A Nero of Our Time

walbrook.jpgCold, elegant and aloof, Boris Lermontov is the “attractive brute” at the center of “The Red Shoes,” the 1948 cinematic masterpiece by Powell & Pressburger. Lermontov is the imperious impresario of a ballet troupe, and struggles to maintain his dandy aplomb under a growing obsession with his prima ballerina.

In his debut article for Dandyism.net, Robert Sacheli (“Ferrando” in the forum) offers a detailed analysis of Lermontov’s character — and how it’s reflected in his costuming — while meditating on other cinematic “impresario dandies,” from Waldo Lydecker in “Laura” to Alberto Beddini in “Top Hat.”

A Nero of Our Time
By Robert Sacheli

The room is lost in shadows, and the man in it is lost in thought. Standing with his back to a tall, open window, he is silhouetted against the daylight. Smoke from a cigarette rises in filigrees that mirror the ornate cornice on a building outside. As he discards his cigarette, a shirt cuff and collar pick out two more notes of white among the shadows.

The room is in a theater in Paris and the man is impresario Boris Lermontov, played by actor Anton Walbrook in the film classic “The Red Shoes.” Like the girl in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale whose passion for dance ends in death, Lermontov’s obsession with shaping a beautiful young dancer will lead him ever deeper into the shadows.

“The Red Shoes” is an exotic bloom of a film that’s as heady and color-drenched as a garden at sunset. This 1948 masterpiece by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who served as its writers, directors, and producers, has earned a place on just about every list of the last century’s most influential and enduring films.

Set against the backdrop of a ballet troupe in postwar London, Paris, and Monte Carlo, it’s a movie in which visual style is paramount. Its creators, particularly cinematographer Jack Cardiff and production designer Hein Heckroth, conjure up the onstage and offstage worlds in which the story unfolds with a boldness, imagination and pure theatricality that still have the power to astonish.

If you only think of “The Red Shoes” as a movie that set several generations of girls pirouetting in their bedrooms, it’s well worth a look with a dandy eye. Among the film’s many pleasures is the way it captures a luxurious period in men’s fashion, and how Walbrook’s performance as the film’s central male character gives depth to a certain type of dandy.

A Dance of Love and Death

“The Red Shoes” is a dark fairy tale, a romance, and a meditation on the price of artistic success. Dancer Victoria Page (played by the stunning redhead Moira Shearer) is caught between the man who can shape her career, the emotionally remote Lermontov, and the man who can love her, composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). Her triumph in Craster’s ballet launches her on the road to stardom, but her romance and eventual marriage to the composer exiles both of them from Lermontov’s troupe. Torn between her art and her husband, Victoria finds herself on the same course as Andersen’s heroine, who once she puts on the cursed red shoes cannot stop dancing.

The character of Boris Lermontov echoes Sergei Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes brought a revolutionary sense of glamour, modernism, and sensuality to early 20th-century audiences, and the film plays out a gender-switched variation of Diaghilev’s banishment of his lead dancer (and lover) Vaslav Nijinski when the latter married. There’s also another, real-life link to the Diaghliev era in the screen presence of Léonoid Massine as the Ballet Lermontov’s resident choreographer. Massine, who succeeded Nijinski as Diaghliev’s leading male dancer and choreographer, also felt Diaghilev’s wrath once he married.

Lermontov shares the name of the Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov, whose 1840 novel “A Hero of our Time” features, in the words of Nabokov, an “elegant and brutal” dandy antihero. And though Walbrook brings a coolly authoritarian grandeur to the role (and some Diaghilev-like gray streaks in his hair), his Lermontov is no mere stand-in for the Russian impresario or a reimagined literary character. The actor creates an unusually sympathetic portrait of a seemingly unlikeable man, an artistic visionary whose private and public selves are keenly separated, and whose character comes to dominate the film.

