The success of the recent ballet film Black Swan  has inspired references to an earlier version of the same basic thematic trope--pertinently, the classic British production The Red Shoes . Though the latter film is somewhat more ambitious and pointed in its use of the story-within-a-story conceit, clearly both efforts are based on it, and each plays off the cliché of the tragic principle ballerina role whose real life fate is entwined with the fictional dramatization of the stage piece which symbolizes her dilemma, and eventual artistic triumph or downfall. I saw Black Swan when it came out a few months ago, and it's a competent work, using special effects to good purpose, but it seemed a trifle predictable and derivative--especially of that earlier film.
Natalie Portman in Black Swan 
Films we see in our impressionable childhoods may have an inexplicable power over us, as if they had somehow happened in reality. As we grow older, we are less able to perceive dramatic actions as vividly and immediately as we did in childhood, when our consciousness--the proscenium, as it were, of our awareness--apprehends things as larger than life--or as life itself. Which is not to suggest that we aren't sensible of the pretend nature of art, only that experiencing it then, occurs almost as actual real-time experience, and on an emotional par with it.
My mother took me to see The Red Shoes in a theater when I only 5 years old. I was her only child, then, and it was not anticipated that I would ever have any siblings. My mother tended to experience things only from a feminine point of view, and her projection of it, channeled through her own frustrations and dreams, her confused and resentful sexual nature, was expressed as a desire to make me the instrument of those projections. I have no doubt that she would have preferred to have a daughter, instead of a boy. She preferred always to buy "girls" toys and clothing for me, and was frustrated that I didn't accede to these talismans of her dream-life. As I grew older, I had the distinct sensation that she wished that I would become homosexual, as that would in some way remove me from the heterosexual context which she resented, but felt powerless to influence, or to act out, in her own life. Even now, almost 60 years later, I can still feel a vague memory of the faint sexual embarrassment I experienced, watching that magical movie, The Red Shoes. It was a troubling experience, but a formative one. In retrospect, I can bless my stars for having been given this experience at that age, though for purposes and reasons that surely weren't mine. She would have said, then, that taking me to a movie like this was a part of my education, in the Victorian sense, just as my later church-going and little league baseball participation were intended to teach me crucial lessons of life.
As a boy, I grew up thinking of ballet as an effeminate pastime, one dominated by limp-wristed queens and jealous prima donnas, graceful, over-refined and emotionally pathetic. By all accounts, a pretty naive attitude, but typical of the lower middle-class culture in which we lived. I couldn't have told you this in so many words, then, obviously, but I certainly felt it at that level.
The symbolic importance of red shoes in cinema is well-established. Dorothy's ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz [1939--only 9 years earlier] had glowed with the same sort of preternatural intensity in memory. Indeed, the power of shoes--or slippers--or dancing shoes--to propel the wearer, or to impart magical powers, or to lead the wearer into an irresistible (even tragic) destiny--seemed like the stuff of fairy-tales, as indeed they were. Both movies were adaptations of juvenile fictional models--The Red Shoes having been originally a Hans Christian Andersen story. The first time we see the red shoes in the ballet episode, they appear to glimmer in the spotlights, in the shop window of the old shoemaker, and the moment Shearer puts them on, she flies into irrepressible motion. Red shoes are clearly magic.
Certainly it was no single aspect of the production which moved me at age 5, but the overall effect of all the elements--the music, the color, the costumes, the dramatic fantasy, the severe theatrically drawn characterizations. I could not have said then what effect these aspects could, or would have, on me, but they entered my subconscious mind, indelibly imprinting my memory, and doubtless determining, or at least influencing, my character forever.
The Red Shoes has been interpreted, naturally enough, as a fictional fantasy upon the Diaghilev Ballet Russe Company. The myth of the "ruthless" "imperious" impresario, bent upon artistic fame, who manipulates and abuses the members of his company, is fully realized in the figure of Boris Lermontov, the parallel character in the film (played with panache and arch slyness by Anton Walbrook). Lermontov draws the unsuspecting aspiring ballerina into collaboration with his new composer discovery Julian Craster (played with romantic dash by Marius Goring), with stock parts going to Ludmilla Tchérina (as the retiring female lead Boronskaja), and Léonide Massine (basically as himself--who had once been Nijinsky's replacement in the original Ballet Russe).
In another frame of life imitating art, the part of the tragic heroine, Victoria Page, is played by a professional ballet dancer, completely untrained for acting, Moira Shearer, whom the producers of the film--Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger--had had some difficulty in persuading to do the part at all. She had never acted before, and was in the beginning stages of a serious career in ballet when she was fingered for the part in Red Shoes.
