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The Red Shoes, Catharsis or Trauma?


The front panel of the original flyer for the film 'The Red Shoes'.

The front panel of the original flyer for the film ‘The Red Shoes’. (CC) From The Red Shoes (1948). By courtesy of the collection at Ailina Dance Archives.

It’s the summer of 1949. I’m approaching my sixth birthday. Mother and I are watching a movie, The Red Shoes, in the cinema on the Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth. This is my second trip to Mother’s family in New York. (I say ‘Mother’. I should explain that Hazel Lisle Batson Fripp became my stepmother at war’s end in 1945. My birth-mother, Edith Winifred Parker Fripp, was killed in Portsmouth, UK, in 1943, when I was an infant.)

The Red Shoes, a film of mixed fortunes

Nearly seventy years later The Red Shoes still pops into my head from time to time. I see vivid red, of course, and a field of blue. Blue and slate grey. The colour is fantastic, the treatment is a saturated fantasy, most likely the British producers’ subconscious postwar release from blackouts, khaki,  grey warships, and Pathé newsreels, all black and white. I would later learn that The Red Shoes was a triumph for the new medium of Technicolor. A ballerina is dancing in front of Greek columns. Around and around. Fate is not serving her well.

Mother is riveted to the screen. This summer trip to New York with its interlude of modest prosperity on the Upper West Side is a blissful reprieve from her travails in England. This is her escape from ration cards, clothing coupons, her too-frequent hunt for small, damp rooms and the spite of too many hard-pressed women prejudiced against a supposedly well-off Yank. In Britain we still wander, searching for short-term lodgings. My father’s post-war wanderings from naval base to naval base once included Scotland and the Borders. Fortunately that era has ended, and ‘our’ postings are now limited to southern England.

One problem with ration cards was that one could not stay in a hotel for longer than three days without handing one’s personal cards over to hotel management. Hence Mother’s constant quest for short-term accommodation. By 1947 we were in Cornwall, looking for walls and a roof near R.N.A.S. Culdrose, then we moved to West Coker near R.N.A.S. Yeovilton, and eventually to Shillingstone, Dorset. If only Dad’s latest posting would settle us somewhere, but officers’ housing was scarce and rooms were scarcer.

Moira Shearer, in character in 'The Red Shoes'

Moira Shearer, in character in ‘The Red Shoes’. Photo, courtesy of The Guardian News & Media Ltd. (2009)

Frames from The Red Shoes lodge in my head. Sitting in our floating cinema we followed the action. I can imagine that Mother was reminded of some chase for a furnished room or evading damp, like that freighted ballerina played by Moira Shearer, dancing and running.

The trigger for this story?

A column in the New York Times (8 Nov 2009) [1] suggests a new production of The Red Shoes. That report caused me to write my previous paragraphs. Ninety days later, suddenly, suddenly, an edition of The New Yorker (8 Feb 2010) offers a review of a restored The Red Shoes—“a blindingly rich and refulgent print, digitally restored by the Film Foundation and the U.C.L.A. Film and Television Archive,” reports Anthony Lane.[2]  Lane discovers In his review a truth that I, who was present on several levels sixty-two years earlier, had somehow missed.

The Red Shoes flees Britain for New York

Had I but known it in 1949, Mother and I were watching a movie that had been severely rejected in its native Britain, and was fleeing to New York to try its luck. Shortly—perhaps via the very print we watched mid-Atlantic—The Red Shoes would start a triumphant two-year New York run in the Bijou Theatre at 45th Street and Broadway. The New Yorker ’s Anthony Lane describes The Red Shoes treating art, “not as sedative and diversionary but as hard and supercharged.” Yes, yes. He’s right, now that I think about it for the very first time. I wrote earlier—before I read The New Yorker review—about a possible “post-war release from drab grey.” Lane is correct when he writes, “No wonder Britain, still rationed in color, food and feeling in the wake of an exhausting war, could not cope with what the movie proposed.” Make that two exhausting wars. Our village in Dorset had suffered an absence of males and a surfeit of unmarried women since the first devastation.

So that was why Mother’s reaction, unbridled enthusiasm to the point of tears, was the direct opposite to the indifference that greeted the film’s British release. The Red Shoes claimed her, struck her as an opiate, as total release! She was escaping four years in post-war England to spend a few summer months among the comforts and pleasures of her native city and old friends.

• • •

[1]  Martin Scorsese’s Cinematic Passion – The New “Red Shoes”
[2]  Life And Death Matters, by Anthony Lane

RSPF: The Red Shoes, 2009 / 28 Oct 2015 / 29 Dec 2017

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