Continental Charm

Acting was part of the family heritage for Viennese-born Adolf Wohlbrück. His smooth charm and dashing good looks — he seems born to wear a mustache and a hussar’s tunic — earned him roles in popular German films during the 1930s, including the romantic lead in the 1933 “Viktor und Viktoria.” But as a gay, half-Jewish actor living under an ever-tightening Nazi regime, he recognized his career could no longer flourish.

By 1937, rechristened as Anton Walbrook, he was making films in England, where Picturegoer hailed him as “something between a William Powell and a Robert Montgomery…. [and] the most interesting Continental player to have been introduced to English and American filmgoers since Charles Boyer. And he has a personality more likely to catch the popular fancy than Boyer’s.”

Walbrook played on the stage opposite Rex Harrison in the 1939 London production of “Design for Living,” Noel Coward’s comedy of love among artists. He and Harrison spent much of the stage action in dressing gowns and pajamas, volleying the sexy dialogue that had kept the play off the West End stage until six years after its American premiere. Walbrook made his first film for Powell and Pressburger in 1943. In “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” he plays a sympathetic German officer whose friendship with his British military counterpart spans 40 years of personal and political conflicts.

Walbrook also appeared in two classic Max Ophuls films of the 1950s, as the boulevardier storyteller who introduces the intersecting sexual dalliances of “La Ronde,” and as Ludwig I of Bavaria, one of the lovers of the legendary Lola Montes, in Ophuls’ fancifully imagined biography of the 19th-century courtesan.

Dangerous Dandies

When the filmmakers cast him as Boris Lermontov, Walbrook took his place in a line of literary and screen characters that might be called Impresario Dandies. They’re men for whom women (and sometimes men) function as muse, as creation, or as obsession. Their arenas may run the gamut from the spotlit arts to far darker corners of creativity, but Impresario Dandies share a passion for virtuosity, great (if sometimes manipulative) charm, and personality-defining wardrobes.

erikrhodes.jpgA comic entry in this gallery of dandies is found in Alberto Beddini (played by Erik Rhodes) in 1935′s “Top Hat,” one of the high points of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film partnership. Beddini is an Italian fashion designer traveling with his model (Ginger), floating through a mistaken-identity romance in a soundstage Venice whose white-on-white glories turn the city into what writer Arlene Croce calls “a celestial powder room.” Beddini is a preening artiste (the motto of the House of Beddini: “For the women the kiss, for the men the sword”) and is romantically pursing Ginger, though of course she’ll end up with Fred.

By this fourth entry in the Astaire-Rogers series, Astaire’s screen style — the tweeds, tuxes, and tails — has been firmly established. Beddini wears suits whose formality and cut contrast with Fred’s easy American elegance, and we know that he won’t land Ginger because he’s literally pinched-in, and a foreigner to boot.

Only when he’s been vanquished as a romantic rival is Rhodes allowed to match Astaire in masculine style. A production still in Croce’s invaluable “The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book” shows the cast at the climactic moment when Beddini learns that his “marriage” to Ginger was actually a fake. He, Astaire, and Edward Everett Horton are all in white tie, but Rhodes is wearing a long, light-colored dressing gown in place of his tailcoat. Its notched lapels, flap pockets, and breast-pocket crest with crossed swords and an “AB” monogram give it the rakish ease of a polo coat. With its softness contrasting with the stiff formality of the wing-collared shirt and white tie beneath, that beautiful robe makes Rhodes look more elegant than ridiculous for the only time in the film.

The Impresario Dandy darkens considerably in Clifton Webb’s performance as acid-penned columnist Waldo Lydecker in 1944′s stylishly noir “Laura.” Aesthete Lydecker has molded the eager Laura (Gene Tierney) from aspiring advertising copywriter to sophisticated executive and girl around Manhattan, styling a persona that became his jealous fixation during her life, and a ghostly obsession for the straight-arrow detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigating her supposed murder. As opposed to Webb’s rather prissy take on the role, Walbrook must have made a terrifically seductive Lydecker when he appeared in a German television production of the story in 1962.

