"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" ... Bogart, Shakespeare, The Maltese Falcon, Those Great Movies

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Powell and Pressberger Masterpiece - The Red Shoes

Leonide Massine and Moira Shearer
The Red Shoes, created in 1948 by the unmatchable team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger, is a film of conflict, love and tragedy, without doubt the most famous ballet-themed movie ever made.  The film is adored by many and disliked by some – it’s unusual, at times unearthly, certainly larger-than-life telling of the story has engendered much discussion among film-lovers for decades.  In this article, I am spotlighting the actors and dancers in front of the camera whose talents made Powell and Pressberger’s vision come to life.  

Structured as a story within a story, Hans Christian Anderson’s tale about a girl who covets a pair of red shoes, only to find that they dance her to her doom, is mirrored in the story of ballerina Vicky Page (Moira Shearer).  Her love of dancing and fascination with ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) collides with her wish for normal life and love with composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring).  This conflict is portrayed on a melodramatic and epic scale.  The brilliant Ballet of the Red Shoes is a marvel of impressionistic artistry (certainly a precursor and inspiration for Gene Kelly’s 1951 American in Paris ballet).  The ballet was choreographed by the great premier danseur Robert Helpmann.  Celebrated choreographer and premier danseur Leonide Massine brings his eccentric brilliance to the role of the demonic shoemaker.  With luminous music by Brian Easdale, glorious cinematography by Jack Cardiff, and the genius of writer-producer-directors Powell and Pressberger, The Red Shoes has earned its high place in cinema history.

Moira Shearer

Already a principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet in England, 22-year old Scottish-born Moira Shearer was chosen to play the part of Vicky Page.  Several actresses had been discussed for the part, including Merle Oberon, Ann Todd and Hazel Court.  However, none of the women were dancers and the ballet would have to be performed by a double.  Powell was adamant that the part must be played by a professional ballerina, and the difficult search was on for someone who could carry the entire performance – act, dance and be radiantly beautiful at the same time.  When Shearer came to the team’s attention, she knocked out all competition.  To their distress, Shearer was not at all interested in starring in a movie.  Unlike today, the world of ballet at the time frowned upon seeing its celebrated dancers become involved in movies, considering the ballet a higher form of art.  It took a year for the team to persuade Shearer to accept the part.   

At the Royal Ballet, Shearer was considered second only to the great and immensely popular Dame Margot Fonteyn, who was in her prime.  Shearer knew there would be little chance to step into Fonteyn’s shoes, and this may have had something to do with her decision to accept The Red Shoes.  Filming of the movie was not a good experience for Shearer.  Accustomed to dancing classical ballet on the stage from start to finish, she found the constant stops and starts in filming to be frustrating.  She had to dance on unsprung concrete floors, and was plagued with swelling of her legs and feet.  A special bright spotlight, extremely hot, had to be used to light her during the ballet.  Shearer really disliked the long periods of time she had to spend in harness with a wind machine blowing on her during portions of the ballet’s filming.  In her defense, the making of a movie and the performance of a ballet on stage are worlds apart, and Shearer had no experience with movies.  She said in later 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) ruined my career in the ballet.  They never trusted me again.

Shearer went on to dance again after The Red Shoes, but, as one who had not yet attained world-class status as a ballerina, she had lost her prominent place in the line-up of the world of ballet.  She made only a few more movies, one with Michael Powell, The Peeping Tom (1960).  Her other movies of note were The Tales of Hoffman (1951) and The Story of Three Loves (1953), both renowned.  But it is as Vicky Page that Shearer will always be remembered, and without her The Red Shoes would not have attained the magnitude of great film that it is.

Anton Walbrook

It would be hard to imagine anyone but Anton Walbrook playing the complexity of the dominating, sometimes ruthless, sometimes poignant part of  Boris Lermontov, impresario of the ballet.  The character of Lermontov was based upon real-life master of the Ballet Russes during the golden age of Nijinsky, Fokine and Stravinsky in the early 20th century.  Walbrook pulls out all the stops in his portrayal of Lermontov, sinister, charming, ruthless and driven to control Vicky Page, in whom he saw greatness and for whom he felt a frightening love. Walbrook, an Austrian actor, was 52 years old and well-established when The Red Shoes was released.  Walbrook used his facial expressions, body language, knife-edged speech and mesmerizing eyes to create a dynamic performance, just short of ham acting but close enough to be unforgettable.

