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‘Madeline’s’ Little Leaps of Faith

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Madeline” director Daisy von Scherler Mayer could see it clearly: The world’s most beloved French boarding school student, played in the movie by Hatty Jones, and her 11 classmates would wear yellow wool coats during their perambulations through Paris.

That was until costume designer Michael Clancy brought her to her senses.

“Think about it,” Clancy told her. “They’d look like rain slickers.”

“It was an awful idea,” Mayer says. Still, it wasn’t entirely without logic. In Ludwig Bemelmans’ highly stylized, illustrated books, the color of clothing is inconsistent. On some pages, everything is yellow--walls, floors, furniture and clothes. But most of the time, the girls’ short capelet coats and jumpers are either gray or blue.

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Gray was quickly ruled out as too depressing, too “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” as Mayer put it.

“The clothes had to be done in a warm, colorful way so the children didn’t look like they lived in a prison or an orphanage.”

After all, the subject at hand is an enchanting children’s story. But finding the right shade of blue was a challenge. Everyone agreed on the brightest, lightest blue that could realistically pass for a school uniform.

“I was FedExing swatches to [producers] Allyn Stewart and Stanley Jaffe,” recalls Mayer. “You don’t want any surprises” in the movie, she says. “Everybody has a such a strong visual image of ‘Madeline.’ For me, the books had a magical quality, and I wanted a magical quality on film.”

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One way this was achieved was by switching the time period from 1939, when the first of the “Madeline” books was written, to 1956, which was far less dreary than wartime Paris and also allowed for some high-fashion moments from Mrs. Spanish Ambassador (Katie Caballero). She wears chic suits with pinched waists and slender skirts in the manner of couturiers Jacques Fath and Cristobal Balenciaga.

Avoiding anything cartoonish was also at the forefront in the filmmakers’ minds. For example, though Bemelmans extended the shape of the girls’ straw hats with highly upturned brims, it was a look that wouldn’t translate to film.

“He exaggerated to the point that you don’t see their actual heads,” Mayer says. For the movie, hats have a shape closer to that of a boater.

The ribbons on the hats were also switched from black, as they appear in the books, to a more upbeat red.

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“Every decision had a kind of life to it, what would feel respectful to the books and still be appealing to kids today,” Mayer says.

Indeed, Madeline and her cohorts weren’t the only ones whose images needed serving. To be true to the book to the letter, their teacher, Miss Clavel (Frances McDormand), a Catholic novice, should have worn a black habit. In no way would that do.

“I felt it was too severe, but I didn’t want to go too fakey-fake and put her in blue,” says Mayer. Gray was the color of choice.

Authenticity was further stretched. In the ‘50s, research showed, a novice running a school outside of a convent would have worn a short skirt, as Julie Andrews did in “The Sound of Music.”

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But “if you look at the books, you know you can’t have Miss Clavel in a short skirt,” Mayer says. “In the books, she’s like a straight line, very tall and angular. So we decided, she’s not a novice, she’s a nun.

“The next slight fudge is she’s wearing the veil of a novice and the habit of a full nun. The veil of a nun would have been very starched, almost like cardboard, right up to her chin with barely a little face peeking out of a circle. This habit is softer and lovelier.”

Putting “Madeline” on film required other leaps of faith. The production was scheduled for August in Paris, when the city’s residents clear out for their summer holiday, and virtually every fabric shop owner, seamstress and hat maker pulls down his shutters. That was great for location shooting when empty streets were desired and terrible for making clothes. And all the costumes, except for the toreador outfit worn by Pepito (Kristian de la Osa), the Spanish ambassador’s son, were made in Paris. (His elaborately beaded and embroidered ensemble, the most expensive garment in the movie, was handmade in Spain.)

“It was always about somebody calling somebody,” says Mayer. “There was one scary weekend when we needed the nightgowns ready. But somebody will always make what you need. You just have to track the person down in the south of France. That’s the French way.”

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