The beautifully cut suits, vests and buttonholes all signal a worldly Lydecker, who forwebb.jpg his beloved at-home evenings with Laura dons a nifty tartan silk smoking jacket with a black shawl collar, a purely dandyish choice for fireside salad-tossing. (Vincent Price, though, as penniless Southern-cured playboy Shelby Carpenter gets the movie’s best dandy quip: ” I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes.”)

Lydecker’s powerful dandyism doesn’t depend on his wardrobe — or even being clothed. He forces MacPherson (suited in boxy 40s he-man wear) to conduct their first interview while he’s submerged in a freestanding marble bath, the centerpiece of a fairly celestial powder room of his own. After parrying the detective’s questions, he stands to exit the tub, offering a deliberately full-fontal affront to the stolid investigator.

The dandy archetype becomes even more sinister in “LA Confidential” (1997) with David Strathairn’s Pierce Patchett, impresario of the city’s 1950s sexual underground. His introduction in the screenplay makes note of both his influence and his wardrobe: “PIERCE PATCHETT, 50, tuxedoed, watches off to one side. A behind-the-scenes power broker, Patchett exudes authority much more so than the Mayor does.”

As the proprietor of a stable of movie star-double call girls, his erotic reserve puzzles both cops and scandal slingers. Patchett’s courtly manners, his appreciation for contemporary architecture and interiors, and his understated yet assured wardrobe — more I. Magnin than mobster — all mark him as an Impresario Dandy. And as if it needed any more underlining, he uses a cigarette holder, cinema’s dandy indicator prop of choice.

Patchett may be asexual, Lydecker a thinly veiled gay man, and Beddini just too silly to be sexy at all, but the most recent movie incarnation of the Impresario Dandy is clearly hetero. Gerard Butler’s title turn in the overstuffed film version of “The Phantom of the Opera” is probably the most purely, well, operatic dandy in the group.

He’s the high-baroque embodiment of the classic tortured artist. With his sweeping overcoats, brocade waistcoats framing ruffled shirtfronts, and great-looking mane, he’s alarmingly well groomed for a guy who essentially commutes via drainage system. (Even that whole disfigurement thing is made to seem kinda sexy.)

Patrick Wilson’s Raoul, with his anachronistic ponytail and outfits straight from a romance novel cover, comes off as no match for Butler: He’s a bland Banana Republic mannequin, not a believable Third Republic aristocrat. This movie Phantom is the ultimate métrosexual, a Parisian dandy with a libido on overdrive, as Emmy Rossum’s bustier-heaving sighs testify.

Dressing the “Attractive Brute”

One of the many distinctions of “The Red Shoes” is that Powell and Pressburger put a dandy squarely in the story’s emotional foreground. Anton Walbrook’s nuanced performance and well-polished masculine appeal make Boris Lermontov’s magnetism clear (Victoria’s aunt calls him an “attractive brute”), and a closer look at the film reveals how much that character is enhanced and shaped by Walbrook’s clothes.

Designer Hein Heckroth gives Lermontov’s wardrobe two quite distinct looks, which reflect the separate sides of his personality. As the head of the Ballet Lermontov, his “public” clothes highlight his artistic authority and mirror his reigned-in emotions. Limited to an essentially black and white palette, they’re literally vestments (luxurious ones, granted) for a man who describes the ballet as his religion. They’re his mantles of power as an impresario, clothes whose simplicity and understatement channel attention to his commanding personality rather than to themselves.

Backstage on performance evenings or at social events, Lermontov is impeccable in tails or a 6 x 2 double-breasted dinner jacket. And each time the working Lermontov is seen in daytime he wears the same uniform: a 6 x 2 double-breasted suit of deepest blue-black, a double-cuffed white shirt with a narrow spread and long points, a pale champagne-colored tie and gold cufflinks. When the company takes up residence in Monte Carlo, his light Panama hat, sunglasses and black-and-white spectator shoes add notes of Riviera chic to the signature look without undercutting its formality. (Stills from deleted Monte Carlo scenes also show Lermontov at work in a white version of his suit, paired with a black shirt and a light ascot and worn with sandals.)

