“Have you ever been to the ballet?” asked director Michael Powell.” “Not since I was a child,” answered Cardiff. “Well, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Our next production is all about ballet. It’s called The Red Shoes, and I want you to soak up ballet as if your life depended on it. You’ll be given tickets to go to Covent Garden—practically every night.”
Cardiff went, and “in a very short time I was well and truly hooked . . .. I became a balletomane.” Only a short time before, Cardiff had proclaimed to Powell that ballet was “so precious—all those sissies prancing about.” But, once installed as a regular at Covent Garden’s Royal Ballet, he felt quite at home behind the curtain—as he reminisced about his early life spent in the theater alongside his actor parents.
Backstage was my nursery. The nostalgia was acute: paint, glue, canvas; the pot-pourri of make-ups, all the perfumes of memory. But backstage at Covent Garden was quite different from the provincial theaters of my boyhood. This backstage was vast. The cavernous space evoked resonances of so many great evenings of opera and ballet, the very floorboards were laminated in theater history.
Few cinematographers would ever be fortunate enough to have such research as part of their pre-production assignment. But Cardiff did indeed have a lot of catch-up to do. No one had ever done a film on classical dance that would have the ambition or visual acumen that was expected of this suddenly stellar cinematographer, for he had just won the Oscar for his cinematography of Black Narcissus. The behemoth three-strip Technicolor camera would never be as nimble as the high-jumping dancers, but Cardiff began a series of tests to create a fluid, sensuous film, not just another proscenium record of a ballet. The centerpiece of the movie was to be an original fifteen-minute dance piece choreographed by Robert Helpmann, who dances with the young redheaded ballet star, Moira Shearer, who had come to the film via the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. Leonid Massine choreographed his own role as the shoemaker who proffers the demonic slippers to the hapless maiden. Brian Easdale composed the original score. Here is a very brief trailer for the film that includes shots from the ballet sequence:
Michael Powell encouraged Cardiff to go beyond even his startling work in Black Narcissus, to explore new techniques. Cardiff felt total support in whatever experiments he attempted. In fact, when production designer Alfred Junge had told the director, “You go too far,” Powell replaced him with the painter Hein Heckroth.
In the tests, Cardiff had a male dancer jump from a six-foot platform while he over-cranked the camera at five times normal speed. But what proved most successful was a speed ramping device he had made that allowed him to change speed within the shot. Under cranking at four frames per second provided a mad whirl to the paper dance that unfolds midway though the ballet. But, since the music was pre-recorded and the choreography already fixed before shooting began, Cardiff was faced with the challenge of making all of his camera motion tricks fit with the playback. The Technicolor three-strip process still required very high levels of light and Cardiff also wanted to carry a heavier stop for deep focus in the ballet of The Red Shoes. Many of the available lighting units he had been using were not up to the task. A research visit to Hollywood was in order.
I was sent to Hollywood by the Rank organization—to whom I was under contract—to go around the studios and study their technical equipment in order to improve production methods in England. I met Peter Mole of Mole-Richardson, famous in the industry for lighting equipment. He told me he had just made a powerful lamp, which he had named a “brute.” It was 225 amps with a wide beam and much more power than the 150-amp arcs I had been using in England. I was shown the two prototypes. . . I somehow persuaded Peter to let me have these two prototypes . . . And so The Red Shoes used the first two brutes ever made.
Cardiff’s recent win of the Academy Award must have made that decision a no-brainer for Mole-Richardson. Cardiff also had a specially constructed, water-cooled 300-amp arc lamp built to serve as the hard-edged theatrical spotlight for the ballet sequence. This light became an actor in its own right when it performs as stand-in for the ballerina at the film's end. “Vicky” Page has committed suicide just before the revival performance of the work that is her signature. It is also this same spotlight that picks out the impresario, Lermontov, who pulls open the curtain to make the announcement of her death. His halting, emotionally wracked speech is one of the great melodramatic moments in cinema. "I'm sorry to tell you that Miss Page is unable to dance tonight, nor indeed any other night.” This single line still sends shivers through any warm-blooded viewer.
