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Thursday, October 14, 2010

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.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

"many would no more watch The Red Shoes than jump off the Chrysler Building..."

You got that right.

The one time I sat through the movie, I wanted to put on the red shoes and jump in front of that train.

2:15 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

I've always looked at The red Shoes as a "spinach movie"--something you should watch, but not much fun (I wish i could shake that feeling about a lot of Ford's work).

I've been tempted to take the plunge since seeing (and falling in love with) Black Narcissus, and clips of it always look great, but the subject matter is a hard sell for me.

3:10 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Some very interesting observations about "The Red Shoes" from Donald Benson:

Saw this one ages ago on a big screen -- Variety nailed it with the line
about a backstage melodrama. Yes, it was visually stunning and the backstage
world was fascinating, but the plot still boiled down to a girl having to
choose between housewifery and art, and making the mistake of choosing art
(her composer husband chooses art but that doesn't seem to be a problem).

Sometimes, the more daring or unusual the rest of the movie, the more they
anchor it with familiar clichés. In this case, the celebration of ballet was
framed by a story appealing to an audience that disliked and distrusted
anything like ballet -- or women with careers.

Not quite the same as DeMille wrapping forbidden fruit in Sunday School
lessons -- more like pouring lots of catsup on sushi.

3:56 PM  
Anonymous Bob said...

Simply one of the greatest movies ever made.

4:01 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

The point of the movie, it seems to me, isn't that Vicky is "punished" for choosing art over housewifery, but that the poor girl is doomed no matter what she does. For me, the script juxtaposes and contrasts Vicky with the girl in Andersen's story. The story girl is punished by the shoes for her selfish vanity, while Vicky herself has none -- she only wants to dance and be happy, but is allowed neither. For me, Vicky is the one sympathetic character in that melodramatic triangle; the two men are just different shades of the same arrogant pig.

I look forward to checking out the Blu-ray, having already been floored by the laserdisc and DVD. I once read (or heard) somewhere that The Red Shoes was the official choice of the Technicolor Corporation as the most beautiful Technicolor picture ever made. I believe it.

7:14 PM  
Blogger Dugan said...

I like "The Red Shoes." but it's over two hours for what is essentially a simple story. I also have never really cared for those long musical numbers that show up in the middle of these films, they just stop the film completely. The Girl Hunt Ballet from "The Bandwagon" is about the only exception for me. Honestly,"Tales of Hoffmann" is a real effort to sit through.

On another note, I remember reading an interview with a local theater exhibitor in which he said all the British films he booked into the Twin Cities seemed to have Trevor Howard in them.

7:52 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Indeed, John, it is the awful perfection of digital media that is its own worst enemy. Nobody wants scratches or unintentionally out of focus images, but there was, is and (for an exponentially diminishing number of folks always will be) something about the random and often frustrating world of analog cinema that will never be matched. Fact is, for MOST of the world of film, the standards for reproduction of image and sound are far lower than they ever were in the past because consumers simply have no clue. Ultimately, nobody cares about The Red Shoes or any other film except for Titanic and Star Wars (I think they call it "Episode IV" or something these days).

All that aside, RED SHOES is lovely but I'll choose Renoir's GOLDEN COACH over it any day for Technicolor art house indulgence. Among the Archers' films, BLACK NARCISSUS is better in every respect (it has *Sabu* in it, for cripesake!!!), and the script of SHOES can't touch the perfection of I KNOW WHERE IM GOING.

MDG14450 made a comment about Ford that I would love to respond to in depth but I don't have time now. ;) Suffice it to say that my film dream above all right now is to see Ford's THE QUIET MAN restored with all of the love attended to the SHOES. As it stands, the digitally available version of the movie appears taken from elements where the color is out of sync more than half the time.

10:47 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

for me the big draw in The Red Shoes as in Tales of Hoffmann and in some degree,The Story Of Three Loves,is largely Moira Shearer.Her white skin,red hair and the way color radiates from her perfect form!Best way to sell Red Shoes at home is don't tell anyone its coming on or what its about,hide the remote and let the technicolor and easy to take storyline weaken your guests..

11:34 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

It is not one of the greatest movies ever made... it is not even original.

