Romantic Fantasy Meets Labor Organizing: “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris”

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is this summer’s frothy romcom.

Critics and audiences love it.  Tomris Laffly, writing at RogerEbert.com,  says that “this mid-century-set treat is as pretty and heartwarming as you can imagine in following a modest housekeeper’s dreamy quest to head to Paris and purchase her very own Christian Dior gown.”  Somewhat less enthusiastically, James Berardinelli says at reelview.net, “ My guess is that it will appeal strongly to the Downton Abbey faithful.”

On Rotten Tomatoes the critics give Mrs. Harris a 95% score, and the audience gives it a 93%. My sister said, “You’ll leave with a smile on your face.” And that’s true, especially if you’re a fan of romantic comedies, as I am.

So what does a film about an English housekeeper who lusts after a Christian Dior gown have to do with socialism or  Democratic Left? 

Buried in this sentimental concoction are two tales of labor organizing. The first of these shows Paris in 1957, as sanitation workers are striking for better pay and working conditions. Mrs. Harris, herself a working-class war widow, notices the garbage in the streets and learns of the strike. She then enters the House of Dior, where she is initially turned away only to ultimately return and be allowed in.  The wealthy patrons look down on her. It  turns out that the husband of one of these snobs owns the sanitation company that the workers are striking against. Toward the end of the movie, the workers celebrate in the streets as they win their demands and both husband and wife are arrested for graft and corruption.

Even as the sanitation workers are celebrating, the manager of the House of Dior decides to fire many of the staff: seamstresses, fitters, and cloth cutters. Seeing this, Mrs. Harris mobilizes them and other workers to force Christian Dior (the company) to take another path, making not only haute couture but also dresses that would be more available for working-class or at least middle-class women. The fired workers are rehired.

Now, you might say, Well, that’s great, but it’s still pretty individualistic. And that’s true, mainly. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is not 9 to 5, Norma Rae or Bread and Roses. But how many Hollywood movies have you seen that actually celebrate labor? How many Hollywood movies are there where the central character is a housekeeper who doesn’t marry her employer? It’s frothy, fun, and romantic and it still shows that by sticking together working people can be victorious.

We need more popular culture that highlights those victories: on television, in the movies, in novels, and even on the Internet. DSA has been mentioned on FBI,  (a television show that probably few readers of this magazine watch; still, bad publicity is publicity!) So go out  or watch something on TV, read the latest trashy mystery or romance novel. Look for the hidden themes. You might be surprised at what you find.