The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus


For a while in the 1940s, British cinema was really spectacular. Four movies are my particular favorites: “Black Narcissus,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” and “The Red Shoes.”


 

All were directed and written by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. All are in beautiful Technicolor, or some mutant version of Technicolor that’s even more vivid than the real thing. All four are full of contrasts: sincerity and cynicism, religion and worldliness, life and death. All four accommodate these contrasts with ease and grace and humor. All four feature fascinating actors and actresses: Deborah Kerr, Moira Shearer, Roger Livesey, David Niven, Anton Walbrook.


 

Powell loved extreme close-ups and theatrical gestures and bright primary colors. And Pressburger, a Hungarian who spoke better English than most native speakers (a regular Joseph Conrad type), wrote beautiful dialogue.


 

My favorite is “Black Narcissus,” I think. It’s based on a Rumer Godden novel about a group of Anglican nuns who set up a convent in northern India near the Himalayas. It’s too much for them. They fail spectacularly, against a background of spectacular scenery.


 

My friend Pat prefers “The Red Shoes.” She saw it when she was a kid – but let her tell it: “I was maybe eight or nine years old. The theater was several blocks away on a very busy street – 55th Street in Chicago – and I went to the movies every Saturday afternoon for a double feature. In those days one could sit through the showings as many times as the movie was shown and I loved the Red Shoes so much I waited through the second feature until Shoes came on again. My mother wasn’t one for franticness, but she was pretty worried when I didn’t show for dinner. She didn’t scold much though, I think she thought it was clever of me to be so entranced. After that I had to have a coloring book of ballet dancers and I remembered that the ballerina in the movie had white makeup on her eyelids and black dots in the corners of her eyes. So, naturally, all the dancers in my coloring book had to have that too.”


 

When’s the last time a movie made you feel like that?

 

 

In the words of Libby Gelman-Waxner: this is what movies are all about.


 


 

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