This film has been constantly robbed credit for the pioneering film. DONDE MUEREN LAS PALABRAS directed by Hugo Fregonese in Argentina, in 1946, and purchased by MGM for worlwide distribution, although here it was handled by subsidiary Loppert Films.

Despite Powell and Presburger had Technicolor, the Fregonese film had terrific black and white cinematography by José María Beltrán.

It is also a much better constructed film with a deeper and human story, facing cliches but avoiding them, that the British film lacks. The Homero Manzi and Ulyses Petit de Murat script is rooted in film noir and there is suspense from beginning to end and the ballet sequence is a climax, not an incidental thing in the middle like in THE RED SHOES.

The ballet sequence in the Fregonese film was the very first time that something like that was ever done in the big screen and it is regrettable that the film is so ignored even when it can be located for free.

Despite Technicolor and a ballet sequence, THE RED SHOES is a weak film. And DONDE MUEREN LAS PALABRAS, which was done a few years before, is one of the greatest and strongest of all motion pictures.

1:53 AM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

Certainly the movie infiltrated popular culture enough to generate the song "Dance, Ballerina, Dance" a hit for Nat King Cole (it had an identical theme).

Ironically, I got up early this morning to do something and when I looked at the TV they were showing THE TURNING POINT, which is about two women, dancers who had that same dilemma--one chose art, the other chose housewifery--and the conflict when their paths crossed decades later.
(as the film buff, does this title still hold the dubious achievement of the most Oscar nominations [11] without a win?)

I also noted the title HE WALKED BY NIGHT in the Eagle-Lion ad. That was one of the first films to be based on an actual police case, and it had a Los Angeles police department officer acting as technical adviser. This cop got into a conversation with an actor playing a small supporting role in the film--but who was better known for portraying private eyes on the radio...ones who showed up the police, making the flatfoots look foolish while THEY solved the crimes (usually with a lot of gunplay).

The officer told him that he should think about trying to portraying police work as it really was--methodical, technical, even unglamorous and tedious.

That conversation struck a chord in the actor, whose name was...Jack Webb.

And now you know...the Rest of the Story.

9:17 AM  
Anonymous Jim Harwood said...

I watched the restoration of "The Red Shoes" at UCLA this past year and the new print is excellent. I also bought the Blu-ray and on my new 1080p projector it also looks quite lovely. BUT, my 16mm IB Technicolor print still looks better to me. Yes the restoration is sharper and has a bit more detail in fine objects, but the IB print has a richer, more vibrant look.

Now I'm not one of those IB zealots who immediately rate everything in dye transfer as being superior. Far from it. I've seen many new restorations of Technicolor films that surpass the qualities of the older prints. The new restoration of "The Red Shoes" is gorgeous, but never did it "wow" me. From the first seconds of watching my IB print, thru to the end, there were many, many times where I was in awe of the visual richness of the color and contrast.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I think the restoration is flawed in any way. The new print's as good as it can possibly be. There's just something about a well-made IB print that takes the quality a step or two further. It's almost like watching an animated oil painting by one of the masters.

So John, this is one of the few times I disagree with you. You shoulda kept your IB print!

7:19 PM  
Anonymous Joshua said...

Paul Duca: THE TURNING POINT is tied for the record for most Oscar nominations without a win. The other movie that also went 0-for-11 was THE COLOR PURPLE.

9:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I certainly never considered my movie tastes to necessarily be "cultured" or any of the other descriptions in the reviews you've mentioned of those who supposedly should like THE RED SHOES. But for some reason I have always liked it and still try to see it again whenever convenient.
But I do agree with the comment by Dugan about too-long musical numbers slowing up movies (Except, if considered comparable, those by Busby Berkeley in the great WB musicals).

Have Three Stooges fans ever caught the "Red Shoes" reference in one of their shorts? In the 1951 short HULA-LA-LA Shemp is demonstrating dance steps. Moe, sarcastically refering to Shemp's lack of dancing talents, calls him, "Hey, Red Shoes..."

4:28 PM  
Anonymous David P. said...

The souvenir booklet for the restoration is on-line at:
and includes a short essay by Bob Gitt on the restoration.

10:05 PM  

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