Sunday, February 14, 2010

Not Tuesdays With Martin Scorsese-The New Restoration of The Red Shoes

Instead of worshipping cupid this Valentine's Day my heart has been pierced by the Archer Arrow as I spend a little time at the altar of Powell and Pressburger For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon. The event is hosted by The Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films to support the National Film Preservation Foundation.

The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America's film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.

The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986

One of my favorite films from super duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Red Shoes, has been lovingly (and expensively) restored by the UCLA Archive thanks to generous support from Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation. It received a star studded premier at last years Cannes Film Festival and was recently screened at the British Film Institute where I saw the new restoration this past December as my farewell to London. Unfortunately I was not able to attend the first night when Scorsese himself was in attendance. These screenings are wonderful because they bring new audiences to old classics.

The Rank gong is on display at the Movieum of London

The original three-strip Technicolor negative, cracked, covered in mould and desperately in need of repair was restored using a new digital process where a high resolution scan of each of the 579, 000 frames was cleaned and reassembled in a new digital master (source). It is a very painstaking and expensive process that could only be undertaken because of the amount of support (aka funding) behind the restoration. For the film purists out there, original prints of the film still exist. The screening at Cannes was a 35mm print of the new digital restoration. I can attest that the result is absolutely breathtaking; the cobwebs have been removed, that's all.

The Red Shoes (1948) was first conceived as the brain child of Alexander Korda because he wanted P&P to make a ballet vehicle for his wife Merle Oberon. When that fell through the pair bought the rights from Korda. Wanting to make a film with dancers who had acting talent as opposed to actors who needed dancer stand ins, a member of the Sadler Wells dance company, flame haired Moira Shearer was chosen to play the beautiful ballerina Victoria Page. But Shearer was not easily convinced. In fact it took a year of convincing because Shearer deemed films a lesser art form. She finally acquiesed and filming began in 1947 at Pinewood Studios, on location in Monte Carlo and various other locales. The film had the added task of trying to make London's Covent Garden look beautiful and vibrant when things were still very bleak and war rationing was still in effect. The shoot itself was grueling.

Wednesday 09 July 1947

Early to bed and early to rise - 5;30 am. to Pinewood Studios for 8am - 8:30 class. the earliest class on record! I was most pleased that massine recognized me and asked "How is your child?". "Very well," I replied "dancing all day long. "Mine too", said Massine. watch 3 scenes 'shot'. One took ten retakes - a rather difficult piece including Tcherina, Shearer, Joan Harris, Massine and Helpman. Moira Shearer is the nicest little thing I've seen since Baronava. Tcherina is beautiful and has good turns. Helpman is amusing. The word for his type of character is, I believe, in theatre terms, 'camp'. One sees him either very smartly dressed or ragged and rolling with jokes but I must say, always quite a good chap. Massine looks tired. it is rather a shock to find him an old man, but still a great character. If Shearer is used well she should develop into a 'Big Star'.

The film, based on a Hans Christina Andersen fairytale, is the story of a ballerina forced to choose between love of a man and love of her art. Unsatisfied with one or the other, she kills herself to break the spell of the shoes. Audiences were also unsatisfied with the films tragic and gory ending, but as has been pointed out it was really a lot less demonic than the original fairytale where the woman's feet are cut off and for the rest of her life she walks on wooden feet as the shoes dance on. In the film both dancer and dance shoes are laid to rest, making the focus not only the obsessive quality of artistic passion, but the ways that this obsession can alter and ultimately destroy a person's life. Unlike the original story, Victoria Page is ultimately unable to divide herself. It is the reality of many dancers caught in the balance between the intense dedication needed to succeed as a dancer and the struggle to maintain a personal life.

The most striking and most talked about portion of the film is the seventeen minute ballet sequence. It was unprecedented at the time and served as an inspiration for ballet sequences in An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain. Unlike past musical numbers in Hollywood set up in a more theatrical space where the camera tends to sit back and relaxes like a viewer in a theatre, The Red Shoes sequence uses every filmic tool at its disposal to make the ballet a one of a kind experience. Though there are unique elements of framing and color, the transitions and manipulations of the film in post-production are what make it so unique. It is dreamlike rather than static, hallucinatory rather than stable.

