' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

Friday, July 20, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

Jim (Cary Grant) and Muriel (Myrna Loy) Blandings are in the midst of constructing their dream house in Connecticut. Alas, they learn the estimated building cost for this dream house has ballooned past the point of reason. At this, Jim loses it. “In the first place,” he declares, “I’m going to get my head examined. And if I don’t jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, I’m going to find the owner of our apartment building and sign a twenty year lease.” He and his wife turn to go. Never mind that this is supposed to be their dream house. Nope, the dream is dead. But they stop. An exaggeratedly beautiful painting of their potential dream house sits before them. They smile. They turn to face their chosen architect, Simms. “Do you think you could keep it down to eighteen thousand?” they wonder. The dream lives!


The Dream House is a significant part of the American Dream and because the word “Dream” is involved in both those terms we are clued into the fact that they are both rooted in something that is not necessarily reality. This is why the 1948 film – based on a 1946 novel – remains, I suspect, fairly universal. I think anyone who has bought a home – never mind their DREAM home – would attest that you don’t go straight from seeing the real estate ad to sipping mai-tai’s beside the pool in the backyard. “Mr. Blandings Buys His Dream House” follows this agonizing process step by outlandish step.

When the cramped space of their Manhattan apartment becomes too much for Jim and Muriel and their two daughters, they light out for the Nutmeg State to take a look at a 200 year old house where General Horatio Gates once watered horses, which for any Revolutionary War buffs out there should foreshadow the fact the realtor is as duplicitous a scalawag as “Granny” Gates. His lawyer and best pal Cole (Melvyn Douglas) points out the Blandings’ have been swindled, agreeing to a price twice the going rate. Then they have several surveyors take a look at the property only to be told the same thing: “Tear it down.” So they tear it down in order to build their dream house from scratch. But then they discover some rock on the property getting in the way needs to be dynamited. Fine! Dynamite it! It’s their dream house! But then they discover a spring beneath the property that needs to be diverted. Fine! Divert it! It’s their dream house! They overhear a couple construction workers making mention of not only building the house on the windiest hill in Connecticut but building it on the windiest part of the windiest hill in Connecticut. Never mind! Damn the wind! IT’S THEIR DREAM HOUSE!!!


Thus, the carefree prance to the pot of gold turns into a grim march, though the grimness is offset by the film’s easy-going, subtly crafted humor and by the casualness of the three primary performances in the face of such a frustrating situation. Cary Grant, as Cary Grant will, has the amazing ability to keep his head even as he loses his wits, somehow persevering while work as an ad man takes a nosedive when the stress prevents him from inventing a slogan for WHAM (not the George Michael band, but ham). Less successful is a subplot involving Jim’s suspicions that Muriel might be seeing Cole on the sly. This is also meant to underscore Jim’s exasperation in the face of Casa de Blandings but 1.) Myrna Loy never presents Muriel as someone capable of such deceitfulness and 2.) While Cole works as the obligatory skeptic to the whole housing ordeal he, too, never comes across as not a true friend to the family, aside from one moment when a neighbor turns up and the film awkwardly tries to play up the potential for something only to immediately neglect it once the neighbor leaves. That leaves this bit of soap-opera feeling arbitrary and taking away from the race to the figurative ribbon cutting.

Also problematic is the end – the very end – which is too insistently sweet and runs counter to the movie’s main message. For roughly ninety minutes it goes to show the dream house doesn't look the way it looks in our minds or in the realtor's ad and that the dream itself will shift its shape in conjunction with its construction and that this is all okay because you're not really building a house - you're building a HOME. But that last shot suggests they DID build a house, with a little bit of HOME in there too. That's not right.

Ah well. After all, imperfections so often yield something resembling perfection, right?

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