Although this is not a movie review blog, every now and then I am reminded of a film that deserves some online appreciation. One of these is an old favorite that Marianne and I re-watched a few weeks back when we saw it come up among choices for on-demand viewing at TCM. (Of course it was TCM, where else?) As always, it was a delight.
I might venture to say that “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” has aged better than almost any other I could think of from its year of release, which was 1948. What is it about this movie that keeps bringing me back?
The film stars Cary Grant and Myrna Loy as George and Muriel Blandings, a moderately affluent couple who have lived in a New York apartment with their two adolescent daughters. The couple get dissatisfied with the lack of space in their home and the seed of a great idea takes root – why not buy a home in Connecticut? They do. One thing leads to another and soon they are building a brand new house. The bulk of the movie (a comedy, of course) involves the travails of that process and the way it affects the family’s life.
“Anybody who builds a house today is crazy.” This is one of the lines Cary Grant spits out after the final straw in a process that has nearly broken him, both financially and mentally. I have had many cases in my legal career that have convinced me of that very thing – there is so much that can go wrong with a new house. Massively, expensively, disastrously wrong. My cases are the outliers, but the home built by the Blandings family is probably the norm. Trouble with a well, solid rock where a basement is supposed to be, and one cost increase after another are just some of the problems that crop up. I have known many people who have built new homes and this story is funny because it remains so universally true.
I like comedies, but the best ones are when the humor is subtle. There is a lot to laugh about in our lives and the long-dead writers of this film simply nailed so many things – marriage, family dynamics, and the way women and men approach things (and create problems) in different ways. These are characters who remind you of either yourself or people you know well – normal people who are not outlandish nut jobs invented from someone’s imagination purely for making entertainment. In Mr. Blandings, people do improvident things but they are the kind of mistakes we have all made.
The second part of the plot involves George’s job in advertising. He is given six months to come up with a new slogan for the firm’s biggest client – a brand of ham called Wham (a whale of a ham!). Who among us has not allowed personal business to take our minds away from work until we are met with a crisis deadline largely of our own making? George Blandings, of course, who finds himself there just as his new home is ready for occupancy.
In short, this old movie does what all good films do – it captures life in a way that makes us recognize it in all of its trials and absurdities. And building (or buying) a home has plenty of absurdities in even the best conditions. The process pits emotion against reason in a dual to the death, and this movie lays it all out there for all of us to see – and laugh at.
The stories behind the film’s production are interesting in and of themselves. For example, the house in the movie was actually built during filming on property in California owned by RKO studios. Trivia alert – this same property (away from the house, anyway) served as the location for filming the 1970s TV series M*A*S*H. Any place that can depict Connecticut and Korea is pretty versatile.
In the 1970s that land was deeded by then-owner Fox Studios to the State of California for Malibu Creek State Park. The house built for Mr. Blandings still stands and now serves as the park’s administrative offices.
The movie house seems to have started its own little trend wave. Kellog (yes, the breakfast cereal company) offered a miniature model and a full set of plans for one box top and 35 cents. History becomes a little muddled from there. Some sources say that several copies of the house were built and raffled off as part of the film’s promotion.
Others cite owners (in multiple cities) who claim to own the actual home that served as the inspiration, or were built from the movie’s plans. And a drive around any metropolitan area where new homes were being built in the years either side of 1950 will show multiple homes built in a similar style, even if not on such a grand scale.
The actual home that inspired the movie was built a few years earlier by one Eric Hodgins, a vice president of the publishing company Time, Inc. One source reveals that Mr. Hodgins’ New Milford, Connecticut home was estimated to cost $11,000 before construction began in 1939. By the time it was finished, the actual tally came to $56,000, nearly driving the owner to financial ruin and forcing him to sell the place. It worked out for him, though, when he wrote a book about the experience that became a best-seller. That house, by the way, reportedly sold for $1.2 million about fifteen years ago. Hodgins tried to buy the place back after book sales and movie rights put him back in a position to afford it, but it appears he was unsuccessful.
There have been a couple of remakes of the Blandings story – “The Money Pit” (1986) that starred Tom Hanks and Shelly Long, and (more loosely) “Are We Done Yet” (2007) with Ice Cube. Sorry, but I do not see how Cary Grant and Myrna Loy can be improved upon.
In every era there have been good movies, bad movies and those in between, all catering to a wide array of tastes. Even the best of them have a way of becoming dated, but a few remain evergreen because of the way they depict human failings that remain unchanged through the generations. This is one of those films. If you have not watched it, give it a try and see if you don’t agree.
All depictions are either scenes from or promotional material for the 1948 RKO Radio Picture “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House”
Remaining images were offered for sale online, except the photo showing the subject house in modern times, which came from thisamericanhouse.com.