The secret of ‘The Red Shoes’


The Red Shoes isn’t the best of Powell and Pressburger’s movies – that title would come down to a duel between A Matter of Life and Death and Colonel Blimp. But it was certainly the most profitable, and also the most influential.

In Pressburger’s biography there are accounts by both men of why the film was so successful.

Powell put it down to timing; it caught the change in the post-war mood:

I think the real reason The Red Shoes was such a success was that we had all been told for ten years to go out and die for freedom and democracy, for this and for that, and now that the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for Art.

Pressburger, with less of eye to a good aphorism, thought that audiences were able to understand the sense of the whole film – in a way that critics were not:

Michael and I have made several good films, among them several better films than The Red Shoes. Why then is The Red Shoes by far the best known film that we have made? Those who try to see it with magnifying glasses (like most critics) see only the rough, the crude, the immature bits (especially the last sequence between Vicky and Julian in her dressing room). But audiences understand better; they inhale mechanically the air of the whole thing and find something disturbing, something mysterious, almost – dare I say – religious, something which they feel must be true, without having been told what.

Famously, the film inspired Gene Kelly to make An American in Paris. And it inspired others, too. In 1988, I produced for Channel 4 a series called Comment, which filled with opinion pieces the short gap between the end of the news and the start of the soap at 8pm. It was usually recorded in the studio, but I had a small budget for location filming. Through his publisher, a then very frail Michael Powell agreed to record a Comment, and we drove to his house in the Cotswolds to film him. He had prepared soup for the crew; his wife, the film editor Thelma Schoenmaker, kept an eye on him to make sure he didn’t tire himself.

I’d worked with the same crew before, on other shoots. Afterwards, the sound recordist was quite emotional. When he’d seen the name “Michael Powell” on the call sheet, he said, he hadn’t imagined for a moment that it would be the film director. It’s quite a common name. But seeing The Red Shoes as a youngster had made him want to go into film and television production.

The picture at the top of the post is from the blog Verdou, which has a fine long post on many aspects of The Red Shoes.


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