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.
An excerpt from Leonard Boucher's Red Shoes Diaries:
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.