Walbrook starred with Diana Wynyard in the British version of the famous movie Gaslight (1940), which was released before the American version with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman.  Hollywood squashed the British version in favor of their own, and Americans did not see it for many years.  In my opinion, as much as I liked Charles Boyer, Walbrook was superior in the part of the cruel tormentor in Gaslight.  Walbrook’s career was a long one. He made another popular movie with Powell and Pressberger in 1943, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.  Also of interest, in 1962 he starred as Waldo Lydecker in an American television adaptation of Laura.  What a good part for such an actor.

Marius Goring

Strikingly handsome 36-year old English actor Marius Goring played composer Julian Craster, Vicky Page’s lover.  Goring, in my opinion, was the only fly in the ointment in The Red Shoes.  Unlike Walbrook, who although playing his part to the hilt, was able to keep it in controlled context of the character, Goring was all ham.  His over-acting in  many scenes was noticeable even amongst the extremely dramatic style of the other actors. Much of the blame for this has to land on the back of director Michael Powell, who should have reined him in during much of his performance.  Goring was not a bad actor, as can be seen in later performances, but this was not one of his best.  He had a long acting career, and got better as he got older.  Some of his work included Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) with James Mason and Ava Gardner, the television miniseries Holocaust (1978), and a run in the hugely popular Dr. Who series playing Theodore Maxtible. 

Robert Helpmann 

Australian-born Robert Helpmann was 39 years old when he acted, choreographed and danced several parts in The Ballet of the Red Shoes.  Helpmann was principal dancer in England’s Royal Ballet from 1933 to 1950, dancing predominantly as partner to Dame Margot Fonteyn.  Helpmann could do it all.  His one-of-a-kind personality of humor, charm and talent made him a great favorite with audiences of all types of media.  He was an actor on the English stage, at one point playing Hamlet on alternating nights with the great Paul Scofield.   His movies showed a remarkable range of talent, from the more serious (The Tales of Hoffman, partnering again with Moira Shearer), to the comic (Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang, in which he played the funny and dreaded Child Catcher.)
Two quotes from Helpmann show both his serious and comic side:

"Theatre remains the only thing I understand.  It is in the community of the theatre that I have my being.  In spite of jealousies and fears, emotional conflicts and human tensions; in spite of the penalty of success and the dread of failure; in spite of tears and feverish gaiety, this is the only life I know.  It is the life I love.”

“The trouble with nude dancing is that not everything stops when the music does!”

Leonide Massine
Massine was born in Russia in 1896.  He created and danced the part of the Shoemaker in The Ballet of the Red Shoes.  As Ljubov in The Red Shoes, Massine played his part well, with a unique emotional range of humor, outrage and sorrow.  As the Shoemaker, he choreographed himself and danced brilliantly.  Massine’s career as a dancer and eventually seminal choreographer was astonishing.  He was discovered at the age of 16 by Sergei Diaghilev, who immediately took him in to replace the great Nijinsky, with whom Diaghilev had a falling-out.  Massine was not a trained dancer, and developed an unusual style of his own.  During that period of the Ballet Russes’ golden age, Massine danced and began to choreograph works with the music and designs of Stravinsky, Michael Fokine, Picasso, Dali and Chagall.  Massine was ahead of his time in his desire to create a new form of dance, one that utilized the human body in contour and line different from traditional ballet. He was first to showcase ballet using great symphonies and other musical pieces not composed strictly for ballet.  His uniqueness in dance and choreography were world-renowned during his long career, and he was considered the first and only premier choreographer of dance from the early 20th century until George Balanchine came on the scene.

Of his vision of the dance, Massine once said:

“I am firmly of the opinion that there is more to dancing than conveying a legend, story or fairytale, and more than simply a display of virtuosity.  I believe that the harmonious form of the human body is capable of creating dynamic and graphic shapes to coincide with a symphony, in a way that is as convincing as the symphony itself.”

The principal actors and dancers of The Red Shoes came from all over the world.  Yet in their partnership for this great film, they became one culture in the world of truly great film art.

(This article is my contribution to the Classic Film and TV CafĂ©’s blogathon for the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger, known as the Archers.  Fellow blogger Christian of Silver Screen Modiste, www.silverscreenmodiste.com, will be posting an article with his own unique point of view about The Red Shoes on Tuesday, March 27th.  Don’t miss it!)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Nightmare Alley - A Dark Gem

By 1947, Tyrone Power was an established star best known for his romantic and swashbuckling roles, an extremely handsome matinee idol. However, like many actors since the inception of motion pictures, he wanted to break out and do some serious acting in a serious role. In 1946, he appeared in W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge” in the role of Larry Darrell, a young man searching for truth and the meaning of life. This was a good role taken from the pages of great literature, and Power’s first real introduction into a story with depth and dignity. However, it was not enough for Power, who in that same year bought the rights to a novel called “Nightmare Alley” by William Lindsay Gresham. The part that Power wanted to play was that of Stanton Carlisle, a manipulative, sociopathic grifter working in a seedy carnival.

Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox was not happy with the thought of Power playing such a character. He believed that such a dark role would hurt Power’s image. However, Power insisted, and the project got underway in 1947. The film was produced by George Jessel, the vaudevillian who later became known as the Toastmaster General of the United States because of his many roasts of political and entertainment figures. Zanuck decided to back his star with A film treatment. However, he still didn’t approve, gave it minimal publicity and shelved it after the first round of showing. This hurt the reputation of the movie, critics were not kind, and the public barely got a chance to respond because of this negligible handling. I believe that the critics were wrong. “Nightmare Alley” is a marvel of a movie with one of Power’s best performances. It is dark and frightening, depicting the lowest class of man, and one man in particular who uses the vulnerable and the needy to further his own ambitions.

The story begins in a seedy carnival, for which 20th Century Fox built a full, working set and hired real carny workers. Power as Stan is a roustabout and a barker, working for Zeena and Pete in their phony mind-reading act. Zeena (wonderful Joan Blondell) is hard-boiled yet soft-hearted for the pitiable drunk that the once great Pete has become. Pete is played by Ian Keith in what I consider to be an academy-award worthy performance. (Ian Keith’s career spanned a long period, with many of his movies directed by Cecil B. DeMille such as “The Crusades”, “Cleopatra”, “The Sign of the Cross” and “The 10 Commandments”.) The carnival carries a “geek”, an attraction of which Zeena says “lots of performers won’t work in a show that carries one.” Stan is fascinated by the geek, purported to be a wild man, but really only a pathetic alcoholic who actually eats live chickens for a bottle a day and a bed to sleep in. Stan can’t understand how anyone can sink so low. Soon, Stan learns of a valuable code used by Pete and Zeena in their glory days, a code for use in a realistic and mesmerizing mind-reading act. Zeena can sell the code for a great deal of money, but is saving it for her and Pete, partly to pay for “a cure” for Pete’s alcoholism. Once Stan learns of the code, he moves in on Zeena, seducing her in an effort to get the code for himself. After the tragic death of Pete, in which Stan plays a part, Zeena agrees to teach him the code.
Stan and Zeena (Joan Blondell)
Pete (Ian Keith) and Stan

Stan and Molly (Colleen Gray)
Stan betrays Zeena, and marries Molly (Colleen Gray), a beautiful girl who is one of the carnival’s entertainers. Stan wonders aloud why it doesn’t matter to him if he hurts people. He doesn’t know why, but doesn’t have the conscience to do anything about it. Molly is deeply in love with Stan, but Stan sees her merely as window dressing for the new act he designs. He becomes “The Great Stanton” in a nightclub mind-reading act with Molly and the code. He meets Lilith (Helen Walker), a therapist who sees through Stan’s pose and likes it. The mind-reading act is not enough for Stan’s ambition. He goes into the medium game, garnering secrets of Lilith’s rich clients and pretending to be speaking to their dead loved ones. His specialty is rich, grieving, vulnerable people. Molly is horrified at Stan’s phony religious posturing, warning him that he is trying to play God. Stan retorts that a lot of people do so, but Molly says “But they don’t sound like ministers. You do!” Stan doesn’t heed Molly’s warning and continues to use phrases from the Bible, even going so far as to use the words of Jesus in his spiel. Stan finally goes too far, finds that Lilith is really himself in female form, and his downward spiral begins
Stan's alter-ego Lilith (Helen Walker)
Stan deceives his rich, sorrowful mark,
Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes)  

Nightmare Alley” is directed by Edmund Goulding, a great director responsible for such films as The Razor’s Edge, The Great Lie, Dark Victory and Dawn Patrol. The score by Cyril Mockridge blends beautifully with this disturbing story, discordant and weaving elements of carnival music throughout. Mockridge was a prolific composer, with some of his better-known films being Cheaper by the Dozen, Desk Set and Bus Stop. Perhaps one of the most marked talents is makeup man Ben Nye, who manages to turn the strikingly handsome Power into a man who has created nightmares for others and finally lives one himself. “Nightmare Alley” is a must-see for classic movie fans. It never got the praise or promotion it deserved, and is well worth the search to find it. (Fox Movie Channel shows it periodically.)