The thing that I find most striking about the ballet is the fact that it is a move toward a more subjective cinema. It transitions from the dancing shoemaker, established underneath a proscenium arch in a traditional theater to sequences meant to take place in the mind of Victoria Page and in a few instances from her first person point of view, putting a probe into the mind of a ballerina and giving the audience an idea of how dancers must create a world for themselves to effectively convey their emotions to the audience. First person camera was still a rarity, the only example I can think of a brief sequence from the POV of Pip in David Lean's Great Expectations (1946). The shoes take over Page's body and she dances through many foreign landscapes, Shearer's soaring form superimposed on a series of matte paintings that clearly were not present on the stage. At certain points the film speed itself is slowed down to make the dancers seem like they are floating.

The sequence also makes use of the Soviet Montage style of editing, juxtaposing dancers with flowers, birds and clouds. Through a series of cross dissolves, dancers are shown to be delicate beings in a heightened state of beauty that surpasses human existence.

The other wonderful thing about being able to see this film at the BFI, other than the newly restored film itself, was the fact that Scorsese lent items from his personal collection for display at the South Bank Center. Included in the display were the original red shoes, signed by Shearer, (and as I remember) Anton Walbrook and Marius Goring, as well as original art sketches, letters, and a script from the early stages of development when Alexander Korda was still tied to the project. Unfortunately I did not have a camera with me so the details are a bit foggy, but there was a beautiful letter between Powell and Pressburger during their later years of life that expressed a deep love and lasting affection, the deep love Martin Scorsese has for the film, a deep love that I share.


  1. I looove Marius Goring. I just had to say that.

    My friend has a print of this new restored version and showed me a bit of it the other day. I agree, the color is amazing.

    Oh, I just love Powell and Pressburger! And the Rank gong! *jealous* You know you're going to get a quality film when the gong comes up before the film.

  2. Wonderful summation of the ballet, which is perhaps the best ever filmed. Certainly, this film deserved every penny spent on it. Thanks for participating!

  3. I freaking love Scorsese. And I just want to point out that you find and/or capture some of the best images for your posts. So much excellence :)

  4. Kendra-duly noted. :D the colors are seriously POW amazing and every detail is just crystal clear. i was transfixed. I am absolutely in love with the rank gong, it's really the only reason to spend money to go to the movieum which is a very cluttered and confusing experience. not well designed at all.

    Marilyn-And thank you (and the siren, of course!) for hosting such a great event! Tis a wonderful film.

    Rhette Butler-thanks lady. :] I want scorsese to be my grandpappy who gives me obscure film history gifts on holidays (grandpapa can you hear me?)

  5. Thank you for the account of the restored film. I was stunned when I saw the photo of the Rank gong. How many times has that been mocked in movies? I'm glad to know I was not the only one who had trouble with the ending.

  6. You don't know how much I want my own Rank gong--it would look great in the kitchen and I could strike the dinner hour. Bet that would bring 'em running. But I digress. I can't add anything to the praise of this film, but it gladdens the heart just to know it's back in full glory. Some years ago I met Michael Powell after a talk he gave at the New York Public Library. He was nearing the end of his life, but was sharp and funny and informative. When I shook his hand I gushed some gush, and we spoke for a few minutes; what I remember mostly is that he was a flirt! He had an appetite for life, and his two volumes of memoirs are among the best books by a filmmaker. I would have loved to have seen the exhibit right along with The Red Shoes. A wonderful, evocative post, and thanks for making it part of the blogathon!

  7. Joe-Thank you for commenting! Le gasp I did not know that such mockery of the rank gong existed, I shall rush to its defense. ;)

    Siren-What a fantastic call to the table that would be! That is really incredible that you were able to meet him, thank you so much for sharing. I'm pretty sure I would have melted into incoherent babbling. I absolutely must read his book. I've only had a chance to flip through a few pages (at the bfi as well) but wanted to wait to buy it in my own currency. And that you for making it possible!

  8. crimony, that should be *thank you

  9. The Restoration DVD of The Red Shoes is something I want to own. The film itself is quite simply a masterpiece, but Scorsese's commentary track is also invaluable: I can't remember what, exactly, but at some point during the commentary Scorsese reveals that the film influenced one of the key scenes in Raging Bull Or... was it Taxi Driver? I can't remember which- and that is why I'd rather own this film than have to rent it numerous times.

    Fantastic article, Meredith.

  10. I am dying to see this restoration. But for the moment you've at least given me a preview. Thank you!

  11. Adam-Thanks so much! I would love to listen to Scorsese's commentary. Hmm, since I haven't heard it I couldn't say but there's something very dreamlike about some of the slow motion shots of de niro boxing in Raging Bull that seem reminiscent of the same technique used in the ballet sequence. Now I'm just grasping at straws but I see it! ;)

    Tinky-Glad to be of service. :]

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