Monday, December 14, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House"

One of the things that drives me crazy about movies is how circumspect everyone always is about money.

Characters in films almost never mention exact dollar amounts, as if doing so would throw off the audience. Maybe it's because the orders of scale are so crazy in Hollywood, and filmmakers just don't have an idea how an average family making $50,000 or so gets by. Even on an inexpensive movie, that amount is probably less than the catering budget.

That's probably also why movie homes are so huge. Even in cinematic families that are presented as middle-class, the children will have bedrooms that are larger than most real homes' master suites. I guess they just can't fit the cameras into a 10' x 9' suburban bedroom.

So one of the things I really liked about "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" -- other than the fact it's a top-notch comedy -- is that it's very specific about money. Since it's the story of a New York family that gets in over their heads while trying to procure their ideal domicile, figures are quoted exactly and frequently. Watching Cary Grant as the put-upon title character, you can practically see the dollar figures flying before his eyes.

Compare that with "The Money Pit," a more modern film with a similar theme. My memory may be fuzzy, but I don't recall a dollar amount ever being stated in that movie. Wonder how you can characterize anything as a "pit" when you don't even know exactly how much money is being dumped into it.

Right off the start Mr. Blandings' lawyer/best friend/narrator, Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas) says that Blandings is an insurance executive who does pretty well, making $15,000 a year. Using the U.S. Labor Bureau's handy-dandy inflation calculator, I learn that equals nearly $135,000 in today's dollars. So Mr. Blandings is upper-middle class, but not what most people would call wealthy.

(Keep in mind that even in 1948, when the film was made, New York's cost of living was astronomical. By today's numbers, that $135,000 salary works out to only about $61,000 in Indianapolis.)

The film (directed by Henry Potter) opens with a neat scene in which the Blandings go about their normal morning routine. Jim Blandings is assaulted by boxes falling off the closet shelf when he goes to fetch his robe, and by bottles careening out of the medicine cabinet when he's trying to brush his teeth. That's after he's finished waiting for his daughters (Sharyn Moffett and Connie Marshall) to get finished in the bathroom. Then he must duck around the head of his wife Muriel (Myrna Loy) to see in the mirror to shave. They can barely squeeze the whole family into the tiny dining room for breakfast. Clearly, the Blandings are boxed in.

However, they do have their own maid, Gussie, which begs a lot of questions. If Gussie cooks and cleans, and the Blandings girls (about age 12) can mostly take care of themselves, what exactly is it that Mrs. Blandings does all day?

After shooting down a proposal to redo their apartment for $7,000, Mr. Blandings hatches on a scheme to buy a Connecticut spread. His idea is to spend a few bucks more than they would have unloaded on the apartment to buy a whole big place with plenty of room for everyone. Of course, everything goes wrong from the get-go.

They spend $11,500 on a run-down old place that every engineer they talk to says must be torn down. They hire an architect (Reginald Denny) with the proviso not to spend more than $10K building a new place. But their dreams of the perfect place run amok, with demands for private baths for each bedroom, a study, flower room and so forth. The shocked look on Cary Grant's face when they get the final estimates -- the lowest is $21,000 -- is priceless.

The story continues with various snafus and foul-ups making the construction more frustrating and costly. The funniest bit is their hiring an old-timer to drill a well. He drills down 227 feet -- at $4.50 a foot -- before the construction crew discovers a natural spring six feet below the basement floor.

There's also some subplots about Mr. Blandings suspecting his wife of having an affair with Bill Cole, and Jim's unsuccessful attempt to come up with a new sales slogan for his biggest account, Wham, a meat-like product with a more than passing resemblance to Spam.

"Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" is a thoroughly entertaining family comedy, with some riffs on the American dream/obsession about getting ahead. And when it comes to dollars and cents, it's right on the money.

3.5 stars

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