Monday, December 6, 2021

Classic Movies About Ballet

Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes.
The challenge of integrating a dynamic theatrical art form into the confines of cinema has proven to be a difficult task. Consequently, it has been undertaken almost exclusively by filmmakers/ballet lovers, whose artistic successes have been mixed equally with unmitigated failures.

British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced two outstanding ballet films, with Powell also contributing a third, less memorable solo effort. The first Powell-Pressburger ballet film was 1948’s The Red Shoes, which starred real-life ballerina Moira Shearer as a young dancer driven to her death by her inability to choose between ballet and a “normal” life. The highlight of this dazzling, colorful film is a 14-minute ballet of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Red Shoes,” brilliantly danced and photographed against stylized sets. The elaborate sets returned in 1951’s Tales of Hoffman, a fusion of drama, singing, and ballet based on Offenbach’s opera and featuring ballerina Shearer again. Powell turned to ballet once more, sans Pressburger, in 1959’s all-but-forgotten Honeymoon, which featured excerpts from the Spanish ballets “Los Amantes de Teruel” and “El Amor Brujo.”

Leslie Caron & Gene Kelly in
An American in Paris.
The most interesting pre-Red Shoes ballet picture was The Specter of the Rose (1946), an offbeat drama about a young dancer who is slowly losing his mind. It featured a rare screen appearance by drama teacher Michael Chekhov and the potent presence of Dame Judith Anderson. Gene Kelly, after choreographing a modern ballet for a set-piece in An American in Paris (1951), incorporated ballet into his all-dance 1957 picture Invitation to the Dance. Shot in 1952, this three-part anthology boasted energetic dancing and clever direction (including a combination of live action and cartoon), but it crashed at the boxoffice and almost ended Kelly’s career. In contrast, Herbert Ross’s The Turning Point (1977) was a solid popular and critical favorite. Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft had the starring roles as a pair of former ballerinas, but Mikhail Baryshnikov stole the film every time he took to the dance floor.

Ballets filmed in their entirety have been rare, but have nevertheless been captured in Peter Rabbit and the Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971), Nutcracker (1982), and Nutcracker: The Motion Picture (1986).

Margaret O'Brien in
The Unfinished Dance.
There have been numerous films, not expressly about ballet, which have featured ballerinas as principal characters. The role call of actresses who have played ballerinas is a varied one: Greta Garbo (Grand Hotel); Maureen O’Hara (Dance, Girl, Dance); Vivien Leigh (Waterloo Bridge); Loretta Young (The Men in Her Life); Margaret O’Brien (The Unfinished Dance); Janet Leigh (The Red Danube); Gene Tierney (Never Let Me Go); and Leslie Caron (Gaby).  (I think it's too early include the stars of The Black's not a classic yet).

Ballet segments have highlighted many mainstream musicals, though the sequences in An American in Paris, Oklahoma!, and On Your Toes stand out. Films about ballet, or featuring notable scenes, include:

Grand Hotel (1932)
On Your Toes (1939)
Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)
Waterloo Bridge (1940)
The Men in Her Life (1941)
The Dancing Masters (1943)
Specter of the Rose (1946)
Carnival (1946)
The Unfinished Dance (1947)
The Imperfect Lady (1947)
The Red Shoes (1948)
The Red Danube (1949)
Illicit Interlude (aka Summer Play; Summer Interlude) (1950)
An American in Paris (1951)
Tales of Hoffman (1951)
Limelight (1952)
Never Let Me Go (1953)
Dance Little Lady (1955)
Oklahoma! (1955)
Gaby (1956)
Meet Me in Las Vegas (aka Viva Las Vegas) (1956)
Invitation to the Dance (1957)
Angel in a Taxi (1959)
Honeymoon (1959)
Vampire and the Ballerina (1962)
Peter Rabbit and the Tales of Beatrix Potter (aka The Tales of Beatrix Potter) (1971)
The Turning Point (1977)
Slow Dancing in the Big City (1978)
The Cowboy and the Ballerina (1984 TVM)
Nutcracker (1982)
Nutcracker: The Motion Picture (1986)
Dancers (1987)
Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas (1989)


  1. Small world department: I ordered a DVD of The Unfinished Dance yesterday in my despair that TCM may never show it again.

    Story department: I took my four year old daughter to see The Nutcracker, 1993. Toward the end of the movie she was snuggled on my lap. As the New York City Ballet began their onscreen curtain call, my daughter sat up straight and warned the audience "Here they come again!"

  2. I always loved the ballet sequence in Hans Christian Andersen with Danny Kaye. It was the section of that movie I always looked forward to seeing the most, and what stuck with me years after. I recently watched The Red Shoes for the first time. It was really cool having the lead actually dance, but man, that was a far creepier movie than I expected!

    Enjoyed reading about all these other films with ballet! Have to check some of them out!

  3. That's an impressive list of ballet movies. I didn't realize there were so many...and that I've seen so few of them.