**Some spoilers, but then again, this is a comedy.***
I’ve been remiss in my blogging lately, due to my second move in a year. The last apartment resounded with construction noises next door, loud and consistent and close enough to drive me to repacking. So again I’ve been drowning in UHaul boxes, unsticking packing tape from my shoes, figuring out just how little I can get away with repurchasing, and wondering how few calls I can make changing my rental address.
Films about renting typically revolve around roommates, so to find characters to commiserate with (and limit the number of real-life sufferers from my complaints), I’ve turned to stories about much bigger headaches than mine: Walter’s (Tom Hanks) and Anna’s (Shelley Long) alternately endearing and hilarious breakdowns after they buy the lemon in The Money PIt (1986). The lovable Blandings (Cary Grant and Myrna Loy) as they sink their cash into first destroying one house, then building another in its place in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948).
I like both films so much, but today, I’m going to discuss the original: Tired of fighting over mirrors and closets and other ills of close apartment living with a spouse and two kids, Jim Blandings (Grant) convinces his wife, Muriel (Loy), to move to Connecticut with him, to a big shambling old relic that’s just about to crumble. Comedy ensues, especially when Jim’s jealousy over his lawyer (who once dated Muriel) surfaces while he’s trying to tackle falling parts and failed wells and bad bathroom locks. Of course, Jim and Muriel soon find the costs building up and the issues with first the old, then the replacement house mounting. So much to love about this film. Let’s begin with:
The Realistic Depiction of Marriage
The Blandings frequently squabble about everyday annoyances, but my favorite moments are those that display patience with one another’s faults, as when Jim refuses to believe Muriel knows the directions to their new place, and she patiently waits out his acknowledgment of her correctness through multiple wrong turns, a quiet smile and gaze toward the sky revealing her amusement at how it’s all going to turn out:
Unlike most films that depict a husband jealous of his wife’s affections, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House does a subtle job conveying quietly brewing suspicions. While Jim’s jealous of his lawyer, Bill (Melyvn Douglas), throughout the film, the sentiment is understated, only boiling over when his stress level does, and therefore never failing to feel authentic. Weaker comedies play such weaknesses broadly instead; the sophisticated version of jealousy here matches that in so many more marriages, and therefore is funnier.
The (Meta) Supporting Actor Casting
The actor playing Grant’s object of jealousy is Melvyn Douglas, often viewed as a second-rate replacement for Grant in romantic comedies. He’s debonair and can be charming, but he’s no Grant.
But Douglas is always better as a supporting actor than as a hero, and does great work as the foil in this film. And some may say he did get the last laugh: he, unlike Grant, his romantic lead rival, would win not one, but two Oscars later in his career.
The Inspired Acting (and Chemistry) of Grant & Loy
Every frame of the film conveys the joy of home ownership and the stress of building and moving so well, thanks to the stellar performances. Honestly, as mobile as these two stars’ faces are, this film could have easily been a silent. Just take these shots of Grant in smirk and self-embarrassment mode, respectively.
Or Loy’s face as she expresses love, mockery, and shocked anger in turn:
The actors’ best scene is after Jim expresses jealousy over his wife’s past relationship with Bill. His expressions–one part suspicion, one part hope, one part shame–are so nuanced and real.
When he pouts, asking why she married him, she fires back in a brilliantly worded (thanks to the script) rebuttal:
“I’m beginning to wonder….” she says. “Maybe I knew you were going to bring me out to this $38,000 icebox, with a dried-up trout stream and no windows…Or maybe I just happened to fall in love with you, but for heaven’s sake, don’t ask me why.”
The scene is pitch-perfect Loy. Only she could be so angry and endearing simultaneously.
Luckily, the voiceover narration, which is occasionally grating, is in short supply. It is used to great effect in the opening, which depicts decidedly unidyllic city living.
I’m not a big fan of the scene in the film most love, when Muriel gives a comic level of detail about the wall colors she wants, and the painters reduce her requirements to red, yellow, etc. as soon as she turns her back. It’s just so sexist, so “oh that silly woman” in its approach. In contrast, her sink mistake, which is also depicted as foolhardy, is treated as if it’s on the same level as Jim’s errors. But Loy is fabulous in the painting scene, sure she’ll be taken seriously and oblivious to the painters’ condescension.
While Jim’s work stress during the building is a little undercooked plotwise, there are comic gems, as when Grant’s creative process is depicted:
But the joy of these brief work scenes is undermined by the portrayal of Gussy (Louise Beavers), the housekeeper, who will later be featured, Aunt Jemima style, in Jim’s ad about some Spam-like product. He does offer her a $10 raise for coming up with the ad idea that saves his job, and she doesn’t come across as stereotypically as some black actresses at the time did (Gussy does, after all, originate the ad). But it sure would be cool to see more for Beavers (and Gussy), especially given how progressive Loy was, and given Beavers’s earlier star-making turn in Imitation of Life.
Of course, the film’s legacy, despite these weaknesses, comes down to….
Its Comic Writing & Pacing
Wry humor sparkles throughout, especially when Grant has a breakdown near the film’s close. When the couple is first purchasing the old house, others observe that it’s junk, as when Bill looks at the Blandings and observes, “It’s a good thing there are two of you. One to love it, and one to hold it up,” or when Jim asks for a structural engineer’s analysis of the house, and the man succinctly replies, “Tear it down,” a caution two other engineers repeat, word for word.
The film is so efficiently edited, so quickly paced, that there’s little time to dwell on one change before another is brewing, accurately echoing the hectic pace of changing a home.
I love that so much goes wrong in the film that the move itself is briefly canvassed in order to get on to the bigger problems. Jim’s jealousy is also neatly addressed, without sidelining the story of the house. Unlike its indirect remake, Money Pit, the film doesn’t address the number of people swindling or lying to the Blandings (besides the house cost) so much, instead relying on ignorant decisions and accidents of nature. I love when the Blandings, with no knowledge of architecture, settle down to each add all their own cool features to the blueprints, as the architect looks on in dismay:
And yet, as unrealistic and financially reckless as the two prove to be, you also see why it’s worth it, to find the home they want, to set aside the troubles it took to get there. And in the moments they enjoy it, you’re proud of this idealistic couple. Proud that in spite of all their foolishness, they stubbornly hold on, and get what they wanted. It may not always be true, or even often be true, but sometimes, it’s just worth it to try for that dream home.