When Lermontov is seen in private, formality gives way to clothing that reveals the creative and sensual sides of his nature. His breakfast outfit gets an entrance that shows off its impact to the fullest. Emerging from his London bedroom, Walbrook makes a slow cross to the table, smoking and idly leafing through the morning’s mail. The full-figure shot allows us to see that he’s wearing a long, silky gown of steel blue-gray inset front and back with narrow vertical panels of embroidered material in several patterns. With its high neck and full sleeves, the effect is vaguely Russian-Asiatic. At the table, as Lermontov pops grapes into his mouth or reaches for a peach, another detail of those sleeves is seen, the large, gold-toned buttons that close the gathered cuffs. Lermontov may a priest in the theater, but at home he’s a pampered mandarin. (The breakfast scene, which introduces Craster to Lermontov, resembles the uncomfortable bathroom meeting of Lydecker and MacPherson, and the film’s male battle for control over a woman “created” by a dandy parallels the one that unfolds in “Laura.”)

One of the film’s most visually ravishing sequences ushers us into the next view of Lermontov’s private world, this time on the Riviera. Summoned for a meeting, Victoria, gowned in a tiered evening dress whose peacock blue looks nearly iridescent in the early-evening light, ascends flight after flight of steep steps to Lermontov’s cliffside villa, her pleated, bell-sleeved coat trailing on the grass overgrown through their cracks. She makes her way through gardens overlooking the Mediterranean, down an arcade, and straight to Lermontov, who appears beside a heavy, carved wooden door.

Glamorous as Shearer is in that princess-like gown (designed by couturier Jacques Fath), Lermontov’s appearance once again startles, this time for its stylish and colorful informality. He’s wearing sandals; light-colored, pleated trousers; a dark crew-necked top under an open, short-sleeved blue shirt; and a long, patterned red scarf casually tied around his neck.

Once Lermontov has offered her the lead in the ballet of the “Red Shoes,” Victoria exits and her place is taken by Craster, who’s about to get a big break of his own from Lermontov and his collaborators. Goring is at his most dandyish here, in dark, wide-legged trousers; sandals; and a white knit top with horizontal stripes on its chest and back panels and a yellow ascot tucked into its open collar. The effect is a bit too studied, though — perhaps because of the beret he’s just been seen wearing outside the door, or because Goring, made up throughout the film to look younger than his actual age, can’t quite carry off this juvenile-lead outfit as effortlessly as Walbrook does his.

This scene is the most interesting one in the film in terms of men’s fashion. Not only are the impresario and the composer seen in holiday wear, but two of the other three members of the company’s creative team are as well. Choreographer Massine is crisp in light pants, white shoes, a blue blazer, and a red ascot in the collar of his white shirt. The company’s designer, a fatherly Russian type, is outfitted in cream pants; white shoes and long-sleeved shirt; and a short-sleeved, open blue overshirt with a white pocket square tucked into its breast pocket. The gathering recalls the casual swank of a ’40s Esquire fashion illustration of warm-weather travelwear. Only the company’s conductor has not forsaken his city suit pants and braces. We get a good look, though, at a characteristically period detail in the cut of his high-waisted trousers, the peaked rear panel (just at the small of the back) where the buttons of his braces attach.

Lermontov’s single outburst in the film, a private act of anger, takes place in his Paris sitting room. He’s appropriately dressed for high emotion: Prompted by a telegram telling him of Victoria’s marriage to Julian, he’s seen brooding in the shadows, wearing a red velvet, high-collared, Russian moujik-style jacket. His bottled-up rage explodes as he smashes the mirror above the fireplace with his fist. A moment later, when his company manager appears, the room’s lights are fully up and he appears to have regained his composure. But in the course of their conversation about the couple, Lermontov rips open the jacket’s collar and upper buttons, revealing a brilliant gold lining. That gesture, as surprising and casually violent in its own way as the smashing of the mirror, reveals the intensity of Lermontov’s feelings for his lost dancer.

