According to Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees, even a dilapidated old shack is a dream house if Cary Grant is in residence.
Muriel: "The house just needs someone to love it, that's all."
Bill: "Good thing there are two of you: one to love it, and one to hold it up."
Many years ago, my parents and I were dining with some close friends who had just begun construction on a house in the country, to which they planned some day to retire. Despite all the careful planning and drafting, construction was proceeding sporadically, due to the conflicting, capricious schedules of all the different workers and to their whimsical approach to their work. That evening Tinsley told us of the latest debacle: The builders, having discovered unusual specifications in the plans, simply substituted dimensions they felt were more appropriate—which resulted in their work having to be torn out and done over again from scratch, thus delaying completion still further.
I commented that it sounded like something out of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House—"You know, the old Cary Grant comedy," I added helpfully.
Tinsley turned his slow, grave gaze upon me.
"That movie," he pronounced, "is not a comedy. That movie…is the truth."
Well, despite Tinsley's pronouncement, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House definitely is a comedy—but one whose humor is rooted in real-life frustrations to which we can all relate. For anyone who has ever butted heads with bureaucracy, inefficiency, or just good old-fashioned cussedness, this movie will strike a chord of rueful recognition. Oh, and it will also make you crack a rib laughing.
Facts of the Case
Urban life is beginning to wear on Jim Blandings (Cary Grant, An Affair to Remember). A busy and successful advertising executive, he is beginning to hanker for the peace and quiet of the country; the apartment he and wife Muriel (Myrna Loy, The Best Years of Our Lives) share with their two disconcertingly precocious daughters has become far too crowded. When Muriel begins to look into remodeling the apartment, he seizes upon a plan to refurbish a historical house in Connecticut—a humble yet comfortable dwelling to be his sanctuary, where he can smoke a pipe and mow the lawn and count his blessings, away from the noise and traffic and bustle of Manhattan.
A modest ambition, one might think; nothing that should be too difficult to achieve. But the simple wish for a house in the country will unleash havoc in Mr. Blandings's life—and will open the door for his wife's old flame (Melvyn Douglas, Being There, Ninotchka) to insert himself into her heart once again. To add insult to injury, the historical house proves unworthy of salvaging, and the harried homemaker must start building from the ground up. As Blandings struggles to stay on top of the ever-mounting bills and think up a slogan for a crucial ad campaign, his domestic life seems to be deteriorating from American dream to rustic nightmare.
All right, you fans of '80s movies: Remember The Money Pit, with Tom Hanks and Shelley Long as two yuppies who try to restore an old house, only to have everything go wrong? Imagine Cary Grant instead of Hanks and Myrna Loy instead of Long. Now imagine that, in addition to being rendered classier by the addition of these two legendary actors, the story is about fifty times funnier. Now you're beginning to get a sense of what Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is like. Deftly directed by H.C. Potter, who had helmed such notable dramas as The Farmer's Daughter and The Miniver Story, and with a lively screenplay based on the novel by Eric Hodgins, this is a breezy and timeless film. The plot is simple, but it provides the backbone for an escalating series of miscalculations and disasters of the "we laugh because it's funny, we laugh because it's true" variety. From the smallest details of family life to the large-scale set pieces of construction nightmares, the film uncovers the humor in the stuff of everyday life.
Even though the story is essentially about a ramshackle structure, it is built on the sturdy and beautifully balanced triangular foundation of its three lead actors. The personas (and performances) of Grant, Loy, and Douglas are the core of the comedy here, and they are beautifully calibrated together. Loy, as the loving, patient wife, is sweet, gentle, reasonable—a voice of sanity amid the craziness. Her stubbornly reasonable outlook, however, blinds her to some of the absurdities surrounding her, which of course makes them even funnier. She is almost as obstinate as her husband about what she wants in the new house ("I refuse to endanger the health of my children in a house with less than four bathrooms!"), and the scene in which she describes the subtleties of paint colors to the laconic New England builder is both hilarious and completely believable. Loy is justly renowned for her roles in comic fare such as the Thin Man movies, in which she partnered William Powell, and she brings the same lightness of touch to her work with Cary Grant (see also their pairing in the delightful 1947 film The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, also newly released on DVD). Here she also adds a warmth that gives her an appropriately maternal quality; she really is the heart of this family.
Although Cary Grant tends to be remembered for the suave, urbane persona he embodied so successfully in films like An Affair to Remember and That Touch of Mink, here we get to see his equally memorable comic skills. Unlike Grant's characters in these later films, Blandings is a man who has to struggle to stay on top of his environment; he isn't effortlessly in control, but constantly having to fight his way upstream through a flood of irritants both large and small. Grant's considerable gifts for comedy work equally well in moments of physical humor (such as an early scene in which he and Loy share a tiny bathroom) and in verbal wordplay. Endearing even in his testiness, Blandings is a character we can all relate to, the well-meaning fellow who just seems to be singled out by ill fortune. In his stubborn idealism and impulsiveness, he is flawed but sympathetic, and we both laugh at and empathize with him. He and Loy make very comfortable partners, both as actors and as ostensible married couple: They complement each other so well—he fuming, she soothing—and their timing together is so skillful, that they are entirely convincing as husband and wife.
