Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE (1948)

Anyone foolish enough to think of building a home should be required to watch Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), in which Cary Grant and Myrna Loy endure all the horrors attendant on such an unpredictable endeavor. Eric Hodgins, who wrote the original novel version of the story, had real-life experience to inspire his tale of construction gone awry, and the film adaptation spares its protagonists no headache, setback, or expense, much to their dismay and the audience's delight. Director H.C. Potter guides Grant and Loy through all the everyday problems of a couple in close quarters as well as the extraordinary difficulties of their quixotic quest to build their dream home in the Connecticut countryside. A great supporting performance from Melvyn Douglas adds to the appeal, with Reginald Denny and Louise Beavers also making memorable appearances.

Cary Grant stars as Jim Blandings, a New York ad man who finds apartment living with his wife and two daughters much too cramped for comfort. Hoping for a better life, he and his wife, Muriel (Myrna Loy), buy a dilapidated and overpriced farmhouse in rural Connecticut, but they soon discover that the unstable relic must be torn down and a new home built in its place. The Blandings start construction on their dream home, despite the disapproval of their friend and lawyer, Bill (Melvyn Douglas), who sees that their additions and changes constantly delay the work and increase the final price. Everything that can go wrong does, and the strain of the experience threatens to drive Jim to distraction, even though his job is on the line for an important ad campaign.

Grant and Loy brilliantly capture the complicated emotions of a couple well beyond the honeymoon phase, still in love but pressed by the forces of daily life. Their early scene in a tiny bathroom is flatly unromantic but completely realistic; the heady thrill of intimacy has been replaced by competition for a little space at the mirror and the chance to take a hot shower. The two Blandings girls, played by Sharyn Moffett and Connie Marshall, also complicate their parents' relationship, and they are just at the age to ruffle their confused father's composure almost constantly. "Bicker, bicker, bicker," says one daughter, assessing her parents' vexed conversation but completely unaware of her own part in creating the conflict. It's easy to see why this family needs more space, but our sympathy for their situation begins to dwindle as we realize just how naive and impractical the Blandings are when it comes to home construction.

The building of the new house almost ruins the couple, both romantically and financially. Neither Jim nor Muriel has much sense about the cost or the problems associated with the project, and they have to find out the hard way. First the original home has to be torn down, then the new home transforms from a modest family dwelling into a rambling palace of additions and alterations. Muriel wants more closets and bathrooms, plus a garden sink and a sewing room, while Jim dreams up a game room and a study. They fail to realize that basic necessities, like a well, might end up being a lot more complicated and expensive to acquire. "You start to build a home and you wind up in the poor house," Jim laments. The stress of the process also brings out Jim's long simmering jealousy of his friend Bill, who was once one of Muriel's college sweethearts. At the climax of the picture, a storm provides a natural complement to the state of Jim's mind, tempest tossed as it is with the construction woes, Muriel's friendship with Bill, and the impending deadline for the Wham Ham campaign. Fortunately for the Blandings, this is a comedy, in which storms are inevitably followed by sunshine and even the worst home construction project will turn out all right.

Be sure to appreciate Louise Beavers in a small but pivotal role as the Blandings' maid, Gussie. H.C. Potter also directed The Shopworn Angel (1938), The Cowboy and the Lady (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). See more of Grant and Loy together in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), which also stars a teenage Shirley Temple. Catch Melvyn Douglas at his peak in Ninotchka (1939); he won two Best Supporting Actor Oscars later in his career, for Hud (1963) and Being There (1979). Reginald Denny's career began in the silent era, but he had a recurring role as Algy Longworth in the Bulldog Drummond films, and you'll also find him in Rebecca (1940) and Cat Ballou (1965).