Wednesday, September 13, 2023

The Macabre Fairy Tale Behind the Movie “The Red Shoes”

This celluloid all-timer was inspired by a fairy tale with a creepy plot twist.

by Rich Watson 

This post is part of the Rule Britannia Blogathon, a blog event celebrating British film. At the end I’ll tell you where to find more posts like this.

British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created their 1948 movie The Red Shoes inspired by a story by Hans Christian Andersen. Like most of their films, it’s magnificently photographed in Technicolor. It has dazzling costumes and makeup. The performance by Moira Shearer showcases her balletic skills. The production is overstuffed with beauty.

Which is ironic, since the story on which it’s based is pretty gruesome.

Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes

2023 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of this cinematic milestone. The Red Shoes will be part of a British Film Institute retrospective later this year that will honor the careers of Powell & Pressburger. 

The screenplay focuses on a love triangle: Shearer, as an aspiring ballerina; Anton Walbrook, as the producer of a ballet company; and Marius Goring, as an up-and-coming composer. Walbrook wants to make Shearer a star by putting her in his production, the ballet The Red Shoes. He hires Goring to improve the score. He and Shearer work closely. The show is a hit and Shearer and Goring fall in love, but Walbrook is jealous. Shearer ultimately must choose between love and success.

The show-within-a-show consumes a fair amount of screen time. We the audience see it not as a typical ballet, but almost like a dream. Magical elements appear within the performance that heighten the narrative emotionally.

Powell & Pressburger’s film intermingles passion, ambition, and envy underneath a British veneer of gentility and manners for a movie that one remembers long after the final reel. I saw this film for the first time for this post and was amazed.

But then there’s the original story…

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes

Andersen wrote The Red Shoes in 1845

In his version, a poor girl named Karen gets a pair of red shoes from a shoemaker’s wife. Karen’s mom dies and an old, half-blind woman adopts her, but she hates the shoes. She has them burnt. Karen tricks her into getting a new pair. She’s really obsessed with having red shoes, especially when she sees a princess wearing a pair.

A strange man puts some sort of enchantment on them. That’s how it seems, anyway. Karen dances with the shoes on and it’s as if they have a mind of their own. She can’t stop dancing.

An angel appears. Because Karen goes off dancing instead of caring for her adopted mother, the angel makes it so she’ll keep on dancing until she dies.

She goes to an executioner for help. He chops her feet off but the shoes keep dancing, with her severed feet still inside them.

He gives her wooden feet and crutches. She goes to church, trying to play like she’s still normal, but her severed feet, still in the shoes, dance in front of the church and stop her from going. She prays for help. The angel decides she’s suffered enough. He forgives her. She’s so happy she dies and goes to heaven. The end.

The story behind the story 

Karen was the name of Andersen’s half-sister. They didn’t get along well.

His dad was a shoemaker. When Andersen was little, his dad made a pair of red shoes for a rich customer using her silk, but she didn’t like them. He cut them up in front of her.

Andersen also was Protestant. A strong religious current flows through the story. Beyond the presence of the angel, who condemns, then forgives, the character of Karen, there’s an emphasis on church-mandated morality. For example, Karen is told wearing red shoes is improper attire in church. Sure enough, when she wears them, everyone is gobsmacked at them. But she’s just grateful for the attention.

Later, after her feet are chopped off and she gets wooden replacements, she goes back to church “so that people can see me.” When she sees her own severed feet dancing in front of the church, not only does she run away, she “repented right heartily of her sin.” 

Karen’s kinda vain (though she’s not a Karen, ha ha ha), but in time she realizes she has sinned, and is forgiven.

She learns a harsh lesson, but as this analysis of The Red Shoes states, its gruesome approach is what makes it stand out:
…Andersen could have had the girl be attracted to a bright shawl (which then fastened tight around her until it strangled her) or a pretty dress (which grew tighter, etc.), but the choice of shoes associated with the gaiety and levity of dancing is inspired, because it constantly draws attention to Karen’s shoes, making her loathe the attention they bring her and the way they wear her out as they send her off across the town and beyond.

The Red Shoes’ screenplay

The original screenplay for Powell & Pressburger’s version grew out of a story idea by the directors’ mentor, producer Alexander Korda, back in 1934.

Initially it was a biopic of the Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Then it was a ballet movie for Korda’s future wife Merle Oberon, that would require a double to dance for her. Powell co-wrote it. This early version had more dialogue. Korda ultimately passed on it. 

In 1946 Powell, with Pressburger, bought it and revised it. It’s believed Walbrook’s character is inspired in part by art critic and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev.

The ballet within the story is a simplified version of Andersen’s tale. It’s reduced to three characters: a girl, a boy, danced by Robert Helpmann, and a shoemaker, danced by Leonide Massine. Fifty-three dancers were used for this sequence within the film.

Later adaptations of the film

In 1978, Powell & Pressburger wrote a novelization of their screenplay, set in the twenties. Stanley Donen directed a Broadway version in 1993. That same year, British singer Kate Bush released an album inspired by the movie. In 2016 a stage ballet, also inspired by the film, debuted in London

While Andersen’s story has not been forgotten, The Red Shoes film has also enjoyed a long life, cherished by generations.



More entries in the Rule Britannia Blogathon can be found at A Shroud of Thoughts, from September 22-24.


  1. I recently watched another '40s literary adaptation, The Queen of Spades (based on a story by Alexander Pushkin), in which Anton Walbrook also starred. I don't recall ever seeing him in a film before, so I looked up his resume and ran across The Red Shoes. Your review reminds me that I need to see this film!
    Pre-20th century fairy tales remind us of a past that we can scarcely understand in the 2020s. But I think its important to keep these cultural artifacts alive in their original forms in order to maintain a healthy perspective.

  2. The Red Shoes is such an incredible movie. And I knew about the Hans Christian Andersen connection, although I didn't know his half-sister was named Karen or his father was a shoemaker! Anyway, it was a great choice for the blogathon. Thanks for taking part!

  3. My, what a perfectly gruesome tale! I knew that the film was based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, but I never knew the details. Yikes. Thanks for this informative and interesting post, Rich!

    -- Karen (another Karen who's not a Karen)