Victoria with Lermontov
In the accounts I've read, there's a little of the devil's mistress flavor to the whole affair--Shearer herself was nothing if not unambiguous: "If I am dubious about films and film people; the film industry has only itself to blame. I have been asked to play Shakespeare. Other parts include a Bernard Shaw play and a classic previously made by one of the screen's finest actresses. It would be ludicrous for me to try to play any of these parts. I am not an actress. What people cannot realize is that a ballet dancer just cannot afford to give up ballet for a moment. After a month without practising you are thrown back years. Isn't it strange that something you've never really wanted to do turns out to be the very thing that's given you a name and identity?...The Red Shoes (1948) ruined my career in the ballet. They [her peers] never trusted me again."
Shearer continued to dance professionally until 1953, when she gave it up following an injury. She was offered parts opposite Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding , and with Gene Kelly in Brigadoon , but she turned them both down. It may be hard for us to understand why the lady did complain so much, but it was a different time--before television, and before movies had become so much more important (and lucrative) a career than the legitimate theater or classical dance.
The framing device which I mentioned above works this way: the impresario Lermontov figure's counterpart is held by the shoemaker in the ballet. Each intends to guide and control his "muse" as the puppeteer his puppet. In the ballet, this results in the death of the muse. In the movie, it results in the muse's suicide. In the wider frame of the making of the movie itself, Shearer's dancing career is compromised by her choice to act instead of pursuing her first calling.
In the movie, an affair between Victoria Paige and the composer Julian Craster results in Paige's firing by Lermontov, driving the two lovers together. Craster occupies, ironically enough, the same symbolic position as Lermontov, since it is his "lyricism" (his score, for the ballet) that "seduces" Paige--in fact, they are competing seducers of her soul. Exiled from the company which gave their lives meaning, the lovers yearn for a reinstatement by the imperious and temperamental Lermontov. Eventually, he prevails upon Vicky to resume her position with the company and to dance The Red Shoes again. In the culmination of the narrative, on the eve of her performance, simultaneously with the concurrent debut of Craster's new opera at Covent Garden--the two men vie for her favor--Craster begging her to leave the company, and Lermontov insisting she choose art over love. Vicky, devastated and conflicted by the choice, dressed in her outfit (with the shoes), and preparing uncertainly for her stage entrance, is seized by despair, and flees instead out of the theater, jumping off a balcony onto the tracks before a churning train-engine. Craster holds the dying Vicky in his arms as she tells him to "remove the red shoes" from her feet. Lermontov, fighting back grief and frustration, announces to the audience at curtain-time that he will present the whole ballet without her, her part "empty" in the spotlight--the dancers pretending she's present. The melodramatic symbolism of it all is quite over the top, in a Forties kind of way, but to a child, responding to the very fairy-tale structure of the narrative, such mechanisms are the stuff of dreams.
Indeed, the whole movie is a grand, if simple, conceit told in terms of a romanticized contemporary setting. What I would take away from the movie upon my first seeing it were just a few visual queues: The red shoes themselves, glimmering in the throbbing footlights, Vicky Paige's washed-out red-haired ghostly presence--her hysterical mask at the moment of terror, Craster's adolescent impulsiveness, Lermontov's poisonous glances, Massine's (the Shoemaker of the ballet) macabre, malign mugging violation, etc. Today I would notice, for instance, the premonition of Craster and Paige standing on a balcony overlooking the train tracks which occurs earlier in the movie; or the more subtle manipulations of Lermontov to engineer Vicky back to his company--the sort of things a childhood mind would be incapable of comprehending.
I think what affected me most deeply then was Vicky's perilous vulnerability and mercurial evanescence in the face of the demands of performance, which of course is the motive-force of the narrative--to be both the object of affection and the victim of it simultaneously. The melodramatic fatalism of that paradigm will always have a strong appeal with audiences.
I wonder how I would react today, if I were able to see Black Swan at the same age I'd seen The Red Shoes. I suppose the effect would be quite similar--the more graphic imagery of the later film, with the self-wounding, the delusional fantasies turned into visual animation, the demonic possession, the feminine vulnerability, the scheming, sexual predator-head-choreographer, etc.
The Red Shoes is a masterpiece of cinema. The choreography, the score, the perfect casting, the tight script, the magnificent color. Within the multiple frames--actual movie production, the movie itself, ballet within movie--the theme of the muse seduced into compliance, as love object, puppet-master's apprentice, and tragic heroine, both love- and star-crossed, makes for an unforgettable experience. Initially under-appreciated by audiences, it eventually went on to great popularity, much as The Wizard of Oz did, becoming a classic of its kind, and for much the same reasons. It's in my top 20, for sure.
The whole film of The Red Shoes can be viewed online on YouTube, under the RS1-13 sequence uploaded by RobinSena23344 in July 2010--from this URL forward.