that Shearer got so much praise for her work in the film, and this may have has something to do with how Shearer was treated when in the ballet community.

    I enjoyed reading the background information you provided for the other players. You are so right about Goring being the only weak link.

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Kim. I love Black Narcissus a lot, but The Red Shoes is my top choice. I'm sure you are right about Fonteyn and Shearer. It's dog eat dog in show biz!

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  15. Becky, I really appreciated your focus on the performers in "The Red Shoes." There seemed to by uncanny parallels between Moira Shearer and Vicky Price. I think Walbrook was a great actor and that this is his greatest performance. He was also wonderful in Powell & Pressburgers "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp." And I recently saw him give a brilliant performance in "The Queen of Spades" (1949), well worth watching, and not just for his performance, if you can locate it.

    In his autobiography Powell writes how this film let him do something he had always wanted to do, which was to plan an extended sequence not with the music added afterward, but conceived to fit music that had already been composed. Every shot and everything in that shot, and the duration and tone of the shot, is devised to match the music that goes with it. When I watched "The Red Shoes" again a month or so ago, I couldn't help being reminded of this during the "Red Shoes" ballet sequence. And I couldn't help thinking that this explains the power of the sequence, how the musical and the visual--and of course the balletic--are completely inseparable. Anyway, a great post that gave me immense pleasure as I read it.

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    1. Thanks you so much R.D. I totally agree with you about Walbrook -- marvelous actor. Your information from Powell's autobiography is fascinating -- thanks for sharing it!

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  16. Interesting post about one of my all-time favorite films, although I have to disagree with Marius Goring. There's always a hammy character in P&P's films. Goring did the same thing in A Matter of Life and Death, Laurence Olivier did it in 49th Parallel, etc. I think it works for all of the films, especially in The Red Shoes as a contrast to Walbrook.

    Anyway, it's a great film and one that really merged cinema and high art together. It's really too bad it wasn't appreciated more by critics upon its initial release.

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    1. Hi Kendra -- well, if a part calls for hammy acting, Goring is your man! He wasn't horrible to me, just a little over the top. I too was surprised to find that The Red Shoes wasn't an instant hit. Makes you wonder about people sometimes!

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  17. Becky, You were the one to introduce me to the beautiful classic film "The Red Shoes". I loved it so much that I added it to my DVD collection.

    This film is beautifully directed, beautifully photographed and there are also many real-life artists in the film, that are wonderful. It is a must see film for anyone who loves ballet.

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    1. Dawn, it feels so good to have introduced you to my favorite! I knew you would love it. It is indeed an extraordinary movie!

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  18. I can't wait to see this movie again, Becky, keeping your wonderful post in mind. I haven't seen it in several years, but your post brought it all back. This is one of those movies that makes you feel sorry for those rare few who haven't seen it.

    Your tribute to THE RED SHOES will, I hope, make those remaining few rush to see this brilliant movie - the sort of film that makes you realize why movies had to be invented in the first place.

    I'm with you on Marius Goring. I could never take him seriously as the love interest of Moira Shearer. Plus he always looked as if he were wearing lipstick. Maybe he was. And those facial expressions - my dear!

    But one flaw in an otherwise perfect gemstone, is admissable.

    Thank you for a fabulous post, Becky, it brought back good memories and I learned quite a bit about one of my all time favorite movies.

    One thing, am I the only one who always gets Moira Shearer and Norma Shearer mixed up in my oh so ancient and frequently confused mind?

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    1. Yvette, you got me laughing about Goring's face and lipstick, and mixing up Norma and Moira. You know, I found myself typing Norma a couple of times while I worked on this! I appreciate your lovely compliments so much -- this movie is to me one of the best examples of films at their best.

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  19. Becky,

    What an engrossing and enjoyable take on the actors and dancers of "The Red Shoes", Becky. You do great justice to a great masterpiece.

    I completely agree with your assessment of Marius Goring's hammy Julian Craster. Perhaps he thought he was in an opera..."The Red Shoes" was my introduction to Anton Walbrook. I will always remember him as the mercurial Lermontov though I have since seen and admired him in three Max Ophuls' classics, "La Ronde," "Le Plaisir" and "Lola Montes." Very different roles - as was his part in "The Life and Death of Col. Blimp." And I agree with you about his performance in "Gaslight" vs. Charles Boyer's. Such a fine actor.

    A great concept, Becky, and beautifully realized.

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    1. Eve, we do have a lot in common in our opinions about Goring, Walbrook and Gaslight! Is there anything nicer to hear than that you did justice to something you love? Thank you, Eve.

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  20. Becky,

    I've been reticent to watch this film. It simply doesn't seem like something I'd enjoy. But your post is wonderful and your admiration for The Red Shoes is palpable. A great read!

