The way things are now, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes would never claim the number one spot at the box office in any given year, let alone any given weekend. It doesn't have a superhero, a Hobbit, a wizard, a star war, a James Cameron or a Michael Bay or a Tom Cruise or a Steven Spielberg, young adult source material, animation or a transforming robot. It isn't CG-heavy. It has all the elements only a niche audience could love: ballet, drama, pure and vivid artistic vision, tragedy and an unknown actress making her film debut. The contemporary understanding of the term "blockbuster" denotes big action, big CG, big fantasy - it's all so mainstream and at times, a little basic.
Not only was The Red Shoes the number one film of 1948, but it impressively achieved that spot in limited release - the film was given a 110-week run at a single theatre.
You have to travel fairly far back in cinematic history to find number one films whose blockbuster status would be considered an anomaly by today's standards: Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - even The Godfather, the number one film of 1972, would not be nearly as successful today as it was then. Our sensibilities have evolved to crave spectacle. The word "epic" need apply.
If it were released today, The Red Shoes may have a chance at the sort of success Darren Aronofsky attainted with Black Swan, although the latter is darker and more wonderfully bizarre than the former - but the two have a few obvious things in common, and I find it difficult to believe Aronofsky's claim that he hadn't seen The Red Shoes until after he completed production on Black Swan. Perhaps he hadn't; perhaps cinematographer Matthew Libatique had.
Early in The Red Shoes, Moira Shearer's ambitious and hopeful ballerina Vicky Page is dancing Swan Lake, the camera spinning with each pirouette, pausing briefly as she pauses, facing the audience. It's such a simple, beautiful touch, one that puts us in Vicky's head, seeing the world as she sees it in that dizzying moment. Aronofsky and Libatique employed the same visual tactic in Black Swan. There are, of course, some narrative similarities: both Vicky and Natalie Portman's Nina are painfully committed to their art - in The Red Shoes, when Mr. Lermontov asks Vicky why she wants to dance, she responds with "Why do you want to live?" Neither Vicky nor Nina can envision a life without ballet - the artist cannot live a life in which he or she cannot create; take it away from them and it's like watching a goldfish slowly suffocate when removed from its bowl, desperately gasping for air.
The ballet performed in The Red Shoes is a poignant, potent metaphor for the story of Vicky (and Nina) herself: a sinister shoemaker places the titular red shoes on her feet, cursing her to dance exhaustively and endlessly, forcing her to abandon the man she loves in the process. What begins as a delightful bit of magic quickly devolves into something horrific - similar to Vicky's all-consuming career. As soon as the shoes are removed and she finally stops dancing, the woman dies. It's a haunting moment of foreshadowing, one that resonates narratively, artistically and emotionally.
You may also draw comparisons between Vicky and Nina's demanding, perfectionist instructors: Anton Walbrook's Mr. Lermontov, a strict, possessive Russian who believes love is the death of art; and Vincent Cassel's Thomas Leroy, a formidable, punishing Frenchman who believes passion is more integral to craft than technique. Where Vicky's tragedy is her inability to choose between her love of a man and her love of ballet, Nina's tragedy is her unwavering, obsessive devotion to dance. Both women kill themselves for their art, and both films end in tragic falls: Vicky throws herself out of a window; Nina succumbs to a fatal stab wound at the climactic ending of her performance, rapturously dropping from the top of the set.
But the comparisons largely end there. The Red Shoes is vivid, lushly designed, painstakingly choreographed, and though I typically cringe at the cliche, it applies: it's a love letter to cinema, and although ultimately tragic, its very existence is joyful. Few contemporary, prolific directors employ comparably gorgeous cinematography using the same exacting standards (Scorsese, the Andersons, the Coens and Fincher, to name a few), but modern films skew toward a darker palette, eschewing the vibrancy displayed in Powell and Pressburger's classic.
While Black Swan is a tortuously dark psychological thriller that takes inspiration from the work of Polanski and Dostoyevsky and classic Italian horror (and still, I insist, The Red Shoes), The Red Shoes is a tragic romantic drama, one in which the romance isn't merely relegated to the love between a man and a woman, but the love between a woman and her art - and it's a film which has no previous point of reference, aside from the Hans Christen Andersen fairy tale upon which the central ballet is based.
Blockbusters today succeed largely on the audience's familiarity with a pre-existing franchise or product - comic books, toys, young adult novels, et al. A film as original and beautiful as The Red Shoes could never take the number one spot at the box office now, and its chances of claiming a place in the top 10 would be doubtful at best. It's the sort of artsy film that would earn awards nominations, but wouldn't appeal to a larger, general audience - the kind of film that gets announced at the Oscars, causing your mother to turn to you and say, "I've never even heard of this movie."