Based on a story by Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson, the film of The Red Shoes had a long gestation with Powell and Pressburger, even preceding the founding of their company, The Archers. In 1937, according to Cardiff in Magic Hour, Emeric Pressburger had written a script for producer Alexander Korda who intended it as a vehicle for his future wife, Merle Oberon; but it was never filmed. The Archers bought the script and revised it, introducing an original ballet as a centerpiece against the unfolding drama of Vicky’s internal conflict of love versus career. Moira Shearer was a reluctant addition to the cast—not by the producers, but by the young dancer herself; she did not hold movies in high regard. Cardiff says simply, “She was offered international film stardom, but was not all that interested . . . She wasn’t awed or intimidated by the glamour of show business and was permanently dedicated to her world of ballet.” The story of a young ballerina, Victoria Page, and her Svengali impresario, Boris Lermentov, is said to be loosely based on the real life figures of Sergei Diaghilev and the British ballerina Diana Gould Diaghilev died before Gould could dance in his company the Ballets Russe. (The real life story of the ill fated and much maligned Diaghilev is told in Joan Acocella’s review of a new biography in The New Yorker)
Here is a video of the ballet of The Red Shoes in two parts, with the Brian Easdale score conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham:
The ballet opens with a fully framed theatrical proscenium, including the curtain draw. Cardiff initially records the ballet in a conventional way, but then slowly develops it into a dance with the camera and the expressionistic lighting, both of which move inside the action, into the psychological recesses of the young dancer’s mind. Even today, more than sixty years later, the emotional expressiveness of Cardiff’s vibrant, dynamic lighting, abetted by a full spectrum of camera techniques, is revelatory. It does not take a scholar’s study to see that the visual sophistication of the cinematography in this film within a film became a template for many of the great dance films of the 50s, including the musicals of Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen, and Gene Kelly.
It is difficult to imagine from the high vantage point that the film holds today, but the initial release of The Red Shoes was erratic. The critical response in England was mixed, tending toward the condescending, nor was its reception by the producing studio any better. Cardiff recalls that:
They [the Rank Organization and Pinewood executives] all thought that The Red Shoes was a complete disaster. Micky and Emeric were curtly informed there would be no première. The film would just go out on ordinary release, as it had no hope, they said, of commercial success. Publicity and advertising were practically non-existent and it opened unheralded, unknown and unloved at the Gaumont Haymarket . . .. Since Variety’s London correspondent said it would only attract a limited audience in America, the Rank Organization had written it off as a turkey and were not going to push it any more there than they had in England. It seemed certain that The Red Shoes was doomed.
This is a familiar enough story for many innovative films that become classics decades after their initial release. But The Red Shoes had no such suspended acclaim. William J. Heinman, a vice-president for distribution at Eagle-Lion, loved the film, as did his wife and children. His faith in the film merely presaged the later embrace of the film that was made by cinematographers and directors around the world—as well as by every young girl that has dreamed of putting on pointe shoes. Heinman opened the film in New York City in the 500 seat Bijou Cinema. It played to packed houses for over two years. (A decade later I remember first seeing it at several “art houses” such as the Vagabond on Wilshire Blvd.; it always seemed to be screening somewhere). Similar box office grosses were recorded in many urban markets, so that by the end of 1949 the film became one of Variety’s top ten pictures.
Cardiff recounts an interesting postscript, one that would be unimaginable in the international melting pot that is today’s Hollywood. It was widely predicted that The Red Shoes would sweep the coming Oscars for all areas of visual design, including cinematography. Pundits told Cardiff he would soon have another Oscar to keep company with the one he had won the previous year for Black Narcissus.
I had a phone call from Lee Garmes who told me a sorry, and rather shocking, story. There had been a meeting of the American Society of Cameramen [sic]. It was agreed that The Red Shoes was a certainty for the award. But, as I, an alien, had won the Oscar the previous year, it posed a problem. If a foreign cameraman won an Oscar two years running it would put the American cameramen in an inferior light. Bad for American prestige, they said. So the only way to prevent me getting the award was not to nominate me.
In the Motion Picture Academy, members of each respective branch make the nominations; the final ballot is sent to all members. Assuming that Cardiff was referring to the ASC, there were many cinematographers, such as Garmes, who were members of both the ASC and the academy. But the ASC alone did not have authority to decide nominations. The film received nominations for best picture, editing, and writing; it won Oscars for art direction and music scoring. It also received nominations for best film from the Venice Film festival and BAFTA. And Cardiff did receive, belatedly, his second Academy Award, presented to him in 2001 by Dustin Hoffman.
Even though The Red Shoes was photographed in three-strip Technicolor on black and white nitrate stock, thought to be more “archival” than later Eastmancolor monopack negative, time was not kind to the film. There were several analog restorations in the 80s, but it was The Film Foundation and the UCLA Film and Television Archive under preservationist Robert Gitt that began a full restoration in the fall of 2006, employing state of the art digital technology. Over 200 reels of nitrate and acetate masters were sent to him. Gitt talks about it in this pdf. Just scroll down to “About the Restoration.”
