by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD
This is a frankly feel-good movie, one that promises that dreams can come true. It is based on a novel, one of a series by Paul Gallico, featuring the protagonist, Mrs. Harris, a cleaning woman in London in the late nineteen forties. Its theme seems an odd one for the author.
I had first become aware of him while he was a sportswriter for the New York Daily News in the late nineteen thirties. Gallico was quirky then, known for gimmicks like getting in the ring with Jack Dempsey—who knocked him out in two minutes. Gallico was also notorious for his racial slurs, less remarkable in that era, and his mockery of tennis players, golfers and women athletes.
But as a writer, Gallico had a keen sense of what sells, what people like to read, and he later became famous for his novels. In his usual acerbic way he said of himself, “I’m a rotten novelist. I’m not even literary. I just like to tell stories and all my books tell stories….” This movie showcases that talent.
Mrs. Harris is a war-widowed London cleaning woman, someone who has an upbeat personality and a generous soul. As the movie follows her moving from house to house in her cleaning assignments, we watch her straightening out messes created by her customers with her perky nature never flagging. One of her clients is an exploitative, self-centered upper class woman who, while falling behind in her cleaning woman’s payments, has managed to purchase an original Dior evening gown. Mrs. Harris becomes enraptured with its beauty and determines to buy one for herself, scrimping to scrape up its cost— five hundred pounds.
She journeys to Paris and visits Dior’s haute couture establishment introducing us to its over- privileged clientele, the front of the store toadies, and the behind the scenes slavies whose labor underpins the establishment. Mrs. Harris’ sunny persistence permits her to surmount the social biases that characterize the establishment and make her dream of acquiring a Dior original come true. In a subplot, she meets and wins the heart, though not the hand, of a French nobleman.
Returning with her prize to London, and before she has an opportunity to wear the gown to the local dance hall, she foolishly lends the gown to one of her clients, a thoughtless showgirl striving to sleep her way to success. The budding starlet manages to stain and burn the dream gown beyond any possibility of repair. The ruin of this marvel of fashion catches the attention of the sensational press and a picture of the starlet wearing the ruined garment makes the front pages.
Mrs. Harris’ Parisian acquaintances thus learn of the unhappy event and send a replacement to her, one even more wonderful that its predecessor.
Gallico may call himself a lousy writer, but he knows how to tell a story that people want to ear, read and see. This movie is incontrovertible proof of that. I guarantee that. If you are wondering
what became of her French admirer, I won’t tell you. If and when you see the film, you will see why.