“It’s a conspiracy, I tell you. The minute you start, they put you on the all-American sucker list. You start out to build a home and wind up in the poorhouse. And if it can happen to me, what about the guys who aren’t making $15,000 a year? The ones who want a home of their own. It’s a conspiracy, I tell you–against every boy and girl who were ever in love.”
In the wake of World War II, the great migration from cities to suburbs began in earnest as weary urban dwellers sought to escape the rigors of overcrowding and increasing rent in favor of owning their own homes. Mortgages were affordable and relatively easy to obtain–particularly for veterans–and in the decade following the war, the rate of home ownership in the United States increased by more than twenty percent. More than ever, owning a home was considered an integral part of the American dream, and it was the goal of many an American middle-class household.
Of course, the dream and the reality are often in stark contrast to one another, and many new homeowners were unprepared for the issues–monetary, physical, psychological–associated with holding full responsibility for one’s domicile. This quickly-dashed idealism is the center of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), which not only gives us a comedic look at the problems associated with building one’s own “nest,” but also gently satirizes the supposed idylls of home ownership.
Cary Grant stars as the titular Mr. Jim Blandings, an advertising man who lives with his wife, Muriel (Myrna Loy) and their two daughters, Betsy (Connie Marshall) and Joan (Sharyn Moffett) in a tiny New York apartment. Tired of living in such cramped quarters (and discovering that his wife has been talking to an expensive interior designer on the sly), Jim decides–almost on a whim–to move the family to the country (i.e. Connecticut). Jim and Muriel get suckered into buying a dilapidated old farm house for more than its worth, only to later be informed by their friend and lawyer, Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas), that they have been bamboozled. But the Blandings have fallen in love with the idea of the place and proceed with the deal, against any and all advice.
As it turns out, the house is unsound and must be demolished and rebuilt from the ground up. The Blandings hire Henry Sims (Reginald Denny), an architect, to design a new home, and construction proceeds. But there are problems from the get-go, from incompetent workmen to issues with the land–not to mention the ever-increasing costs of the project. Compounded with problems at work and his growing jealousy over the “relationship” between his wife and his best friend, Jim finds his life quickly spiraling out of control. Can he survive the building of his dream home with his family, job, and sanity intact?
The opening scenes of the film–laid over Douglas’ wry narration–underscore the central conflict of the film between the bustling city and the calmer country. Bill Cole’s voice-over describes the city in flattering, incongruous terms (a crowded lunch counter becomes a “quaint little sidewalk cafe”) that humorously set up the difference between the current locale and the more rural one to come. For its part, Manhattan is a claustrophobic wonderland, overflowing with millions of people, pushing, shoving, struggling just to move through the streets. That conflict is recreated in miniature inside the cramped Blandings apartment: Jim’s search through the minuscule bedroom closet for his robe; fighting with his daughters for access to the bathroom; maneuvering around Muriel to catch a glimpse of himself in the mirror while shaving (or resignedly wiping the steam from the mirror while she showers); inching around close-set tables and furniture in a long-established, intricate ballet of restricted movement.
And yet the solution to these problems–the spacious countryside, the big house with two closets and a bathroom for every member of the family (aren’t they living in a dream world?)–is not quite the idyllic conclusion the Blandings expected. The people in the supposedly more “civilized” country are potentially just as crooked as their city-folk counterparts (the shady real estate agent being a prime example), and the problems of overcrowding are replaced by the mounting expenses and inconveniences of living so far outside of the city. Though the movie ultimately finds its happy ending, with the Blandings comfortably ensconced in their new “dream home,” the costs of getting there, it seems, are discouraging and troublesome.
Grant and Loy starred in three films together, and Mr. Blandings marks the last of these. In many ways, it is also their best. As a domestic couple, they are a charming pair, beautiful, witty, and appealing. Grant is such a “dad”–he wanders around the apartment, seemingly in every female’s way, weighing himself on the bathroom scale with a rueful pat of his (nonexistent) gut and singing off-key in the shower. He’s not even able to enjoy bathroom time to himself in the morning without Muriel coming in. Still, Jim–at least initially–is unfazed by the seeming disorder and chaos that mark his domestic life; he simply sighs and squeezes the tube of toothpaste back into proper form without a word, like any beleaguered father (his performance, especially in the opening scenes, bring a myriad of hapless paternal figures from any number of sitcoms to mind).
While Grant’s befuddled and increasingly frustrated Jim is undeniably the centerpiece of the film, Loy more than matches him quip for quip. Muriel is determined to have the house of her dreams, and spends most of her time concerned about the color schemes and decorative elements of the house than her husband’s growing irritation at the ever-ballooning budget, leading to priceless exchanges like this one:
Muriel: “I refuse to endanger the lives of my children in a house with less than four bathrooms.”
Jim: “For thirteen hundred dollars, they can live in a house with three bathrooms and rough it.”
Loy doesn’t look old enough to have teenage daughters in this film, even though in reality she was forty-three when it was released. The movie came in the wake of a four-year break from Hollywood that Loy had taken during the war, when she allied herself with the Red Cross and undertook several tours to sell war bonds and raise money for the military effort. When she finally returned to the screen, she found perhaps her greatest role starring opposite Fredric March in the phenomenal post-war drama The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). The subsequent years had found her as successful as ever, with the release of the final Thin Man movie, Song of the Thin Man (1947), and her second pairing with Grant, as Shirley Temple’s older sister in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), both cleaning up at the box office. The late 40s marked the peak of her career, however, as she took on fewer film roles in the following decades.
A warm and genuinely funny comedy marked by excellent performances from its lead trio (not to mention great supporting turns from Denny and Louise Beavers as the family maid, Gussie), Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is simply a must-see.
This post is an entry in the “2012 TCM SUTS Blogathon” hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. Make sure to check out all of the Myrna Loy-centric entries from today, and more stars throughout the month!
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House airs at 6PM EST today on TCM.