On October 23, 1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes hit theaters in the United States. The Rank Organisation, who co-financed the picture with The Archers, was incredibly worried about the film’s commercial appeal. It was a British production about dance, and it featured a 17-minute real-time ballet, which had never been captured on film before. American audiences were much more comfortable with MGM’s Technicolor musical-comedies—escapist fare with big Hollywood stars that undoubtedly helped them forget about the horrors of World War II. The Red Shoes were the exact opposite of that.
It was dramatic and dark. The narrative was more eager to explore the lives of complicated artists than paint a picture of cookie-cutter idealism. It also faced a difficult production history, which worried its distributors. Its opulent centerpiece ballet sequence caused the film to go over budget. Originally planned to be filmed over 15 weeks with a £300,000 budget, it ballooned to £500,000 with production delayed by another 63 days.
The relationship of The Rank Organisation and The Archers (who had collaborated together for years) was strained due to The Red Shoes. Powell and Pressburger (the filmmakers who owned The Archers), felt their co-financier did not see the artistic merits behind the film. Due to shortage in resources, the budget for advertising shrank. This effectively ended their once-fruitful partnership, and the Archers moved to the more artistically-inclined production house of Alexander Korda. Despite the backstage drama, The Red Shoes proved to be a massive hit in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
It was the 6th biggest film in the UK that year, and played in theaters for an impressive two-year stint in the US. Reviews for the film were glowing, and it eventually nabbed five nominations at the 1948 Oscars (including Best Picture). It took home two statues: for Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson’s majestic production design, and for Brian Easdale’s memorable musical scoring.
Bosley Crowther, The New York Times’ resident hard-boiled film critic, championed the film. “Over the years, there have been several movies in which attempts have been made to capture the spirit and the beauty, the romance and the enchantment of the ballet. And, inevitably, in these pictures, ballets have been performed, a few times with charm and sincerity but more often—and unfortunately—without. However, there has never been a picture in which the ballet and its special, magic world have been so beautifully and dreamily presented as the new British film, The Red Shoes,” he wrote in his original 1948 review. “Here, in this unrestricted romance, which opened at the Bijou yesterday, is a visual and emotional comprehension of all the grace and rhythm and power of the ballet. Here is the color and the excitement, the strange intoxication of the dancer’s life. And here is the rapture and the heartbreak which only the passionate and the devoted can know.”
Crowther’s thoughts perfectly capture the essence of The Red Shoes. It is a film about artists, made by artists, and its energy bounces off the screen and touches anybody who has felt a deep passion for the arts. In the film, real-life ballerina Moira Shearer (who was a featured dancer at Sadler Well’s Ballet School, or more commonly known as Royal Ballet School) plays Victoria Page, an ambitious young dancer eager to join the prestigious company of art impresario Boris Lermontov (played with power and nuance by Anton Walbrook).