Mr. Blandings: A Lighthearted Movie for a Somber Day

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.

A moment from the Blandings filming. Director H.C. Potter, left, was best known for his work on comedies.

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.)

Other Posts About Classic Movies:

A Love Affair with Words: His Girl Friday

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A Love Affair with Words: His Girl Friday

My husband balked at re-watching my favorite movie with me this weekend.

 “How can you not love this?” I asked, a few minutes into the film.

“It’s just so much…talking!” he sputtered.

His Girl Friday is, indeed, all talk. Its characters talk so much, so quickly, that their words overlap, ringing out into a musical counterpoint.  

Words attracted me to His Girl Friday the first time I encountered the movie, during my teenage years. As I flipped channels, this exchange captured my attention:

 Walter: This other fellow–I’m sorry that I didn’t get a chance to see him. I’m more or less particular about whom my wife marries. Where is he?

Hildy: Oh, he”s right on the job, waiting for me out there.

Walter. Hmm…Do you mind if I meet him?

Hildy: Oh, no, Walter. It wouldn’t do any good, really.

Walter: Now, you’re not afraid are you?

Hildy: Afraid? Of course not!

Walter: Then, come on! Let’s see this paragon. Is he as good as you say?

Hildy: He’s better!

Walter: Well, then, what does he want with you?

The Front Page, a 1928 Broadway hit written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, is His Girl Friday’s source. In the play, star reporter Hildy Johnson wants to escape the seedy world of journalism by marrying and finding “respectable” work. His managing editor, Walter Burns, thwarts him at every turn as the two collaborate on a bombshell story—a prison break by condemned murderer Earl Williams.

In His Girl Friday, Director Howard Hawks transforms Hildy Johnson into a woman, a change that raises the stakes considerably. Hildy’s choice between journalism and respectability is also a choice between a career and a traditional feminine role, and a choice between two very different men—her insurance-salesman fiancé Bruce Baldwin and her ex-husband, Walter Burns.

Two kinds of people populate His Girl Friday’s world. The journalists make up one group—a fast-talking, irreverent group. Walter Burns is this group’s apotheosis; nothing matters to him except the power and pleasure he derives from words. On the other hand, we have earnest people like Bruce; Earl Williams and his friend Molly Malloy; and prospective “city sealer” Joe Pettibone, who blows the lid off the mayor’s plan to execute a mentally ill man. These people speak slowly, mean what they say, and become lost in the journalists’ layered ironies and wise cracks.

Rosalind Russell’s Hildy operates well within both groups. Adopting a hushed interview style, she elicits Earl’s story. Showing sympathy that her male counterparts lack, she wins Molly’s trust. Admiring goodness and simplicity, she works to protect Bruce from Walter’s machinations.

In the end, though, Hildy can’t escape Walter and the lure of word craft. Words are weapons in their sparring, but also bind them in moments of shared delight that Bruce can’t comprehend. (Consider his delayed reaction, in the restaurant scene, when Hildy sees through Walter’s lies about another reporter. Bruce’s confusion produces contempt in Walter and embarrassment in Hildy.)

As James Walters wrote in the Journal of Film and Video:

“The film makes clear Hildy and Walter’s delight in controlling language, their near-delirium in playing together with the pace, tone, and rhythm of words. Their fluent use of language connects them with a world in which the ability to use words dictates a person’s status and in which, as in Molly’s case, an inability signals a person’s collapse…Indeed, there is a truthfulness in their shared vocal rhythms and patterns, as though their profound affinity emerges naturally and unavoidably whenever they are together.”

Choosing Walter’s world means giving up a lot, from little courtesies accorded to ladies, to society’s respect, to hopes of home and family and “a halfway-normal life.” For Hildy, however, giving up the mental exercise that Walter and writing provide would be a more bitter sacrifice.

His Girl Friday influenced my own choices, propelling me toward journalism school and a writing career. One day, in my college newspaper offices, the managing editor mentioned a Cary Grant movie she’d watched the night before.

“Have you ever seen His Girl Friday?” I asked.

 My reserved editor suddenly turned gushy: “Isn’t she great?!”

Hildy became a heroine ahead of her time when she announced, “I’m no suburban bridge player. I’m a newspaper man.”

Final Fun Facts: Hawks pioneered the overlapping dialog style that distinguishes His Girl Friday, but Grant and Russell made some delightful contributions to the script as well. Grant’s ad-libs include Walter’s description of Bruce as looking like “you know, that fellow in the movies…Ralph Bellamy.” Rosalind Russell, in her autobiography Life is a Banquet, described her secret hiring of a comedy writer to punch up the script. He added such bits as her murmured “slap happy” and her hand-signal-of-warning, both in the restaurant scene.

Note: His Girl Friday is available for streaming, free, at Hulu, and for free downloading and streaming at Internet Archive.