This article was written by Rebekah Brannan as part of the Breening Thursdays series.
Welcome back to Breening Thursdays at PEPS! Today, I will be breening The Red Shoes from 1948. As a ballet dancer myself, what better film for me to breen than one of the most famous ballet movies of all time? Before the days of White Nights and Black Swan, the world of tutus and pointe shoes was most notably immortalized on the Silver Screen by this film. A British picture starring Sadler’s Wells Ballet’s Moira Shearer, this film exposed European ballet to American film audiences for the first time. While the previous year had brought Joe Pasternak’s The Unfinished Dance, that American picture starring Margaret O’Brien and Cyd Charisse came nowhere near the popularity of The Red Shoes. This tragedy of a woman torn between her ballet career and the love of her life ran for a record-breaking fifty-seven weeks in New York City, and sparked balletomania around the world. While this film features beautiful dancing, good acting, and a very dramatic story, it has multiple problems, many of which are fairly ingrained in the film’s core. In this article, I will show how this film could have been greatly improved, had British filmmakers had the same guidance as American ones. Now, the lights dim, the theater hushes, and the screen dances to life. Now, break in your pointe shoes for a ballet’s worth of breening, because here comes The Red Shoes!
- The first problem occurs right in the first scene. A group of wild students come rushing into the ballet theater, and, amid the hubbub, several of them quote a few lines from “The Charge of the Light Brigade” including the phrase, “into the jaws of hell.” This line seems rather inappropriate, particularly in this context. Perhaps they could quote another passage from this poem.
- In this same scene, Lady Neston, another theatergoer, sends a note to the box of the ballet director, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), inviting him to a party. When she sees him shake his finger, refusing the invitation, she quite plainly mouths a swearword. This is unacceptable and must be removed.
- In the next scene, at Lady Neston’s party, Vicky (Moira Shearer), is wearing a dress with a slightly low neckline. The neckline should be raised.
- The characters Ivan Boleslawsky (Robert Helpmann) and Grischa Ljubov (Leonide Massine), especially the former, are quite prevalently effeminate. This is largely due to the actual nature of the two gentlemen playing the characters. However, regardless of their personal beliefs, the pansy flavor must be removed from their characters. Ivan should not wear so much makeup when he’s performing, to start, and he must act masculine at all times. The very normal nature he shows the morning after Vicky’s first triumph should be carried throughout the rest of the film. Grischa also often shows a more normal nature when interacting with Irina Boronskaja (Ludmilla Tcherina) and Vicky. It should be ensured that he shows this nature all the time.
- While ballet men usually wear only tights and tunics these days, in the 1940’s, they still wore modesty briefs sometimes. In view of this, and for the sake of decency, the ballet men should wear some form of modesty briefs.
- When Vicky first comes to the theater, Grischa is very annoyed that Lermontov has invited another girl to join the ballet. He angrily says, “Would you please go to the far corner of the stage, where you’ll meet five other young ladies to whom Mr. Lermontov has also extended his… hospitality.” The way he says this line, especially the last word, seems suggestive. Instead, he should say, “Where you’ll meet five other young ladies whom Mr. Lermontov has also assured me are brilliant dancers.” While there may be a slight hint of sarcasm in his tone, he must not say the line suggestively.
- In the next scene, a class at the theater is shown. There are several costume problems in this scene. Ivan is wearing shorts, but they are just as clingy and indecent as tights. They must be made thicker and looser, and they should be in a more masculine color.
- Secondly, Vicky is not wearing tights, and her black shorts are preposterously short and tight. She should be wearing tights, and she should wear longer, looser shorts and possibly a skirt. Also, it must be ensured that she is properly supported under her thin white top.
- Finally, the last girl at the bar, while she is wearing tights, is wearing similar revealing shorts. They must be made longer and looser.
- Just as a general note, it must be ensured that the dancers’ rehearsal outfits are always covering. Any shirts tied up to reveal midriffs, low necklines, revealing shorts, or flimsy tops with no support underneath them must be revised.
- At the end of the class scene, Grischa exclaims, “Class dismissed!” As the scene fades out, he pulls a hairnet over his head. This strange and unnecessary detail must be eliminated.
- In a later scene, Vicky is shown dancing Swan Lake on a rainy afternoon at a little theater. This is the first time we see her in her stage makeup. It includes a great deal of black eyeliner, as well as some red eyeliner on the outside of her eyes and a little red dot on the inside of her eyes. This makes her look slightly ghoulish. The red eyeliner should be removed, and the black eyeliner should be toned down slightly, as well.
