Saturday, January 10, 2015

Stubs – Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) Starring: Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Melvyn Douglas, Louise Beavers Directed H. C. Potter. Produced by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank. Screenplay by Norman Panama, Melvin Frank Based on the novel Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House by Eric Hodgins (New York, 1946), which was based on his article "Mr. Blandings Builds His Castle" in Fortune (Apr 1946). Run Time: 95 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Comedy

As we’ve written about previously, Hollywood likes to adapt books. Such is the case with Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. The book, written by Eric Hodgins, was based on his own experiences with building a home in New Milford, CT. In 1939, a Vice-President with Time, Inc., Hodgins set out to build a house, budgeted at $11,000. However, when he was through, the house ended up calling five times that amount, $56,000. It was an amount that would lead him, two years later, to declare bankruptcy and force him to sell his dream house.

But from his experience came a short story, published in Fortune magazine in 1946 and eventually a book, with illustrations by William Steig. The book was popular enough that it was the first story acquisition Dore Schary made after becoming RKO’s executive vice-president in charge of production. Schary, who had previously worked at MGM in charge of their B-pictures production unit, had been under contract to David O. Selznick prior to taking the job at RKO. Eventually, he would move back to MGM, replacing Louis B. Mayer as head of the studio.

Schary paid Hodgins $200,000 for screen rights to his novel and brought the author out to consult on the adaptation. Changes were made to the story, such as Jim Blandings’ income and the final cost of the house were both lowered. The studio felt that the average moviegoer wouldn’t be sympathetic about the plight of someone making $25,000 a year, which was his income in the book.

Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) is a $15,000 a-year advertising executive, who lives in a cramped Manhattan apartment with his wife, Muriel (Myrna Loy), their two children, Betsy (Connie Marshall) and Joan (Sharyn Moffett), and a live-in maid, Gussie (Louise Beavers). The apartment is short on closet space and its one bathroom gets quite the workout in the morning. While Jim is trying to shave, he has to work around Muriel’s shower.

Every morning, Jim (Cary Grant) and his wife, Muriel (Myrna Loy), vie for mirror time in their bathroom.

Bill Cole (Mervyn Douglas), who serves as a sort of narrator for the film, is Jim’s best friend and his lawyer. Muriel has turned to Bill to help her with an interior designer. Bill is one of those kinds of friends who are always showing up at the Blandings’ apartment. When Jim finds out that it would cost $7,000 to remodel their apartment, he vetoes the idea.

The Blandings' apartment is bursting at the seams with Jim, housekeeper Gussie (Louise
Beavers), children Betsy (Connie Marshall) and Joan (Sharyn Moffett) and Muriel all living there.

At work, Jim sees an ad for Connecticut real estate and that gets him to thinking. Soon, he’s driving Muriel around with a real estate agent named Smith (Ian Wolfe) who takes them to a rundown farmhouse on a 50-acre farm. Thinking they can remodel it, Jim buys the farm for $10,000, only to be informed later by Bill that he paid twice the going gouge rate, $200 an acre. Further, the 50 acres turns out to be only 35. But against Bill’s advice, Jim is determined to move forward.

The house is a real fixer-upper.

When they take Bill out to see their dream house, he suggests that they have a structural engineer take a look at it before they start to renovate it. Bill’s expert has one suggestion, tear it down. Not happy with that, the Blandings bring out their own experts, all of whom have the same advice.

Jim and Muriel drive Bill Cole (Mervyn Douglas) out to see their new home.

Giving up on the idea of remodeling, they hire an architect, Henry L. Simms (Reginald Denny), who sets out to design them a house they can afford to build. But Jim and Muriel have ideas about extras they want to have incorporated, including a bathroom and two closets off every bedroom, a game room in the basement for Jim and a sewing room for Muriel.

Jim and Muriel start adding to the plans architect Henry Simms (Reginal Denny) has drawn up.

