08 January 2012

Moira Shearer

Red headed Moira Shearer (1926 – 2006) was a luminous star of the British ballet. She became an international film idol with her unforgettable debut as the young ballerina Vicky in The Red Shoes (1948), a classic of the British cinema and probably the most popular film about ballet.

Moira Shearer
Mexican collector's card, no 345. Photo: London Films.

Flaming Red Hair
Moira Shearer King was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1926. She was the daughter of actor Harold V. King. In 1931 her family moved to Ndola, Northern Rhodesia. Her mother pushed her into ballet and Moira received her first dancing training under a former pupil of Enrico Cecchetti. She returned to Britain in 1936 and trained with Flora Fairbairn in London for a few months before she was accepted as a pupil by the Russian teacher Nicholas Legat. After three years with Legat, she joined the Sadler's Wells Ballet School. However, after the outbreak of the World War II, her parents took her to live in Scotland. The Scottish beauty with her flaming red hair made her debut with Mona Inglesby's International Ballet in 1941 before moving on to the famous Sadler's Wells in 1942. There she was second only to the world renowned prima ballerina, Margot Fonteyn. From 1942 to 1952 Shearer danced all the major classic roles and a full repertoire of revivals and new ballets. She came to international attention for her first film role as the doomed heroine in the ballet-themed film The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger). The film employs the story within a story device. Victoria Page (Shearer), a young, unknown dancer from an aristocratic background meets at a party Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the ruthless but charismatic impresario of the Ballet Lermontov. He invites her to join his famous ballet company. She becomes the lead dancer in a new ballet called The Red Shoes, itself based on the fairy tale The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Andersen. Vicky is torn between the powerful impresario and a struggling composer (Marius Goring) whom she loves. The film got rave reviews and became one of the highest earning British films of all time. Shearer’s role and the film were so powerful that although she went on to star in other films, she is primarily known for playing ‘Vicky.’ She toured the United States with the Sadler's Wells Ballet in 1949 and in 1950/51. Moira Shearer’s second film was the magnificent spectacle The Tales of Hoffmann (1951, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger), an adaptation of Jacques Offenbach's final opera, Les contes d'Hoffmann. The film co-starred Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine. It is not just a film of a staged opera, but a true cinematic opera that makes use of film techniques not available in an opera house. Powell and Pressburger were nominated for the Grand Prize of the 1951 Cannes Film Festival, and won the Exceptional Prize. They also won the Silver Bear award for Best Musical at the 1st Berlin International Film Festival.

Moira Shearer
British postcard by 'The People' Show Parade Picture Service, London, no. P. 1041. Photo: J. Arthur Rank Organisation Ltd.

Moira Shearer, The Red Shoes
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. W. 654. Photo: J. Arthur Rank Organisation Ltd.

Moira Shearer
Yugoslavian postcard by IOM, Beograd (Belgrado). Photo: Sedmo Silo.

Expressions of Terror
In 1953, a combination of ill-health, injury and her wish to make a name for herself as an actress made Moira Shearer decide to retire from the ballet stage at age 27. She co-starred with James Mason in a segment of The Story of Three Loves (1953, Vincente Minnelli, Gottfried Reinhardt), a romantic anthology film made by MGM. She appeared as Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the 1954 Edinburgh Festival. The following year she starred in the British film comedy The Man Who Loved Redheads (1955, Harold French) based on the play Who is Sylvia? by Terence Rattigan. She toured as Sally Bowles in the play I am a Camera in 1955 and appeared at the Bristol Old Vic as G.B. Shaw’s Major Barbara in 1956. Shearer worked again for Powell on the controversial film Peeping Tom (1960, Michael Powell) about a sexually repressed serial killer (Karlheinz Böhm) who murders women and films their expressions of terror and dying gasps on film. Its controversial subject and the extremely harsh reception by critics effectively destroyed Powell's career as a director. However, it attracted a cult following, and in later years, it has been re-evaluated and is now considered a masterpiece. A year later she appeared in the musical 1-2-3-4 ou Les Collants noirs/Black Tights (1961, Terence Young) with Zizi Jeanmaire and Cyd Charisse. It would be Shearer’s last film. She was on the BBC's General Advisory Council from 1970 to 1977 and the Scottish Arts Council from 1971 to 1973. In 1972, she was chosen by the BBC to present the Eurovision Song Contest when it was staged in Edinburgh. In 1977 she played Madame Ranevsky in Anton Chekhov's Cherry Orchard at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh and, in 1978, was Judith Bliss in Noel Coward's Hay Fever. She wrote two books, biographies of the choreographer George Balanchine and the actress Ellen Terry, and a column for The Daily Telegraph. She also gave talks on ballet worldwide. The choreographer Gillian Lynne persuaded her to return to ballet to play the mother of artist L. S. Lowry (Christopher Gable) in the ballet film A Simple Man (1987, Gillian Lynne) for the BBC. In 1950, Moira Shearer had married writer and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy. The couple had a son, Alastair, and three daughters, Ailsa, Rachel and Fiona. In 2006, Moira Shearer died of natural causes in Oxford, England at the age of 80.

Trailer The Red Shoes (1948). Source: The World of Trailers (YouTube).

Trailer Peeping Tom (1960). Source: Optimum Releasing (YouTube).

Sources: Anna Kisselgoff (The New York Times), Steve Crook (IMDb), The Telegraph, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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