Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a cute movie.
The opening narration, describing New Yorkers’ “carefree, orderly existence,” over traffic-jam footage, is cute.
The montage of Blandings family members arriving at their new home, with narrator Melvyn Douglas mimicking their responses, is cute.
The self-referential ending is downright adorable.
Some people use the word “cute” dismissively. Once, when I tried to wangle my seven-year-old daughter into a Gymboree outfit, she cried, “I don’t want to be cute; I want to be cool!” Personally, I have a higher-than-average cuteness tolerance (witness my devotion to Family Affair).
On a day like today, which holds so many somber memories, it’s comforting to escape into a lighthearted movie like Mr. Blandings.
Movie Impressions: The movie’s opening scenes, which depict a typical morning in the Blandings’ Manhattan apartment, are mostly quiet. A claustrophobic feeling builds as Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) negotiates overstuffed closets and a crowded bathroom. By the time Jim finds out that his wife Muriel (Myrna Loy) has been pricing renovations—and finds how just how pricy those renovations will be—he is ready to escape the city.
(Reviewing the movie, Time took issue with the unrealistically large set that represents a New York apartment: “You could encamp a platoon of homeless veterans in the parlor alone.” This seems to be a perennial complaint about Hollywood depictions of Manhattanites’ homes.)
Once Jim makes up his mind to buy a country house, he lets nothing stand in his way, including reason, caution, or good advice from his lawyer and best friend, Bill. He pays well over the going rate for run-down house and 50 acres of land, fails to notice a clause in the contract that reduces the property size to 35 acres, refuses to let his lawyer renegotiate the price, and then balks at having a structural engineer examine the house.
“Why is he acting so stupid?” my husband asked at this point.
I didn’t have an answer, but I do find it interesting that in the Blandings’ marriage, the husband is the emotional, impulsive one. Grant’s ebullient screen persona and Loy’s placid one work perfectly for this twist on traditional gender roles.
The Blandings end up tearing down the dilapidated house and building a new one (of course, Jim authorizes the demolition before considering the mortgage implications). The mishaps that ensue will resonate with any homeowner. (The guy who digs their well reminds me of every contractor I’ve ever known.) Loy’s paint scene is a highlight—she requests such colors as an apple red “somewhere between a healthy Winesap and an unripened Jonathan.” To the painter, this means “red.”
Adding to Jim’s distress is his growing suspicion that Bill and Muriel have feelings for each other. Critics hated this plot element, which wasn’t present in the popular novel this movie is based on.
“Eric Hodgins’ bestselling Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was a quietly hilarious account of a man’s troubles with a new house,” Time wrote in 1951. “Though Blandings was short on sex appeal, it sold more than 300,000 copies and was bought by the movies. Then Hollywood, which thinks sex is so important that it created a Production Code to keep sex out, added a triangle to the plot. The Cary Grant-Myrna Loy movie was advertised with leering posters: ‘Does Cary suspect the wolf at the door is his best friend?’”
This part of the movie does feel unnecessary. The saving grace is that it occurs late in the movie and doesn’t amount to much—Jim quickly realizes that he’s being silly. (And the scene in which a neighbor gets the wrong idea about Muriel and Bill, who are alone at the new house on a rainy night, is somewhat amusing.)
Historical Context: In 1948, American were starting to embark for the suburbs en masse. According to David Ames, professor of urban affairs and public policy and geography at the University of Delaware, “Post-World War II suburban growth was indeed monumental. From 1918 to 1940, suburbanites grew modestly from seventeen to twenty percent of the nation’s population. By 1960, however, they had doubled to account for forty percent of the nation’s total and far more than doubled in absolute numbers.”
The Blandings’ House: The Blandings built a Colonial-style house. As Douglas Brenner wrote in the New York Times Magazine last year, “(the Blandings) relationship with early-American style personified the hopes and struggles of moviegoers from coast to coast. The Blandings’ country home became so popular that Kellogg’s cereal boxes offered a cardboard cutout model, and Manhattan charity fund-raisers oversaw the construction of a full-scale Dream House knockoff on a vacant lot in Midtown.” In fact, RKO built 73 replica houses around the country and raffled them off to promote the movie.
Jim Blandings, Ad Man: On the spectrum of fictional ad men, Jim stands closer to Darrin Stephens than Don Draper. Distracted by domestic strife, he almost loses his job, until a woman comes up with the slogan that saves his bacon (or ham, in this case).
Supporting Cast Notes: Lurene Tuttle, who plays Jim’s secretary, appeared in character roles across the TV dial from the 1950s through the 1980s. She was also a prolific and talented radio performer. Her most famous radio role was another secretary—Sam Spade’s Effie. Lex Barker, who played a small role in Mr. Blandings, would break through the next year when he made his first of five Tarzan movies. Louise Beavers plays the maid in this movie; unfortunately, she rarely got the chance to play anything else.
Final Fun Fact: Blandings author Eric Hodgins wrote a long article for Life about his experiences on the movie set. Much discussion, he notes, went into determining Jim Blanding’s salary. Hodgins advocated $25,000; producers objected that “to the average moviegoer the man earning that amount has no troubles.” They pushed for $10,000, but ultimately changed it to $15,000. (For context, the average New York City family earned $5,105 in 1950.)
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