The day was wet and windy when we learned that an unexpected restriction was rightly slapped on visitors’ entry to the top of Gustave Eiffel’s Tower, the emblem of Paris. For Bianca, a first-time visitor to Paris at that time, the spectacular view from the third inner platform at 276m had to be compensated with a panoramic view from the second inner platform (115m) of the Eiffel Tower which was overcrowded with visitors despite the chilly wind. The night before from the window of our hotel rooms, we had seen the tower fizzes with champagne sparkle (336 600-W projector sodium lamps and 20,000 bulbs for the Sparkling Tower) periodically from sundown to the early hour while the old moon gleamed over it. Why does Paris hold a special place in many hearts? Most visually recognisable in Europe, the city’s beauty is undeniable. From where my wife Carina, Bianca and I stood on the second platform, not in the very distance was the Arc de Triomphe. Our eyes shifted from the Arc and trailed over the tree-lined straight boulevard of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées with its lovely sense of space now obstructed from view by the masses of buildings, to Le Grand Palais with its iron and glass domes. Scanning past the city’s oldest monument, Obélisque de Luxor in the vast Place de la Concorde; and the splendid Jardin des Tuileries, we can’t miss architect I M Pei’s pyramid and that honourable house of La Gioconda, Le Musée du Louvre, where I have spent many many days over many years discovering the magnificent genius of our gifted ancestors, each object d’art systematically displayed for global citizens. Further to our right on the eastern half of the natural island, Île de la Cité in the Seine, loomed the 90m Gothic spire of Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, beyond which is Gare de Paris-Bercy from where we would catch the night train to Milan four days later. Gazing at the distance to the left, our eyes fell on the dome of that neo-Romanesque-Byzantine edifice, Sacré-Cœur (Sacred Heart) Basilica on the Montmartre (Mount of Martyrs) hill where we had chosen our hotel for this time to explore the life in Montmartre. Each arrondissement of this legendary metropolis is self-contained for necessities, its treasures, and its secrets. All life is here – in Paris. Bianca, our eldest daughter, with her imminent degree in Fashion Design on her mind, had her thinking caps on for ideas and inspirations of the French fashion: Chanel, Dior, Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent,… – all the more reason, this is the age where luxury fashion endeavours to be more accessible to the public. Her eyes were now busy trying to locate the Christian Dior Couture building on Avenue Montaigne which she finally found straight ahead of us, few blocks up the Pont de l’Alma Tunnel where Princess Diana with two others was killed in a car crash on the night of 31 August, 1997. Well, Dior would be our next destination for the day, the first of the haute-couture houses she intended to trail to “catch the fresh French fashion touch.” True to the word: Fashion is followed!
Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris (1992)
Interestingly, renowned American novelist Paul Gallico (Paul William Gallico – July 26, 1897 – July 15, 1976) in his beautiful short novel, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, published in 1958, tells the story about a widowed English working class woman’s visit to Paris to buy a beautiful dress. This book forms part of the four “Mrs. Harris” books Gallico wrote, viz., Mrs. Harris Goes to New York (1959), Mrs. Harris Goes to Parliament (1965, aka: Mrs Harris, M. P), and Mrs. Harris Goes to Moscow (1974). Adapted as a TV play with some alterations by John Hawkesworth, “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris” was filmed on locations in London, Paris and Budapest. Synopsis: It was the London of 1953. Our protagonist, Mrs. Ada Harris, the charwoman somewhere in her late 50s or early 60s, led a regular-as-clockwork life in Battersea cleaning homes of well-to-dos living in and on the fringes of fashionable Eaton Square and Belgravia – 10 hours a day – 5 ½ days a Week. One morning after she had reported for work at the luxurious home of Lord and Lady Dent, one of her rich clients, Ada was sent to her Ladyship’s bedroom to collect some letters. There, Ada saw an invitation to Lord and Lady Dent to attend Her Majesty’s Coronation Ball at Buckingham Palace on Friday, 5th June 1953. It was then she saw two lovely gowns hanging by the wardrobe – one red and the other in pale blue. Ada had never seen anything so beautiful in her whole life. When Lady Dent found Ada admiring her pale blue gown, she informed Ada that they are from Dior in Paris and the pale blue gown cost a pricey 450 guineas, an astronomical sum in 1953. Lady Dent plans to wear one of the gowns to the Coronation Ball. When Ada was given the chance to select one of the gowns for Lady Dent to wear for the Ball, the blue gown was Ada’s choice since she thought that the pale blue was the best for the Palace. Besides, they say Her Majesty liked pale colours. Lady Dent was apparently impressed by Ada’s selection. In next to no time, Ada was besotted by the desire to own a similar Dior gown, but the cost, of course, was beyond her financial capacity. Having played in the weekly football Pool, Ada won 174 pounds 6 shillings and 4 pence – not much – but it was a good start for her to edge closer to owning a Dior dress. Mrs. Butterfield, her Cockney neighbour and close friend in the same profession was taken aback by Ada’s new interest in getting dressed up. She was all questions: from where will Ada find that kind of money with her low salary? Where will Ada wear the gown after all? Play dress-up in the attic? Ada had her reasons: they may only be charwomen – but they certainly can have their dreams – there is no law against that. As with everything in life, money buys quality. She would work hard enough. She is going to get a Dior gown. Seriously! As a Chinese proverb goes, “To get through the hardest journey we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping”. She “scrimped and saved and slaved” with unwavering determination for three long years until she possessed just sufficient money to see her through her travel to Paris and return, plus the cost to acquire the gown. Perfect! The year would be about 1956 by now when Ada, upon arrival in Paris, was confronted by the reality that obtaining an original couture creation from Christian Dior’s Salon is a challenging task. Then again, at the House of Christian Dior in the Avenue Montaigne, she was lucky enough to have met Mme Colbert, the Chief Vendeuse of Dior who was at that time in the middle of organising a Collection to be shown to a selected audience that afternoon where the guest of honour will be Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret, famed for her love for Christian Dior’s creations in the 1950s. As it turned out, with Mme Colbert’s help, Ada ended up sitting in the front row of the show next to a Ministre, Marquis Hippolite, who would soon become fascinated by her charming personality. In a little while, as the Dior show proceeded with the display of magnificent haute couture creations, a young model named Natasha appeared dressed in a most gorgeous dress no: 89 “Temptation” which was the dream of Mrs. Ada Harris. Overwhelmed with admiration for that soft-pink gown, Ada’s incessant clapping was disdainfully stared at by the room full of high-society women in their aura of riches, getting their fashion fix here. Following the show, Mme Colbert was delighted to accept Mrs. Harris’ booking for the gown “Temptation” at the cost of 437,000 francs (£450). Arrangements were swiftly made with the head dressmaker, Monsieur Marcel and his assistant Mme. Claudine who agreed they would spin into overdrive to get her dress done within a week. Accommodation was arranged quickly for Ada’s one-week stay in Paris. However, to get Ada measured and fitted, it was found necessary to evade an antagonist in the form of the pompous director of the House of Dior, Monsieur Armont, who appeared to be an expert in brewing up anxiety in the salon. Mrs. Harris had never thought of that possibility. And so, Ada slips under the protective umbrella of the triad: Mme Colbert, M Marcel and Mme Claudine. Keep the fingers crossed – everything comes to the one who waits. Ada’s forced and unforeseen stay in Paris was not in vain. By the time the week has come to a full circle, she had sown the magical seeds of sure-fire success all around her: to put a bachelor’s house tidier; to bring together two lovers; mend the stormy time between the Marquis, his daughter Mme Louise and granddaughter Claire; and arranged a much needed letter for Mme Colbert from Le General de Gaulle conferring the Order of Croix de Guerre with palm posthumously on her husband M Michelle Colbert, a member of La Résistance Française who was shot dead 12 years ago during the German occupation of France. As luck would have it, not only M Michelle’s name will be inscribed in the book of the Heroes of the Resistance, but Mme Colbert will also be given the Médaille de la Résistance from the General himself. Wonderful! In spite of this, M Armont still persisted on her neck. However, as in all stories trailing the legend of Cinderella, Ada Harris’ had her saving grace in a friendship to help her through her hurdles and finally finger-point M Armont as the bad leaf on the lettuce. Friendship isn’t a big thing – it is a million little things. Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris is a Canada-United Kingdom-Hungary co-production, and filmed with the production assistance of Air France and Christian Dior. It was produced by Susan Cavan and Andras Hamori and directed by Anthony Shaw (the first son of Angela Lansbury and Peter Shaw). The ensemble of crew consists of: Stanley Myers (music); Laszlo George (Director of Photography); Sidney Wolinsky (Film Editing); Roger Murray-Leach (Production Design); Jane Robinson (Costume Design); Tamas Hornyanszky (Art Director), Virginia Gallico (Creative Consultant), etc. One of the seasoned pros of the past, the performance of British actress Angela Lansbury, CBE (born on 16 October, 1925 in London) as Mrs. Ada Harris, a honest, working-class widow without children, is heart-warming. Out on a long-distance adventure, Angela’s Ada is a delight to watch as she braves the hurdles on the Parisian scenery. Daughter of Irish stage/screen actress Moyna MacGill, and granddaughter of George Lansbury, the British Labour Party leader, the Strawberry blonde Angela had her screen debut in the role of the sly maid in Gaslight (D: George Cukor, 1944) which earned her nomination for Academy Award for best Supporting actress. MGM soon regarded