Melvyn Douglas, one of the most reliable actors of his day in comedic roles, is a delight as lawyer Bill Cole, the self-described voice of doom in this enterprise. "You've been taken to the cleaners, and you don't even know your pants are off," he tells Grant bluntly. Although his name isn't as nearly as well known these days as those of his costars, Douglas acted opposite some of the leading actresses of the golden age, including Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, and even Garbo herself (three times!); he was even a contender for the role of Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind. His experience shows in his ease on camera, which gives him a casual, offhand comedic persona that serves as a terrific foil for the increasingly tense and high-strung Grant character. His irreverent and outspoken amusement at the travails of our hero only serve to make Blandings all the more stubborn, pitching the comedy even higher.
The supporting cast is pitch-perfect as well. Stalwart Reginald Denny (Rebecca) is appropriately beleaguered as Simms, the architect who tries to reconcile the couple's exorbitant demands. The country folk and construction workers who eye the Blandings family with a combination of disbelief and calculation are played by a range of talented character actors. The blithe Blandings cook, Gussie, plays a pivotal role in plot resolution, and although in other respects her role is a small one, she is played by the great Louise Beavers, who was so memorable and moving in the 1934 version of Imitation of Life. The two Blandings daughters (Sharyn Moffett and Connie Marshall) are heralds of a new generation: Outspoken, critical, and blasé, they flummox their old-fashioned father and add some urgency to the need for the new house (for who wants to share a bathroom with two teenaged girls?).
The film looks and sounds terrific in this transfer (which appears in full frame, in accordance with its original aspect ratio). There are some expected age defects in the visuals, most prominently some gentle flicker, along with the speckling that is usual in fifty-year-old films; these are most noticeable in the stock footage that opens the film, however, and soon diminish to minor levels. Otherwise, both the sound and the black-and-white picture are crisp and clear. I had to push the volume up to an almost painful level to find any hiss.
Warners deserves a commendation for their outstanding packaging of this film. In fact, I will go further: Warners deserves a big, sloppy, wet kiss. We get not one but two radio adaptations of the film: one from 1949, featuring Grant with his frequent film costar Irene Dunne (My Favorite Wife), and one from 1950, again with Grant, this time accompanied by another film costar, Betsy Drake (Every Girl Should Be Married). I love these old radio productions; besides being a nice, compact way (one hour and half an hour, respectively) to listen to the film when you can't sit down to watch it, they offer considerable nostalgic appeal, especially in the advertising plugs for Lux soap that accompany the first of these adaptations. The sound quality in the older program is excellent, while the 1950 adaptation features some crackle and unevenness in the volume level. The two productions are different enough that each is well worth listening to.
In addition, the disc is graced with a hilarious, highly appropriate cartoon by the one and only Tex Avery, "The House of Tomorrow," in gorgeous color. There's also a generous ten-trailer gallery of Cary Grant films, which features wonderful vintage poster images on the menus. Speaking of menus, this disc is enlivened by cleverly designed menus that incorporate architectural blueprints—a nice touch. And I would be remiss if I did not note that Warners has here abandoned its flimsy cardboard packaging in favor of the sturdier keep case that most of us exponentially prefer. The cover art features whimsical vintage images, another nice touch. Bravo, Warners! You have made this humble reviewer very, very happy.
I sincerely hope that other studios will begin to follow the lead of Warner Bros. in including these wonderful vintage extras on their releases of classic movies. What Warners seems to realize, and some other studios don't, is that the very fans of older movies that are likely to consider buying these titles on DVD are going to be won over by these sorts of classic goodies. Studios, wake up and woo us! We are here to be wooed.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
About the only reason I can think of that anyone might not enjoy this film is if they are building or remodeling a house. In that case, like my friend Tinsley, they may find that this comedy of errors hits a little to close to home (as it were). Its depiction of the myriad inconveniences, frustrations, and expenses is so believable that some may need to let time give them a bit of perspective on their painful experience before they are able to appreciate its humor.
On the other hand, they should really just get over it.
A classic, timeless comedy, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is not only a terrific film in its own right but also an illuminating example of how the stars' careers developed. Although all three major stars had thriving careers in the '30s, here we get to see them approaching middle age, adapting their screen personas to a more conservative and domestic cultural atmosphere. But, most important, they're still great actors—and their gifts for comedy were undiminished as the century approached its midpoint. The bottom line is that one doesn't have to have been a fan of the earlier (or, for that matter, later) work of Grant, Loy, and Douglas to enjoy their performances here. Mr. Blandings stands on its own merits as a nearly perfect film.
Mr. Blandings is guilty of too much idealism, but he's certainly been punished enough for that. Warner Bros. is given special commendation from the bench for its superb treatment of this title. Case dismissed!
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