I was privileged at last year’s “The Reel Thing” symposium at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater to see Gitt make a fuller presentation about the restoration. It included alarming photos of the deterioration and shrinkage of the original negatives. An interesting sidebar is Gitt’s discovery that there were odd shots in the finished film that seemed to have somewhat compromised focus. After some research he concluded that because of the lengthy reload time required by the three-strip camera, Cardiff had a second Technicolor camera on hand in order to continue filming. Apparently one of the prisms was misaligned in this second camera, which resulted in a compromised registration of one image record. This problem was resolved in the meticulous 4K digital restoration. New 35mm prints were also struck and they have been touring festivals and repertory art houses.
The Criterion Collection, once again, has issued a new DVD, also on Blu-Ray, that was made from the restored master. And like the Black Narcissus release it has myriad extras, including a restoration demonstration by Martin Scorsese and audio commentary by historian Ian Christie.
The final part of Cardiff’s chapter on “Technicolor Adventures-Interiors” is a discussion of the film that followed. It is Scott of the Antarctic. There were some second unit scenes shot by Geoffrey Unsworth and Osmond Borradile in the Antarctic, in Norway, and in Switzerland—but most of the film was photographed on a small stage at Ealing Studios.
This episode has been of compelling interest to me as I look out from my hotel room in Anchorage and see a large exterior set under construction at the shoreline of the Cook Inlet. It will serve as our ice field and town of Barrow for Everybody Loves Whales.
This key chapter of Cardiff’s Magic Hour is less than the midpoint of his memoir. From here on, Cardiff continues to discuss his work on a wide range of international films. The halcyon, intimate days with Powell and Pressburger vaporized. They gave way to a litany of major commercial films with directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Henry Hathaway, John Huston, Joseph Mankiewicz, and King Vidor. Cardiff became friends with actors such as Bogart, Katherine and Audrey Hepburn, Errol Flynn, Ava Gardner, Orson Welles, Marilyn Monroe, Laurence Olivier, Sophia Loren, Frank Sinatra, Trevor Howard, Alain Delon— later on, even Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. He has wonderful stories about all of them and the joys and rigors of production.
Cardiff went on to direct thirteen feature films, plus a documentary in the early 50s on the painters of Montmartre such as Braque, Utrillo and Gen Paul. He was supposed to interview the legendary model of the Impressionists, Suzanne Valadon but she died the day before their appointment. The chapter, “La Belle France—Again” is easily the most heartfelt and personal part of the book, as it affirms his love of painting. His description of the “Butte” of Montmartre and of the “Bateau Lavoir,” bare-bones home of many early 20th century painters, is almost cinematic in its detail.
Cardiff’s obvious love of actors led him naturally into directing. His first major feature at the helm is the unforgettable, Sons and Lovers which his friend and colleague, Freddie Francis, photographed. Francis won the Oscar for black and white cinematography. (It is ironic that color master Jack Cardiff’s greatest directing credit is in crisp black and white). Francis went on to become a director himself, most notably with a series of horror films for Hammer Studios, in 2-perf Techniscope. Francis, like Cardiff, returned to cinematography later in his career, in 1980 with The Elephant Man, followed by The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and The Executioner’s Song. And, like Cardiff, he was awarded a second Oscar, this time for his work on the 1989 film, Glory.
Cardiff’s love for actors, especially for the women, spilled over into his personal still portraits. During breaks and lunches on the set he photographed many women stars; some of these informal portraits are superior to the very best of their studio sittings.
Cardiff concludes his memoir with a look back and a look forward. When the book was published in 1996, he was still actively working. Here is a piece from a lighting seminar where you can see him demonstrating his lighting techniques.
The final, almost melancholy lines of Magic Hour affirm a life devoted to his art:
I’ve had my share of the slings and arrows and sometimes-outrageous fortune, but when I felt I had succeeded in what I had set out to do, even if some critics excoriated me, I was amply rewarded in spirit.
Success—Huxley’s “Bitch Goddess”—has flirted with me often enough, though not quite leading to wedlock. I am still very much involved in work and my painting, and the urge to create still runs hot in my veins. I never worry about the end of my story. Sophocles put it so beautifully:
One must wait until evening,
To see how splendid the day was.
(Many thanks to filmmaker Craig McCall for his assistance in these essays. The website for the feature-length documentary Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff is at: www.jackcardiff.com)