The Red Shoes – The Making of an Englishman – tape 1595

I’m always slightly disturbed when I find a tape like this one. It starts with UK Gold, and the start of a 1970s Doctor Who episode, then the recording is replaced by a newer one. Now, it’s probably a story that I subsequently got on DVD, but I do feel slightly disloyal at ever recording over any Doctor Who. It’s a residual, communal guilt all Doctor Who fans feel over the BBC’s tragic wiping of its early episodes.

But on to the actual contents of this tape, and the first thing on it is The Red Shoes, Michael Powell’s classic ballet film, co-written and produced by his partner Emeric Pressburger. Pressburger is often credited as co-director, as most of their films are credited as “Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger” but the actual division of the roles was that they co-wrote (Pressburger being the main writer), Pressburger produced, and Powell directed.

Written Produced and Directed by

It’s a bit like “Written by Lennon & McCartney” in Beatles terms. Everyone knows that they mostly wrote separately, but they’re credited as a team.

It’s the reverse situation that the Coen brothers faced at the start of their career. The Director’s Guild didn’t like co-director credits, especially from producers, so the brothers would split the two credits, with Ethan taking Producer, and Joel taking Director. But the truth was that both brothers were on set, directing as a team, and later movies would reflect that in the credits.

Credits are a strange, fluid world. Writers, particularly, often get dropped from screen credit if it’s decided they didn’t write enough of the movie. Sometimes, a writer can do a massive rewrite on the original screenplay, be the writer on set as the movie is shooting, writing changes in response to the needs of the production, and yet be denied a writing credit at all, as in the case of Tom Mankiewicz on Superman The Movie, whose credit was ‘Creative Consultant’ and even that credit got director Richard Donner in trouble with the writers’ guild.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

I love the opening of The Red Shoes. Two doormen are holding a door shut against a crowd, until the manager gives the signal to open the doors, then a sea of young people crashes through, runs up the stairs and heads for the best spot, one of them lying down on seats to keep them for his friends. It reminds me a little of queuing for the Proms. Sometimes a whole day of sitting in the (let’s hope) summer sun, on the steps of the Albert Hall, followed by a couple of minutes of rushing to secure your favourite spot in the arena. This film is set at Covent Garden, and it’s ballet, not symphony orchestras they’re there to watch, but the excitement is much the same.

Excited Crowd

The students aren’t there to watch the ballet, though. They’re there to hear the music, written by their music professor. The film even gets the pomposity of some audiences just right, as the ballet fans sneer at the music fans.

Professor Palmer gets a big shout out from his students, but a much bigger reaction goes to Lermontov, the head of the ballet company, and clearly a figure of mystery.

But when the music starts, one of the students recognises it as one of his own pieces, and recognises more as the ballet progresses.

After the performance, the professor and Mr Lermontov are invited to a party, where the hostess wants her niece, Victoria Page (played by dancer Moira Shearer) to dance for him. He demurs, but then bumps into Victoria at the drinks table, where she manages to shame him onto talking to her.

Moira Shearer

The next day, Lermontov is visited by the young student, Julian Craster (Marius Goring). He says he wrote Lermontov a letter last night, and now he wants to have it back, having thought better of it.

lermontov has read the letter already. He asks Craster to play him something he’s written while he eats breakfast, then offers him a job with his ballet company, coaching the orchestra. He also suggests he destroys the letter. “It is much more disheartening to have to steal, than to be stolen from.”

It’s always nice to see views of London in old films. Apart from the traffic, the Royal Opera House hasn’t changed all that much from the outside, from this angle at least.

Covent Garden

Craster goes to the theatre, and has the kind of experience we all have nightmares about with a new job. Nobody knows who he is, he doesn’t know where he’s supposed to go. But also invited by Lermontov is the dancer Victoria Page, in much the same boat. The ballet’s induction processes need a good overhauling.

But gradually, they find their places, and Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) asks Craster to rewrite the score he has for a new ballet based on the story of The Red Shoes.

Anton Walbrook

But he’s a stern master – he goes off his principal dancer when she gets married. He believes a dancer can’t be great unless she devotes her life to dance, and not to a man.

Victoria is given the lead role in the ballet, and when Lermontov hears Craster’s amendments to the original Red Shoes score, he tells him to throw out the original and produce and entirely new score.

There’s plenty of hustle and bustle in the rehearsals for the ballet, and Powell and Pressburger delight in showing the breathless whirl of activity that goes on behind the scenes, even up the the first performance, backstage waiting for it to start.

The centrepiece of the film is the first performance of the ballet. It starts with a wide shot of the theatre proscenium, as traditional as it gets, but as the ballet takes flight, it’s clear that Powell isn’t restricting himself to a literal presentation of a ballet on stage. His ballet could only exist on film, featuring cuts between different sets, stage-based illusions like a second Victoria Page in an illusion like Pepper’s Ghost, to full-blown visual effects, like when the nightmare figure of the principal dancer changes, first to Lermontov, then to Craster the conductor.

Craster the Conductor

She even dances with a newspaper figure of a man, who then changes into the second principal dancer, played by Australian dancer Robert Helpmann.

Robert Helpmann

Trivia note: Helpmann appeared in many films, but his most famous role by a long way is as the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, one of the scariest characters in cinema history.

The Red Shoes is a great success, and Lermontov promises to make Victoria a huge star, dancing all the great roles. But after a short time, she and Craster fall in love, and when Lermontov finds out about it, he’s not remotely happy. He fires Craster, and when he won’t relent, Victoria leaves too, and they marry.

This leaves Lermontov brooding like a spurned lover. Until he learns that Victoria is coming to France for a holiday, and he meets her, and offers her another chance to dance The Red Shoes. She hasn’t been dancing much since she left, as Julian has been busy with his Opera, so she takes Lermontov’s offer.

On the first night, Julian arrives, having left the premiere of his Opera. He suspected but didn’t know that Victoria was dancing with Lermontov. The two men each demand she be only with him, Lermontov fopr the dance, Craster for love. She chooses to stay, and Craster returns to the train station to await his train back home.

But the Red Shoes are pulling her, and instead of dancing, she runs out to the theatre balcony that overlooks the railway and jumps into the path of the train, with Craster looking on, horrified.

The ballet goes ahead after a tearful introduction from Lermontov, with the whole company dancing, but with a space where Victoria should be.

So that’s another story about a talented woman whose life is ruined by two men who can’t bear to let her have her own life. Lermontov’s definitely the villain, but Craster is no better at the end, refusing to support her when she chooses to do something without him.

After the film, there’s a Witness documentary The Making of an Englishman in which the two grandsons of  Emeric Pressburger look at his life and career.

With contributions from (of course) Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese

Writer Curt Siodmak

Curt Siodmak

It’s an interesting story, portraying Pressburger as a man displaced from Europe who became more English than most people born here.

After this, recording continues with about half an hour of Heroes of Comedy: Frankie Howerd.

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