Mrs. (H)arris Goes to Paris

The novel has been continuously on my A-list since I first read it as a teenager, so I can’t help holding the recent movie to a pretty high standard. Oh, it was an all right movie in and of itself; certainly better than the TV movie from the '90s with Angela Lansbury. If you haven’t read or heard of it, British charwoman in the 1950s gets fixated on owning a Dior dress, saves her money, goes to Paris and the House of Dior, where several lives are changed, including hers. I just have to politely vent about the changes made for the film, that IMO made it a very different story, lacking what I love about the source material.

  • First of all, the novel is about Mrs. 'Arris, with a dropped H, because she is so very cockney. Sure, change the title for the thick Americans who won’t get it. So right away you lose some of the quirkiness.

  • Nothing against Lesley Manville, but she plays Mrs. Harris way too cheerful, and in fact a bit daft. In the novel, she’s rather abrasive, but in a comedic way; Pauline Collins could have pulled it off in the '80s. And a lot of other character quirks were sanded down. The hat was too stylish, for instance; it was supposed to be straw, with a fake rose, that only a working-class woman would think was stylish.

  • Then there’s the matter of The Dress. The novel goes into great detail about how it looks, and how it looks on various people. It’s called “Temptation”, and it’s basically a hybrid of two classic Barbie outfits*: the bodice of Enchanted Evening and the skirt of Solo in the Spotlight. Except the top has white chiffon instead of white fur, and the last few inches of the skirt are overlapping panels of beaded velvet, not netting as in the Barbie outfit. In the movie, there are two possible choices, one green, one red, both of them more like cocktail dresses, not an evening gown.

  • And both of them are kind of meh, which leads me to another issue. In the novel, Mrs. H. wanted a Dior dress the way she might have wanted a painting or a fine piece of furniture. It was art to her, not something she’d ever wear, at least not outside her flat. So when she gets to choose, she chooses “Temptation”, because it really is a work of art, not just a garment. Another character groans inwardly when she chooses, because this always happens. The young women these showcase gowns are meant for, usually can’t afford them. The women trying to hang onto or recapture youth can afford them, so that’s what they buy, and it often makes things worse. (Although not in Mrs. H’s case, because she has a certain dignity, and also she’s hardly overweight, as deprived as she’s been while saving up for this.) In the movie it’s just two mid-calf, wide-skirted cocktail dresses, both perfectly suitable for a middle-aged woman. So it wasn’t really taking her out of her comfort zone. She probably could have gotten something similar at Marks & Sparks, just that the Dior has expensive fabric and was made by hand.

  • And there’s supposed to be a whole meeting-of-the-minds thing between her and another woman: Mme. Colbert, the Directrice, the sphinx everyone has to get past to reach the inner sanctum. In the novel, the scene where they meet is a set piece, just the two of them, Mme. giving her the usual brushoff, then Mrs. H makes one comment that moves the immovable object. Because Mme. wants something for her family just as badly as Mrs. H wants a Dior dress, you see, and later on Mrs. H will hook her up with someone who can help. And that something was left out entirely.

  • And just, a lot of things were undercut and rushed through. There should have been a shot of Andre watching Natasha on the catwalk, for instance. I suppose I don’t object to Natasha secretly being an intellectual instead of fretting about her biological clock, but that’s another thing: Natasha in the novel was a tall, striking brunette, and was starting to age out of the professional-beauty demographic. She should not have been this tiny waif who barely looks old enough to drive.

  • So yeah, TL;DR, a book I love was made into a movie I don’t like. But I felt like venting about it, and this is kinda long for Facebook.

*Not a deliberate cribbing from Mattel; Barbie didn’t even come on the market until 1959, and the novel was published in 1958.

In the Wikipedia entry for the book, it’s mentioned that there have been five adaptations so far of this book (which was published in 1958 and originally call Flowers for Mrs Harris). You talk about the 1992 and 2022 feature movies. There was also a one-episode adaptation for an American television show in 1958. (It was common in the 1950s to do one-hour adaptations of various things for long-running programs which consisted of nothing but many unrelated adaptations. These tended to resemble a filmed play on a stage. They were cheaply made.) There was a German television movie in 1982 that adapted the book. There was a stage musical in 2016 in British theaters which was called Flowers for Mrs Harris. How many of them have you seen? There were also three novels by the same author which continued the story. How many of them have you read? It seems to me that this is a bigger set of things about this character than I would have guessed:

At the time of writing, the actress to typecast for the part would have been Kathleen Harrison, or possibly Irene Handl. I seem to recall wondering if Gallico had either in mind when writing.

