Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

US (1948) Dir. H.C Potter

One thing this film can’t be accused of is possessing a title that carries any ambiguity about what the story is about. Based on the novel by Eric Hodgins (itself an expansion on his short story Mr. Blandings Builds His Castle), this amiable post-War comedy from Hollywood delivers exactly what it says on the tin.

Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) is a successful advertising executive, living in a cramped New York apartment with his wife Muriel (Myrna Loy) and their two daughters Betsy (Connie Marshall) and Joan (Sharyn Moffett). To afford more space for the family, Muriel consults an interior designer whose renovation ideas will cost $7,000 which Jim refuses to pay since his outgoings are already eating into his $15,000 P/A salary.

Whilst struggling to come up with an effective slogan for WHAM! ham, Jim spots an ad for a cheap old property in Connecticut that he could turn into his dream home. Against the advice of his lawyer and friend Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas), the Blandings buy the dilapidated house at five times it worth but is in such a state, they are advised to tear it down and star again, costing Jim more money and his sanity!

H.C Potter directed one of the wildest and irreverent comedies of the 1940’s, the classic Hellzapoppin, so it is a surprise to see him helm this conventional tale about not running into things without thinking them through first. Hodgins’ novel came out in 1946 when the world was still reeling from World War II, yet the satirical subtext of a fool parting with his money is still ripe in today’s age of financial equality.

It is a clear sign of the times that $15,000 is considered a handsome annual salary when someone in Jim Blanding’s position today would be earning at least six-figures and still feel underpaid. Not to mention Muriel as the dutiful housewife and, you guessed it, a black maid named Gussie (Louise Beavers, playing her career type), the Blandings were symbols of the typical upper-middle class American family.

There is also the caveat of being successful in upstate New York where $15K only gets you a tiny three-bedroom apartment to fit your family into. The opening few minutes of the film is a dialogue free depiction of how Jim’s day begins, struggling to find his clothes in the small closet overrun with Muriel’s wardrobe, before the daily chore of shaving in a cramped bathroom whilst Muriel is preening in the same mirror.

Before Jim starts arguing over paying $7,000 for renovations, his daughters regurgitate the anti-capitalist wisdom and the evils of advertising from their teacher to their father, who correctly points out the irony of the product of his alleged ill-gotten gains is paying this woman to corrupt his children. This is rather edgy for 1948 so perhaps the war was a catalyst for a backlash against the wealthy.

Another irony is Jim being fooled by the enticing advert for the fixer-upper property in the country which turns out to be a disaster waiting to happen, which is karma is most people’s books, if you believe everyone in advertising is the devil incarnate. Jim’s enthusiasm is infectious enough for Muriel to start dreaming as well, which even Bill’s spelling out the financial cost as well as the scam pulled on them fails to quash.

Thus begins a series of vignettes detailing the discussion over the architects designs to the actual building of the eponymous dream house that see Jim get deeper in debt as the problem mount up. The humour in these scenes is surprisingly less physical and manic given the subject matter, but with plenty of extant slapstick comedies chock full of such material perhaps they weren’t needed here.

Instead the script is rather witty, largely through Bill’s prescient wry observations, Jim’s beleaguered ignorance of builders’ parlance, and the farcical exploits of the slow-witted workmen. It’s a catalogue of the usual pitfalls and setbacks that blight any building project but the cost of each one is the punchline that puts the $7,000 Jim scoffed at in the beginning into a new and favourable light.

But this is 1940’s Hollywood were dreams come true in the end so a negative climax was never on the cards, yet even the most dramatic personal conflict to potentially rock the Blandings marriage is raised, explored and concluded inside ten minutes in a politely bathetic mannered, feeling superfluous at best through not advancing the story in any meaningful way in what is otherwise a tightly constructed script.

Marking the third and final time Grant and Loy worked together, the chemistry between them has a palpable aura about it that they are comfortable with each other, born out of the fact their first film together was 13 years earlier. They are also credible as parents to two teenage daughters but while Loy has the uxorial role down pat, she does provide enough clout as the rudder to steer Jim straight where necessary.  

Cary Grant is Cary Grant – there is no avoiding that in every role, his natural charisma and unmistakable élan overrides his character’s personality but that is okay as it works for him. In this instance though, he is overshadowed by Melvyn Douglas as the wise-cracking Bill, the lone constant voice of reason who is eventually proven wrong, despite still being right.

A success at the box office which also spawned a weekly radio show, the simplicity of the basic premise is universal, capable of reaching beyond the US to territories where the bustle of city life is crippling family men (and women) on a daily basis. The house, which was actually built in Malibu, still stands today on the old Fox Ranch, while RKO built 73 “dream houses” across the US, raffled off as a publicity stunt.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is one of those typically breezy, undemanding but wholly enjoyable classic comedies to while away 90-minutes as the world passes by.