her as a rising young star. Although she had to content with supporting roles owing that she was considered not pretty enough to be a leading lady, film after film she lured the limelight away from the top-billed stars of her movies. Early in her career, she appeared in the post-war colour remake of the costume drama The Three Musketeers (D: George Sidney, 1948) in which Angela portrayed the role of Queen Ann. Next, I saw her in the biblical tale Samson and Delilah (D: Cecil B. DeMille, 1949) as the Philistine Semadar who was romanced by Victor Mature’s young Danite Samson. She favoured her appearance in a string of movies: The Red Danube (D: George Sidney, 1949), The Purple Mask (D: Bruce Humberstone, 1955), All Fall Down (D: John Frankenheimer, 1961), The Manchurian Candidate (D: John Frankenheimer, 1962), Harlow (D: Gordon Douglas, 1965), etc. Success in movies drove her further to establish careers on stage and in television shows. She appeared in the long-run stage musical hit Mame (Jerry Herman); in TV productions including Murder, She Wrote, launched in 1984; in the musical Sweeney Todd (D: Stephen Sondheim); in Barry Sandler’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mystery The Mirror Crack’d (D: Guy Hamilton, 1980), etc. It is Angela’s sweet singing voice that we hear when the housekeeper Mrs. Potts sings in Beauty and the Beast (D: Garry Trounsdale & Kirk Wise, 1991) in the scene where the Beast romances Belle with dinner and a dance. Egyptian actor Omar Sharif (born Michael Shalhoub) was already a Romantic/sex symbol of the Egyptian cinema before he rose to international stardom with his role as the fierce tribesman in Lawrence of Arabia (D: David Lean, 1962). While Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris was preparing for production, Sharif was already working in Continental Europe acting in two films by French director Henri Verneuil: Mayrig (1991, and later, a TV play in 1993), 588 Rue Paradis (1992), and in Italian director Duccio Tessari’s Beyond Justice (1992). Omar Sharif was contracted as a guest star to portray the wealthy and charming Ministre, Le Marquis Hippolite de Chassagne. Sharif’s physical presence gave character of Marquis more than the film could have acquired from the script alone. Diana Rigg (born Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg in Doncaster, England) is the Tracy (Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo) of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969), the only woman 007 James Bond married. Dame Diana had already established her reputation in Shakespeare plays before international fame came her way for her role as the secret agent Emma Peel in the TV series The Avengers (1961–1969). The performance of Diana Rigg was first-rate as the brainy and fair Mme Colbert who tries to assert her authority as the in-charge of the sales in the House of Dior, and lock horns with M Armont who threw his weight around and refused to let Mrs. Harris, a commoner, have the gown. Montréal, Québec, Canada actor Lothaire Bluteau (Jesus of Montreal, 1989) is the dignified André Fauvel, the Dior accountant who was shy to reveal his fancy for model Natasha but thought that she deserved better than a “pen-pusher” like him. A talented British actor, whenever John Savident (A Clockwork Orange, 1971) appears as the assertive and aggressive M Armont, it is like watching a snake come out of a basket. Lila Kaye (An American Werewolf in London, 1981) acts as Mrs. Butterfield with the cockney dialect matching Mrs. Harris’, which is at its most distinctive during their journey to their workplaces by the doubledecker London bus no: 19 to Victoria. In her screen debut role, Winnipeg Manitoba, Canada-born Tamara Gorski (Murder at 1600, 1997) is exquisite as the small, fair-haired young Dior model Natasha Petitpierre, truly blessed with the loveliest of natures and the sweetest smile in that part of Paris. Also on the supporting cast are: William Armstrong (M. Marcel), Barbara Barnes (Mme. Claudine), Tamsin Olivier (Mme. Louise), Trudy Weiss, Jenö Pataky, Jason Carter, Alex Knight, György Emõd, Mel Martin, Toby Whithouse, David Sterne, Anna Safranek, Ottó Szokolay, Tibor Medveczky, Kieron Jecchinis, Fruzsina Radnai, amongst others. The film rightly features the period-details of the fairy-tale storyline: the white horse-driven van of Lambs Farm Dairy delivering milk in silver-topped bottles; the street-cleaner with his pulling cart; the old Harrods delivery van; the style of dressing, etc. Complemented by the melodious music of Stanley Myers, Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, with competent cast of actors and some interesting plot twists, is a nice and gentle family film, that lifts our hearts with a positive assurance that things can turn up right if you set your mind to it. Watch it if you can – there is nothing wrong in having a little fantasy now and then to lift the spirits. Jo. Notes: 1.. This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to the movie reviewed above. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details. 2.. The DVDs of the movies referred above are available with main dealers such as amazon.com, TCM Shop, etc. 3.. The novel “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” (original UK title: Flowers for Mrs. Harris) by Paul Gallico is available with leading book dealers.
(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)