A Dandy in the Shadows

For all its visual panache and cinematic fantasy, “The Red Shoes” also examines a deeper and timeless conflict: whether ambition and romance can ever be compatible. And Walbrook’s strangely moving performance as Lermontov adds another dimension to that question: Can a dandy’s search for perfection ever encompass love?

Victoria’s and Julian’s attempt to meld artistic success and personal happiness ends in her death, leaving us with a vision of the dancer in a bloodied and torn costume, a chilling real-life duplicate of the tattered stage outfit in which she ended the “Red Shoes” ballet.

Lermontov too pays a price for his own ambition, and for the emotional detachment symbolized by his dandyism. This most private of men is forced to announce his dancer’s death to a waiting audience, unable to suppress his shocked sorrow. Like a coda to a tragic symphony, the film’s final view of Lermontov shows him sitting in his box, impeccable as always in tails, but tearfully watching the finale of the ballet now performed as a tribute to its absent star.

Lermontov, the “attractive brute” seemingly immune to deeply felt emotions, ends shattered as an impresario and as a man. Only his dandyism remains, its armor of style now unable to fully shield him from loss. Anton Walbook’s sensitive portrait leaves us with the impression that Lermontov, however diminished, will nonetheless endure — beautifully dressed, wrapped in shadows and smoke, and alone.

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10 Responses to “A Nero of Our Time”

  1. M Says:

    Welcome aboard and well done!

    M

  2. JES Says:

    Bravo!

  3. literary syphilis Says:

    Fantastic article, and of particular interest to me as a dual art history/film studies student. Easily one of the best this site has produced. My hat off to you (well, if I were wearing a hat).

  4. Radio Saturday Says:

    Yes, a wonderful piece. I could have done with more pictures, but then, I can always do with more pictures. I’m shocked that I haven’t yet seen “The Red Shoes.”

  5. G_A Says:

    A very fine article, Ferrando, but as a Leroux purist it grieves me to read anything complimentary about the 2004 Phantom.

  6. Ferrando Says:

    Thanks to eveyone for their very positive comments on my first front-page piece.
    Radio, I hope this encourages you to finally see “The Red Shoes.” And GA, I’m not a fan of that over-the-top operetta, but the Phantom certainly has his dandyish side (the one not covered by the mask).

    I’ve collected a few photos of the dashing Mr. W, at http://s92.photobucket.com/albums/l34/Rob105_2006/Walbrook%20Photos/
    Take a look, and perhaps you’ll be tempted to screen a few of his films.

  7. Dr.E.S.Lombard Says:

    I cannot recall how many times I have played this tape. At age 87, I must have seen it scores of times. I never tire of it and am always astounded that so few people have ever heard of it. It reminds me of Noel Coward’s film 1935, The Scoundrel referred to as “box office poison”, astonishing inasmuch as it won the academy award for its Hecht-MacArthur script. Although I am not gay (sired eleven children), I am European and somehow found the cluster of Coward,Walbrook, Veidt as variations on my own Spanish father and models for my own manhood. It’s only in recent years that I have noted this commonality, three gay actors, as unconscious models. Anyway, Red Shoes is to me a film that I can never see too many times.I am moving abroad and can’t take it with me because the cyces are different there, but I’m sure I”ll find someone else who shares my enthusiasm for the film. For the erotic tango dancing, I”m fond of Robert Duvall’s Assassination Tango. I found the above review delicious and expect to savor it more thoughtfully.

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  10. Pamela Says:

    As a fan of “The Red Shoes” and particularly of the great Anton Walbrook, I thought this posting was absolutely outstanding in its analysis of what I would call the “vestimentary cues” in this film. Clothes not only “make the man,” but are often a reflection of character. Lermontov comes more fully into focus when we consider the messages transmitted by his wardrobe. I would add, however, that I always thought Lermontov was wearing a cossack shirt in the explosive scene that leads up to his smashing the mirror. While the shirt style evokes its peasant roots, the deep red velvet material points to the its wearers taste for luxury and beauty. A powerful scene with a power garment if there ever was one!

    Thanks for this very informative piece.

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