They could do “cheerfully abrasive with a resourceful heart of gold” - and made good careers out of it.

I thought the dropped ‘H’ was because the French find it almost impossible to pronounce a word beginning with the aspirate.

I rather liked the Angela Lansbury version (the only one I’ve seen), but then I generally rather like Angela Lansbury in everything.

Not pronouncing the h is done both in French and in the Cockney dialect, but they aren’t related.

My review of the new version in the “seen recently” thread.

Wendell Wagner: I’m aware of the other books but haven’t read them. Never found them in libraries, and never tried to buy them online because I thought the price would be astronomical. Looking at AbeBooks, it appears they’re fairly reasonably priced, so I’ve wishlisted them. Never even heard of any of the adaptations you mention; surprised I didn’t hear about the 2016 stage version.

bob_2: Mrs. H. and several other British characters talk Cockney and are written in dialect. Mrs. H, on first seeing her client’s Dior gowns (plural!): “Ain’t they beauties. I’ll bet they didn’t 'arf cost a packet.” It works the other way in Paris: Natasha offers Mrs. H a ride in her “leetle car.”

Gyrate: I couldn’t even finish it. Dior was a shrewd mofo, and would not have risked an international incident by banning a foreign woman from his studio just because she didn’t look like Audrey Hepburn.

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I get that they wanted it to be a comedy, about an underdog and about culture class. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Just that I’ve yet to see a live-action version of the story that I love.

Now, if anyone’s seen a recent movie called A Simple Favor, there’s a scene in it that’s relevant to this. Anna Kendrick goes to the offices of a trendy designer. His receptionist has her hair slicked back in an iron chignon, and her face is a mask of cosmetics. She has a headset on and keeps saying “Good morning, Trendy Designer, please hold…Good morning, Trendy Designer, please hold…” while AK says “Uh, excuse me…Are you talking to me, or…Uh, EXCUSE ME…” and finally puts her finger on the cutoff button. Okay, Mme should not be that rude, but there should be the same tension. And she should look like that: always sleek and perfect on the surface, no matter what turmoil is happening underneath.

See, when we meet Mme, she’s brooding about her husband, who is up for a promotion, and she’s sure he’s going to be passed over yet again. He’s brilliant and dedicated, but he has no connections and won’t make the back-room deals. And Mme blames herself to some extent, for not using her own position to make connections for him. So that’s where she is when Mrs. H comes in, and that’s why she gets down off the pedestal and sees to it that Mrs H gets into the afternoon showing. Because if someone wants something that bad, it’s cruel to deny them.

Then somewhere along the line, she tells Mrs H what’s worrying her, and the next day, when Mrs H is strolling and having tea with the old gentleman, she tells him about “poor” Madame and her husband (…“says 'e’s got more brains in his little finger than all the rest of 'em in their striped pants.”). Colbert, you say? Would that be Jules Colbert?..Give Madame my card; I may be able to help Monsieur. Mme reads the card and cries, of course, and it would be a great visual if tears wiped away some of her makeup, cracking the mask.

And then The Dress. C’mon, people. When Peter Jackson made Fellowship, he knew the Balrog had to be fearsome, and he had to make it a big scene, because so many people had an image of it in their heads that he had to live up to or surpass. Likewise, the gown, the reason for all this, should be a masterpiece, not just an upgrade from what she usually wears. It’s not just a matter of the reader seeing it in their head; it’s described thoroughly and there are illustrations. It has an effect on other characters, too. Natasha wears it on the catwalk and gets the most applause. Andre watches from the doorway, enraptured, and when an hour or so later he sees Mrs. H in it, he’s aghast: how can this dowdy foreigner defile The Dress that Natasha looked so lovely in? It really has to stand out. And it has to be one dress all the way through, not this switcheroo-surprise nonsense.

It’s not that it doesn’t work at all. Just that it doesn’t have the emotional beats of the novel.

Yes, well, I wasn’t assuming it had any connection to reality.