- In a later scene at a train station, Borinskaja is wearing a very nice cream suit. However, the neckline is a bit low. Either a button should be added to the coat, or she should wear a visible blouse underneath it.
- In a later scene, when Vicky goes to a conference of the ballet directors and learns that she is to play the lead in their new ballet, she is wearing a beautiful ballgown. However, this one-strapped dress is cut rather low on one side of her chest. The neckline must be raised.
- In the first scene of Vicky practicing her new part in the ballet The Red Shoes, she is wearing only a black leotard that is cut very high at the bottom. It must be made decently long, and she should wear some kind of skirt. Also, she doesn’t seem to have much support under her leotard. It must be ensured that she is wearing a proper undergarment. Although it is apparent that she is wearing stockings from the seams, she appears to be barelegged at first glance. She should either wear tights or darker stockings.
- Later, on the opening night of The Red Shoes, Grischa suddenly finds that the red shoes are missing. Shocked and horrified, he exclaims, “Mon Dieu!” This is French for “My God.” This seems rather irreverent. It should be changed to, “Oh, no!”
- There are several problems in the ballet The Red Shoes. The first of these is Vicky’s costume as the Girl. The neckline is slightly low. It must be raised to ensure that her chest is not unduly exposed.
- The second problem is the appearance of Grischa as the villainous shoemaker. His makeup and wig make him appear a bit too frightening. They should be toned down.
- The third problem is the carnival sequence. There are some scary clown faces and other rather frightening carnival images, as well as a cutout of a naked woman. The cutout must be removed, and the frightening elements must be toned down.
- The fourth problem occurs when a random newspaper floating along the street turns into Ivan. His costume is too tight, and the newspaper print painted onto his face is rather ghoulish. There should be no print on his actual skin, and the costume should be looser.
- The fifth problem is a sequence which seems to represent the red light district. Several women in very scanty costumes are leaning suggestively against lampposts, and they reach out toward the Girl, as if calling for her to join them. Just as they are reaching out to take her, they suddenly run away, revealing the Shoemaker. This is unacceptable and must be changed. Instead, the Girl should be wandering down an empty street with the same lampposts but no women, when the Shoemaker suddenly appears and grabs her.
- The next sequence seems to represent Hell. The Girl is accosted by extremely ghoulish creatures, which seem to be some kind of zombies. They show her a funereal bed, then they begin surrounding her. She turns around in horror, seeing them crawling toward her from all directions. Then, they all crowd around her and lift her high into the air, before suddenly disappearing, leaving her alone on the empty stage. Instead, this sequence should just represent her dancing all alone across the world, perhaps showing different civilizations and towns passing by in a blur. Ivan’s character, the Boy, is seen at the beginning of the sequence, also a zombie. He could just appear to her briefly in each place she passes, perhaps wearing a different outfit in each civilization.
- As a general note, throughout the ballet sequence there is rather frightening lighting and imagery, giving it the feeling of a horror film. Any ghoulish images or disturbing lighting affects should be toned down.
- The next morning, Vicky comes to the studio in a very revealing rehearsal outfit. She is wearing a blue shirt tied up to reveal her midriff and the same tight, short black shorts over bare legs. Instead, she should wear a nice leotard or an appropriate blouse with looser, longer shorts and tights.
- In this scene, Ivan appears to be wearing a blue leotard. He also has a red scarf tied around his head like a bandana, and he is barelegged. When he first enters, he is wearing a rather feminine-looking “cover-up,” as well. This outfit is unacceptable and must be changed to standard class attire. He should be wearing a shirt, modesty briefs, and tights, with no head adornment. His outer garment should be made more masculine, too.
- When the rest of the dancers come in, most of the women appear to be wearing bikinis or other types of revealing bathing suits, not dancing attire. They should be wearing appropriate clothing like they were at class back in London.
- The next scene begins with a shot of a naked statue from the back. This undue focus on the statue is unnecessary and inappropriate. Rather than showing the statue through a window and then pulling back to show Mr. Lermontov’s office, the scene should start with a shot of the office. If they still wish to begin with focus on something random, it should be something else, such as the ocean view, the statue of a pointe shoe, or the piano.
- In a later scene, Vicky and the young composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), are driving along the seaside in a hansom. They are practically lying next to each other, and their manner is rather passionate. Instead, they should be sitting nicely in the back of the hansom, with her perhaps leaning her head against his shoulder.
