Mrs. Harris, Mrs. ‘Arris, and Their Trips to Paris

Even as someone who’s only casually familiar with Angela Lansbury’s career, I was saddened to hear of her recent passing.  I’ve never successfully watched an entire episode of Murder, She Wrote without drifting off to sleep or off to another channel; the most experience I have with her prestigious singing career is hearing her voice a cartoon teapot; and yet the TV interview clips memorializing Lansbury on local news broadcasts last week had me instantly crying for reasons I can’t fully articulate.  She just seemed like such a kind, thoughtful, talented person that the world was lucky to have around – a very particular, gentle flavor of sweet that’s been draining from our cultural palate.  Online posthumous praise for Lansbury has also helped me see new, nuanced shades to her persona, since I had only previously seen her typecast as a lovely old biddy for all of my life.  Between reading John Waters’s real-life anecdote of bumping into Lansbury at an NYC fetish club to watching her bratty debut in Gaslight and listening to her get gruesome in Sweeney Todd, I now have a better rounded appreciation of who she was a person & a performer; and I feel like crying all over again.

Getting acquainted with the tougher, saucier side of Angela Lansbury has only enhanced my appreciation of her frothier performances as well.  I’m particularly thinking of her turn as the Cockney-accented Mrs. ‘Arris in the 1992 made-for-television adaptation of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, a novel that was adapted again for a much lusher production this year.  The 2022 version of Mrs. Harris is played by Lesley Manville, who I’m used to seeing as a heartless hardass in projects like Harlots & Phantom Thread.  She’s a big-ol’ softie in her new starring vehicle, though, leaving all of the ice-queen viciousness to her villainous co-star Isabelle Huppert.  Manville delivers the exact sugary sweet, kill-em-with-kindness defiance you’d expect from Lansbury in the role, playing Mrs. Harris as a human doormat who gradually learns to stand up for herself without ever stooping to the cruelty of the world she seeks to change.  What’s hilarious is that Lansbury’s Mrs. ‘Arris is a much tougher customer.  You get the sense that she could easily drink & swear Manville’s Harris under the table, tinging the role with a touch of the Cockney sass that kickstarted her career as a teenager in Gaslight.  She’s still a total sweetheart, but there’s a sharpened edge to her character that’s missing from the newer, higher profile adaptation.

While Lansbury got to play Mrs. ‘Arris with a little grit & gristle (reflected right there in the accented title), Manville got to be in the better movie.  Both adaptations maintain the novel’s basic premise that a kindly British housekeeper splurges her life savings on a couture Dior gown in Paris, much to the frustration of couture’s snootiest gatekeepers.  That premise is just all there is to the made-for-TV version, which wouldn’t be much of a movie without Lansbury’s loveable screen-presence babysitting the audience between commercial breaks.  Meanwhile, Manville’s Mrs. Harris essentially becomes a union organizer—inspired by an ongoing trash strike that’s only mentioned as a traffic obstacle in the Lansbury version—radicalizing both the workers at Dior and herself.  Both versions of Mrs. Harris are lauded for being kind in a cruel world, but only Manville gets to learn to prioritize herself in the face of oppressive class & gender politics; she’s in a drama, while Lansbury is in a sitcom.  The most telling difference between the two films is when a Parisian love interest warmly refers to Mrs. Harris as “Mrs. Mops” in honor of the maid that cleaned his room at British boarding school.  In the made-for-TV version, it’s played as a sweet gesture; in the theatrical version it breaks her heart, and you desperately want to see her punch the cad’s throat.

I don’t want to exalt the 2022 version of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris as some high standard of artful cinema that the made-for-TV version can’t live up to.  Both adaptations are the exact kind of passive British entertainment meant to be enjoyed under a giant blanket with an empty mind & a nice cuppa.  Only the theatrical version has a true emotional hook to it, though.  When Mrs. Harris inevitably gets the pretty dress she wants, the movie just works on a level that the 90s one can’t – joining “Paddington wishes Aunt Lucy a happy birthday” and “The Girlhood girls dance to Rhianna” on the list of scenes I can think back to when I need a quick cry.  Lansbury doesn’t need a good movie to hit that emotional trigger, though.  I can apparently watch 30 seconds of her doing a press junket interview with Entertainment Tonight and well up with tears in the same way.  Her Mrs. Harris movie didn’t need to be especially “good” to be worthwhile; her sweet-but-secretly-tough presence was enough.  All that said, there’s a much wider, brighter world of Lansbury projects out there I should have prioritized before watching her pretty-dress movie, especially now that I have a better handle on who she was.  And maybe I should start with forcing myself to fall in love with detective-novelist Jessica Fletcher, who was likely an even tougher customer than Mrs. ‘Arris; I just have to stay awake long enough to get to know her.

-Brandon Ledet

Lettres d’Amour (1942)

The library where I work recently acquired Criterion’s “Claude Autant-Lara—Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France” boxset and we’ve been making good use of those DVDs in my household. Three of the four films in the set were made and released during the German occupation of France during WWII. The last film, Sylvie et le fantôme, came out the year after armistice that ended the war. Brandon covered the first film in the boxset, Le Marriage de Chiffon, back in June, so if you’d like a little more background on the filmmaker or the context these four films were made in, go check out his review!

The second film in the boxset, Lettres d’Amour, opens with a scene of conflict between the petty bureaucrats of Napoleon III’s empire and Zélie Fontaine, a widowed, small-town postmistress and stagecoach owner. The bureaucrats argue that Fontaine does not respect their authority and, as a woman, is not fit to hold such an important public office on her own. Her rebuttal: a Bronx cheer to them and to all who make up “la Société,” the over-privileged elites who are engaged in a class war with “la Boutique,” the simple shop class trying to better themselves through hard work. It is interesting that this film was released uncensored during the Nazi occupation of France, considering its rebellious tone of lauding the common folk versus the government.

La Société’s case against Fontaine is hinged on a scandalous love letter ostensibly addressed to her from a mysterious beau who uses the pen-name “hedgehog.” Little do they realize the letters are intended for her best friend, wife of the local prefect and chief plaintiff in the case against Zélie. In a classic romance twist, once the “hedgehog” meets Zélie, he realizes that she is a far more likeable person and an all-around better romantic partner. Eventually, the town squares off with Zélie and her hedgehog on one side versus her former best friend and the rest of “la Société” on the other. But what form does the climactic clash take? Very polite dancing.

As Zélie says to her motley crew of commoners before they crash the quadrille of the wealthy, “This evening we do battle.” Dance battle, that is. A dance battle where everyone is wearing couture gowns designed by Dior and the only thing that gets hurt are some feelings (not a single toe gets stepped on!). This feminine, frothy set piece is pure, exquisite escapism – a perfect antidote to the grim lives of the French citizens who saw the film in its original run.

As with many other films that purposely appealed to women in this era, Lettres d’Amour failed to garner critical support (too sentimental, too trivial) during its initial release. While it certainly deserves reappraisal, its revival is somewhat tainted by the director’s late-in-life remarks that denied the Holocaust. How strange that a film that felt so progressive was made by a man who spouted vile epithets years later. At the end of the day, though, I still really loved this picture. Odette Joyeux, who stars in all four of the films in this box set, is a joy to watch as the stubborn leader of a minor rebellion. Her comedic timing is perfection and the jokes are surprisingly fresh despite being 60+ years old. The costuming is exquisite, and the setting is picturesque. I’m hoping the second half of this set will be as delightful as the first!

-CC Chapman