To get things started, they first have to tear down the old house. Only after it’s torn down than Bill informs them they should have gotten the mortgage holder’s permission first. Now the note is called and the Blandings have to come up with $6000. Still needing money to build the house, Bill offers to help arrange to use his life insurance as collateral for the loan.

But the Blandings are just about ready to walk away from the deal when Smith informs them that the additions they want to make to the design will cost an additional $11,000. But on their way out of his office, they see a sketch he’s made of their final house and they are love struck by the notion.

Work gets underway, but nothing goes smoothly as every possible construction problem comes to light. A stone ledge has to be blasted away to allow for the foundation to be poured and the well they need for water requires John Retch (Jason Robards, Sr.) to drill over 200 feet down. But as soon as he finds water, the foundation gets flooded when a spring is discovered beneath it only six feet down.

John Retch (Jason Robards, Sr.) is hired to drill for water,
but he has to drill down over 200 feet to find it.

Meanwhile, things are not going smoothly at work. Not only is Jim preoccupied with his house, but he’s also under the gun to come up with a winning slogan for Wham Ham, a campaign which has already cost one of his co-workers his job. Bill, who is also the firm’s lawyer, informs Jim that his boss has given him six months to come up with a winning slogan for the ham product, but try as he might, Jim can’t think of anything good.

The spring drained, the foundation is poured and building begins. But when visiting the site, Jim is asked for an opinion by one of the carpenters (Lex Barker). Not sure what the man is talking about, Jim nevertheless gives him an answer and watches the other men literally rip out studs from the second floor. When the workers go home early, because it’s a Saturday, Jim and Muriel hear an odd banging sound and find Bill trapped in a closet upstairs. In trying to show Bill that it’s impossible to get trapped, Jim gets everyone at least momentarily, locked in.

Jim and Muriel visit the house while it's still under construction.

With construction still in progress, the Blandings find themselves evicted from their Manhattan apartment. With no place else to go, they have to move into the house, but upon arriving, find that they have the wrong sized windows; a mix up with similar sounding customer names. And Jim finds that in order to catch the train into New York, he’ll have to get up at 5:30, rather than the leisurely 7:30 he’d wake up back in the city.

The Blandings have to move in before the construction is completed.

Finally moved in, Jim and the girls are putting things away when Betsy and Joan discover that their mother has two fraternity pins in her jewel box; their father’s and one with the initials WC, or Bill Cole’s from college.

Further, they read in her college diary that she had feelings for Bill. Jim is already a little jealous of Bill and Muriel’s close relationship, Bill does kiss her good-bye on the cheek, and confronts Muriel with this evidence of her continued affections. But Muriel laughs off the allegation, telling Jim that he’s the only man she loves.

Time goes by and Jim is still wrestling with the slogan for Wham Ham with his assistant Mary (Lurene Tuttle). With a deadline in the morning, they work through the rainy night. Jim wishes he was home with Muriel reading his paper in front of the fireplace. Unbeknownst to him, Bill has been caught in the rain and the bridge out is unusable. The girls are likewise trapped at a friend’s house down the road.

Unable to come up with a winning slogan, Jim tells Mary to go home and leaves himself for the country, knowing that it means the end of his job. Simms is already there with an additional bill from the builder. What Muriel had thought was a simple request about using some left over sandstones has added about $1200 to the cost of the house. While he’s dealing with Simms, Jim sees Bill come downstairs dressed in his pajamas and robe. Even though Bill and Muriel maintain that nothing happened, this is enough to send Jim over the edge and he declares that he wants to sell the house.

Jim doesn't like seeing Bill dressed in his pajamas and robe.

But before he’s done with his tirade, Retch comes by about $12.36. Jim naturally assumes Retch is there to collect, but in fact, he overcharged the Blandings and offers them a refund. Bill seizes on the moment and convinces Jim that he doesn’t want to sell, but in fact loves the house. Bill even concedes that despite his criticism of the Blandings’ real estate purchase that some things in life should be bought with the heart and not the head.