- In this scene, Vicky says she wants to know where they are, so she leans forward to ask the driver, who has fallen asleep. However, as she is in the middle of calling him, Julian grabs her and kisses her rather aggressively, as they fall back against the seat. This kiss is rather lustful and must be revised. Instead, after she has called the driver’s name once, he should rather playfully cut her off by taking her around the waist and kissing her gently. However, the kiss should not be too long or too passionate.
- The next problem occurs in the final scene, when Julian, who is now Vicky’s husband, arrives in her dressing room on the day of her triumphant return to the ballet. After speaking to her for a moment, he suddenly falls to his knees and buries his face in her torso, while clutching at her waist and chest. This seems rather inappropriate and must be revised. Instead, he could put his arms around her in a standing position. However, if it is deemed necessary for the scene to have him fall to his knees, she should sit down, and he should kneel beside her and perhaps put his head on her lap. However, he must not clutch at her chest or touch her anywhere inappropriately.
- In the last scene, upset by Lermontov and Julian pulling her in both directions, Vicky exclaims to the two men, “Oh, for God’s sake, leave me alone, both of you!” The exclamation is unacceptable and must be changed. Instead, she should say “for Heaven’s sake” or “for goodness sake!”
- The final problem is the ending. Although torn between her love for Julian and her desire to dance for Lermontov, Vicky ultimately chooses to dance. However, she is heartbroken by Julian’s farewell. As she walks down the hall toward the stage, her feet suddenly begin to move backwards, as though the Red Shoes are pulling her. Then, she suddenly breaks away and begins running like mad, down the stairs and out onto the balcony. Julian, who is walking down the street, looks up just in time to see her fall from the balcony, right in front of the train passing below. Lermontov announces that she will be unable to dance that night or any other, but the ballet is put on anyway, with an empty spotlight showing where she should be. Meanwhile, a dying Vicky on the train track below tells Julian to “take off the Red Shoes.” As the ballet ends, the screen fades to the “Finis” title card. This ending is unacceptably bleak and violent. To make this a Code film, it would have to be changed. Here are three different acceptable endings. The first ending is the one which is perhaps the closest to the message the filmmakers originally had. All goes the same through the dressing room scene. After Julian leaves, Vicky walks to the stage, crying. However, as the curtain goes up, she enters and begins to dance magnificently. Lermontov is shown in his box, watching. Then, as her feet are shown dancing in the Red Shoes, Lermontov’s line from an earlier scene is heard echoing over the picture. “Time rushes by. Life rushes by. Love rushes by, but the Red Shoes dance on.” Then, as in the present film, the end of the ballet is shown before fading to the final title card. The second ending ends the opposite way, with her choosing love. In this one, she also pulls herself together to dance, and a brief overview of her dancing is shown. All goes well until she comes to the place where she and Julian had always disagreed about the tempo. She suddenly hears an echo of her voice saying, “It’s too fast.” Then, she has a flashback to an earlier scene in Lermontov’s office, when Julian was playing the score for her. Several images from that day flash through her mind, and she hears him saying, “It’s the right tempo.” Suddenly, she turns and runs from the stage, as everyone gasps, the orchestra stops playing, and Lermontov jumps up from his chair. Her feet, still in the Red Shoes, are shown running downstairs and out into the street. Then, she is seen arriving at the train station, where Julian is about to board a train. She runs to him and throws her arms around him, telling him that she realized she doesn’t care about dancing as much as she cares about him. They begin to board the train, but as she places her foot on the first step, she suddenly stops and says, “Wait. Julian, take off the Red Shoes.” He takes off the shoes and tosses them away, and they board the train together. The third and final ending is perhaps the happiest, as it completely reverses the message of the original film, by showing that she can have love and a career. As in the other two endings, she goes on and dances beautifully. However, during the long sequence when she is dancing by herself, she looks down at the conductor and then up at Lermontov in his box. Suddenly, her attention is drawn to movement in the audience. She looks down and sees Julian sitting down in the front row. He smiles at her, and she smiles back, then continues dancing. As in the original, the final shot will be the ending of the ballet, as the shoemaker presents the Red Shoes to the audience.
This concludes my breening of The Red Shoes! I personally enjoyed this film very much, largely because I am a dancer. I was especially impressed that the lead was played by an actual ballerina, who danced beautifully as well as giving a brilliant acting performance. However, as you can see, with these changes, the film could have been greatly improved. This is not really a dark film overall, but the tragic ending gives a rather macabre feeling to it. When looking back on this film after the first viewing, it seemed rather dark. However, the rest of the movie is really just the story of a ballerina’s rise to stardom. With one of my suggested endings, however, it would just be a dramatic epic of the ballet world. I hope you enjoyed this breening adventure, and I’ll see you next time!
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