    Aurora

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  21. I'm glad you stopped by, Aurora! The Red Shoes is certainly not to everyone's taste, but I'm glad you enjoyed my article. Try it sometime when you feel in the mood -- you might just love it!

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  22. I really enjoyed your post about The Red Shoes, Becky. I had no idea that Robert Helpman was also the evil child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! Oh how he scared me as a kid! Now that I can relook in my mind's eye at his part in that film, he did move quite gracefully when looking for those children! I recently got to see The Red Shoes on the large screen as the University in our town showed it for free to the students and the community. It was a wonder to see!

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    1. Jenni, I'm glad you enjoyed this look at the actors and dancers behind this wonderful movie. Wasn't Helpmann a man for all seasons? He could do so much - very talented man. I got to see The Red Shoes on the big screen when I was about 13, and I never forgot the experience. It definitely was a wonder!

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  23. Beautifully detailed post, Becky! I've always wondered just what P&P intended with Goring's performance. He doesn't sink the movie or anything but it's not like he's making any great case for irresistible love here (his expression when he kisses Vicky goodbye always makes me want to giggle inappropriately). But Walbrook's performance more than carries the film and Shearer had an extraordinary presence. Again, great post!

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  24. Rachel, I agree that Goring's performance was too much, but it didn't ruin anything -- oh that goodbye scene -- really, Marius! Walbrook and Shearer, and all the rest -- superb. Thank you for the lovely compliment!

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  25. I will never forget the first time I saw The Red Shoes. I had a passing familiarity with the plot (the HCA story), but anyone will tell you that this will not prepare you for what is a truly splendid film. There's always been this quality about the P&P films where the dynamic duo never seemed to be too concerned as to whether a film was going to do boffo b.o...they just seemed to want to tell a good story and entertain an audience with never any intention of "dumbing it down" for them.

    Now, I need to come clean and admit that I haven't revisited The Red Shoes as often as I have other entries in the P&P oeuvre simply because I'm not really what you'd call a ballet fan. But I would like to get the opportunity to see this on a big screen someday -- I'll bet the cinematography would be amazing!

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    1. Ivan, what I like best about P&P is just what you said -- they never try to dumb down, but film what they believe in. And you are so right -- there is no better way to see it than the big screen, which I got to do in one of our huge old movie palaces here in Indy before it was re-done and made into the symphony's home. (At least they didn't make a parking lot out of it!)

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  26. Becky, your writing is always fun and fascinating even when you're writing about a subject that doesn't really grab me. However, even though THE RED SHOES isn't my cup of tea -- nor Aurora's, apparently (I'm sorry, Becks, but from the bits I've seen, I think the dancing would be the only part I'd like) -- we can nevertheless agree that you wrote about this classic film with great affection and fascinating detail! And now I'm wishing I could get ahold of the original British version of GASLIGHT! :-) Also, count me in as another fan of that hilarious quip "The trouble with nude dancing is that not everything stops when the music does!" :-)

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    1. Dorian, I'm glad you liked my article even if the movie is not to your taste. You could actually just lift The Red Shoes Ballet and watch it -- it is incredible. I have a running joke with my sisters (who always tease me about The Red Shoes, insulting it just to try and make me mad)-- I told them that I will leave them money in my will, with the strict codicil that they have to watch The Red Shoes or they won't get it!

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    2. Ha! I love the way you think, Becks! I'm reminded of Daffy Duck in BOX OFFICE BUNNY: "Dance, if you're not a coward!" :-)

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  27. Great blog!! Now I’m a member of it. thanks for sharing us.hope you follow me backnike zoom rookie shoes.

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    1. I'm glad you liked it, Rudy, and welcome you as a member!

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  28. I'm sorry to say I've never seen the film. You said the actors made the film what it is/was. I must disagree with you on this point. You can have the best actors in front of the camera, but if you haven't a great cimematographer *behind* the camera to ease the actors onto film you have nothing. Jack Cardiff is an unsung hero of this and other films he worked on, and deserves much more credit. I've seen a number of his films and I think if another cameraman tried to re-create what Jack did, the camerman would fail.

    The camera person is an actor too. He creates a performance too. I'm learning that some of the films on my blog some are truly awful films. But they've been saved from the ash heap of obscurity by a competent cameraperson. Without this person we wouldn't have half the movies we do today.

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  29. Hi Tom. Of course I completely agree that the people in front of the camera are not the only thing that makes a movie what it is. My focus in this article, however, was on those particular people. Christian, at Silver Screen Modiste, was also writing about The Red Shoes for the blogathon, and he took on more of the behind the scenes artists. We figured between us we would do justice to all elements of this brilliant movie.

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    1. I hope he writes as well as you. I'll check out what he has to say.

      Feelin a bit better...taking one day at time.

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  30. Christian is a wonderful writer with a great blog -- take care of yourself, Tom!

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