Those of us who have big families or have lived in apartments and dorms know what it’s like to not have a lot of space. Being on top of each other all the time is a constant occurrence, and it can be a pain in the neck. Ideally, though, when the going gets tough, the tough get going…to Connecticut, or at least that’s what the Blandings family did in the 1948 film, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.
Apartments and hotel rooms in New York City are notoriously tiny–the narration calls those who live in apartments “modern day cliff-dwellers”–and the movie goes out of its way to show how crowded Manhattan is. We soon exchange one tight squeeze for another, though, when we make our way to the Blandings abode, where Jim Blanding is one man living with three women.
Jim doesn’t walk around the furniture in his bedroom; he steps over it. He finds himself constantly underfoot, and the family bathroom is particularly annoying. There’s only one, and it’s tiny. Jim is so busy bumping into things that he cuts himself shaving all the time. He and and wife Muriel have to constantly duck around each other in the bedroom, so much so that Jim’s socks have been relegated from the bureau to a basket on top of Muriel’s hat box.
His daughters, Joan (Sharyn Moffat) and Betsy (Connie Marshall) seem affronted that Dad is in their way, not that he means to be. Jim’s not the only one bumping into things. The Blandings’ housekeeper, Gussie (Louise Beavers) keeps elbowing Theodore, the family canary while serving breakfast. Muriel thinks it’s time for a change, so she’s contemplating redoing the living room with an American colonial motif. To the tune of seven thousand dollars.
While at work, Jim gets a different idea. He works at an advertising firm and his boss has dumped the company albatross on his desk: The Wham Ham account. The last ad man who worked on Wham got fired, so Jim is the next on the list. This new Sword of Democles is temporarily put on hold, though, when Jim spies an ad extolling the bucolic splendor of Connecticut. Buy land, it says. Escape the city, it says.
The wheels start turning in Jim’s head, and he and Muriel head out to Landsdale, Connecticut, where a realtor shows them a historic property with acreage. The house looks as if it’s about to fall over, but it’s important. Apparently Benjamin Gates watered his horses on the property. Jim and Muriel picture themselves living there–Muriel as the lady of the manor with an elaborate English garden, and Jim sees himself in a smoking jacket with an ascot and a faithful Great Dane at his side. They try to play it cool, but in the end they snap the property up.
Enter Bill Cole. Well, he’s been in the movie the whole time, as the narrator and family friend, but now he’s the Voice of Caution. The real estate agent snookered them, he says, selling the land for twice its worth because he pinned them for suckers. Bill thinks they should have an inspector look over the house.
The man is optimistic. “Tear it down,” he warns.
Jim decides he and Muriel need their own experts, but every one says the same thing as the first guy. So, they tear the house down. Then they find out someone else still owns the mortgage on the house, and he wants compensation. In full. Now. Jim sucks it up and pays the money.
Now there’s nothing to do but build a new house, and Muriel and Jim are determined to get their money’s worth. Simms (Reginald Denny), the architect, shows them his plans for a very nice three-bedroom house with two bathrooms, but the Blandings aren’t interested. Jim wants a rec room, with two closets in every bedroom. Muriel wants a sewing room and a flower room with a sink, and every bedroom must have an en suite bathroom.
Problem is, the second floor is now twice the size of the first floor, the chimney comes up through the middle of the sewing room, and there won’t be any stairs. And the bill is going to be expensive. Jim and Muriel are about to walk out when Simms shows them the outside of the house. The wheels start turning again, and they ask Simms to keep the costs down as best he can, even if it means giving up a bathroom or two.
Work commences on the new Blandings abode, and the road to country contentment is paved with bills and annoyances. What really speeds up the process is when the Blandings’ New York landlord wants their apartment, and they have to move out in thirty days. It’s all fine and dandy, except that the Connecticut house isn’t finished yet.
The Blandings family arrives at their new digs to find the floor varnish in the living room drying, a new Zuzz Zuzz water softener installed, and no window glass on one side of the house. Still, they settle right in, even though there are limited amenities and they’re back to dancing around each other for the time being.
While they’re unpacking, the girls unearth Muriel’s diary from her college days and Bill’s fraternity pin. The girls have no qualms about reading a bit, and Jim hears enough to get a little jealous. Muriel dismisses his concerns, telling him it was a long time ago and he’s full of it.
And let’s not forget the Wham account. Jim has to come up with a slogan, or he’s out of a job. It all comes to a head one rainy night, which begs the spoiler-free question: Will Mr. Blandings get to live his dream?
In terms of the Code, Mr. Blandings was relatively tame in most respects. Jim and Muriel sleep in twin beds, their kisses are of the perscribed length, and everyone watches their language, even when the price tag of the Blandings’ new house gets a few more dollar signs.
The one potentially sticky issue is Bill Cole and his relationship with Muriel. Bill’s relationship with Muriel is obviously close; he kisses her whenever he says goodbye, and has to stay in Connecticut one night when Jim is stuck in town. “Slept like a rock,” he tells Jim, which is Code code for “We did nothing naughty last night.”
The film came at a time when families were returning to normalcy following the Second World War, and many were moving into new housing developments in the suburbs. There was a lot of talk during the war about the futuristic mod-cons Americans could look forward to, but many just looked forward to being at home and raising their families. Mr. Blandings played into that sentiment, with a lot of witty dialogue and gentle comedy. It’s fun, it moves fast, and it all feels simple and home-like.
Tiffany and Rebekah have more Code goodness at Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. Thanks for hosting this blogathon, ladies–it was fun! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you tomorrow. A new Reading Rarity is on the way…
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is available on DVD from Amazon.