These Red Shoes Had Legs
I admit to having been intimidated by The Red Shoes. So were exhibitors when the pic was new. It's a devil of a show to sell. Trade reviewers warned of that from the start. My single night run at Greenbriar's university venue amounted to a game try, but kinda died in spite of well-decorated fronts and an appeal to what there was of a campus dance program. That was in 2003. Running the trailer for two weeks up to playdate, I got the unspoken message from kids unimpressed, Oh, Man, why are you showing that?. Now The Red Shoes is on Blu-Ray and has never looked so pristine (not even on 35mm nitrate, say some), but more of that anon. I need to understand better what's so daunting about this one. A lot of people, including many who otherwise love films, would no more watch The Red Shoes than jump off the Chrysler Building. It has what we'd call specialized appeal, a type showmen would say needs careful handling (those terms heavily bandied at time of TRS's release). To label it the quintessential art film would not be untoward. A plow through trades enlightened me as to just what that careful handling amounted to. J. Arthur Rank was guiding force behind The Red Shoes' domestic release, in partnership with then-recent start-up distributor Eagle-Lion. Rank had been several years trying to crack US markets while holding our product at bay in UK venues he controlled. British movies at the least needed to be really special for us to notice. Theatres here, especially in the heartland, shunned foreign merchandise. Yes, they spoke English in England (barely, claimed showmen), but comparisons ended there. Brit offerings were just too elevated and lacked our common touch. Outside cities with their art houses, it was mostly hands-off.
The Red Shoes would be that something special. Premieres beginning October 21 at New York's Bijou Theatre (a legit house converted for the occasion) were like opening night for live performances. The strategy was to present first screenings as a benefit for known charities and enlist local society doyens for prestige. Ticket sales at the Bijou bow aided The Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen's Club, with a Red Shoes Ball to follow at the Plaza Hotel's Terrace Room. Similar events launched roadshow bookings in key cities through remainder of 1948, all of '49, and most of 1950. The Red Shoes would play two-a-day at advanced prices and set records for longevity in many houses charging up to $2.40 a head. Magazine and newspaper critics were over the moon with praise, while trade scribes had doubt. Variety called The Red Shoes' first hour a commonplace backstage melodrama, but acknowledged the long ballet sequence as breath-taking and out-classing anything that could be done on the stage. Their reviewer summed up thus: there isn't enough in the story for the general public to hold interest for two and a quarter hours. Harrison's Reports recognized an artistic achievement that should win wide critical acclaim, but warned that The Red Shoes' appeal will be limited to cultured audiences, for it is not the sort of picture that the masses will find to their taste. Fortunately however, The Red Shoes played largely to said cultured mob, with ideas tested throughout hard-ticket months to lure mass patronage. Largest challenge for the roadshow was advanced price well beyond what customers generally paid. US distributor Eagle-Lion went all-out to brand The Red Shoes a must-see (and right now!) attraction so as to make up for revenue limits imposed by art house seating capacities (below 1000 in nearly all situations) and fact those houses could be filled but twice in a day.
Canadian venues, with closer ties to the empire, put The Red Shoes before much larger crowds. The new 2,300 seat Odeon-Toronto (above) was also Dominion headquarters for the J. Arthur Rank organization, so there was no surprise having The Red Shoes' biggest Western Hemisphere splash here. Eagle-Lion was meanwhile consolidating tie-in plans for a long US roadshow haul. The most obvious ones were hardest pushed, namely music, dance, and ... shoes. The Capezio Company was on board to link the film with its line of ballet footwear, and red slippers hung off store display windows and marquees for many an engagement. The "Long Leg" art used in advertising and promotion (above) became well-recognized identification for The Red Shoes, one of those lucky poster images people remembered. Columbia Masterworks also issued a soundtrack album in both standard and long-playing versions. There had been recent indication that right handled British-made features might break through in domestic markets. Laurence Olivier's Hamlet grossed nearly two million in its first year of release, and major theatre circuits usually hostile to offshore product expressed willingness to book it. Playing Hamlet and previous Henry V, as well as Great Expectations, amounted to a real community service, said Harrison's Reports, and The Red Shoes, focused as it was on ballet as artistic expression, had no trouble bringing out educators and opinion makers who would spend $2.40 for tickets and advise others to do the same. This was an attraction made for school and club groups. Tampa, Florida's Park Theatre, for instance, scored a live prologue with fifty-six students from the city's dance academy to warm up patronage, and strong word-of-mouth for The Red Shoes had ticket-buyers driving in from far as eighty miles to watch.
With awards showering down through 1949, including three from the Academy, The Red Shoes went into 1950 and popular price engagements with plenty more name recognition than it had starting out. Still, Eagle-Lion salesmen had work cut out for them. Highbrow plaudits didn't count for beans at sites where ballet was at the least an unknown, and unwanted, quantity, and it wasn't as though E-L had muscle to compel bookings. Their season offerings included but one, Tulsa, that could be classed top boxoffice. Indeed, several of features displayed in trade ads from the company (like one above) were British imported with even less appeal than The Red Shoes. Small exhibitors were, as expected, resistant. One in Aguilar, Colorado perhaps summed up things for the rest: No, I didn't play this, but went out of my way to see it. It is a wonderful feature. However, I wouldn't take a chance in my small town. My customers wouldn't understand it. It is an English picture, and in my town that means poison! (his exclamation). So how much did this even matter to Rank and Eagle-Lion? Their two million from The Red Shoes was got over the nearly two years it played roadshow, so rural spots on this occasion could just go fish.
I don't want to go away without mentioning Criterion's new DVD. The Red Shoes is on Blu-Ray now and I guess this is how it will be watched for some while to come (at least until they find a way to simply implant its images onto our brains). Robert Gitt of UCLA's preservation program wrote fascinating notes for a booklet extra about what went into the restoration. That process has achieved such levels that we may finally be safe in saying that The Red Shoes looks better today than what first-run audiences experienced in the late forties. Has digital truly passed film for a truest image? I once had a 16mm Red Shoes in dye-transfer Technicolor. Colors were rich but the image was soft. I came around to thinking maybe the movie always looked that way. Now I've seen this Blu-Ray that's sharp as a pin and harbor few regrets for having let go the 16mm. There are purists who lament classics being shown in digital format. They'll argue of integrity lost with abandonment of emulsion on reels. Film was always unpredictable because no two prints were alike. You could unspool ten Red Shoes on Technicolor stock and get a different sensation with each. My Blu-Ray's a treat but it's going to appear exactly the same next time I watch as it did last night (assuming my own senses remain intact). Notice the 1949 ad above for arc lamps that use imagery from The Red Shoes to promise The Brightest Pictures On The Biggest Screens. Back then, they really had to pour light on dense Technicolor film to make it pop. Were Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger pleased with 35mm prints they saw in exhibition? According to Criterion notes, there were problems inherent in these that couldn't be corrected at the time, but can now. Would Powell, if he were with us, say his film looks better today than he could have imagined in 1948? Ease of presentation makes me opt for digital routes, but there'll come a day, I'm afraid, when no one will be around to remember what The Red Shoes was like when it was a movie instead of a disc.