Convinced to stay and reassured about his faithful spouse, Jim’s career is saved from the ashes when Gussie, who is making breakfast for the girls, declares that “If you ain’t eating Wham, you ain’t eating ham.”

Later we see that Gussie is now the spokes model in Wham Ham ads and the Blandings, along with Bill, can at last enjoy their dream house in Connecticut.

Finally finished, Jim, his family and friends can finally enjoy country living.

Produced by RKO, the film was actually originally distributed in the U.S. and Canada by Selznick Releasing Organization, which held a sixty percent interest in the property. Some sources say the arrangement and split of the film was negotiated when Selznick let Schary out of his contract to become production head at RKO. Later, in 1953, RKO would reclaim full distribution rights in the film.

The finished house in the movie.

With the money he received for the film rights, $200,000, Hodgins tried to buy back his dream house. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful. The house, which still stands, sold most recently for $1.2 million.

The dream house in the movie was really built on land owned by movie producer George Hunter and, too, still stands, according to Los Angeles an Architectural Guide. The 2476 square foot Connecticut Colonial was used by Hunter as his ranch house and is now used by the Malibu Creek State Park as offices.

The house built for the movie is still standing in Malibu Creek State Park.

As a promotion for the film, RKO built 73 “dream houses” in various cities throughout the U.S. selling some by a raffle. The money raised by the sales went to charity.

One of the 73 "dream houses" being built, this one in Toledo, Ohio.

Despite the promotional ploy, the film recorded a loss during its initial release to the tune of about $225,000.

Still, the movie was good enough to have been remade twice: The Money Pit (1986), directed by Richard Benjamin, starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long and Are We Done Yet? (2007), directed by Steve Carr, starring Ice Cube and Nia Long. The latter is a remake as well as a sequel to Are We There Yet? (2005).

Anyone who has to take on a role created by Cary Grant is in trouble from the start, even Tom Hanks. While he might not be as urban as Ice Cube, he is definitely urbane at a level few, if any, in Hollywood have ever reached. I’m a big fan of his. There seems to be nothing that he can’t do on film, of course, I’ve never seen him ride a horse or carry a tune. Grant is one of those actors that never seems to strike a sour note and he certainly doesn’t start here.

Myrna Loy is also solid as usual, her character a sort of fore-runner to the Lucy Ricardo character when I Love Lucy moved to the country. Perhaps best known for her films with William Powell, Loy was an actress who had a nice comedic touch. She seems to have played a lot of wives during her career, including Clark Gable’s in Wife vs. Secretary (1936), as well as Mrs. Charles in all those Thin Man Films.

Loy and Grant had first appeared together in Wings in the Dark (1935), a romantic adventure, and were paired again the year before this film in The Bachelor and The Bobby-Soxer (1947). That film is perhaps best remembered for starring a teen-aged Shirley Temple, whose own film career was coming to an end. As was common, following the success of one film, the studio, RKO, was looking for another vehicle to put the two leads in. It is a real shame that Loy and Grant did not do more pictures together after this one, they seemed to have very good on-screen chemistry.

Melvyn Douglas had been a suave leading man throughout the 1930’s, appearing opposite the likes of Joan Crawford in A Woman’s Face (1941) and with Greta Garbo in three films, As You Desire Me (1932), Ninotchka (1939) and Two-Faced Woman (1941), her last film.

Following World War II, in which he served in both the Office of Civilian Defense and the Army, Douglas returned to Hollywood, taking more mature roles. He had been the lead in most of his films, now he was playing the second. He seems to be quite natural as an actor, here coming across as a well-meaning, if sometimes meddlesome, friend.

Louise Beavers is one of those actresses you see in so many movies, usually playing a maid or mammy character. This started with her second picture, Coquette (1929), starring Mary Pickford, and continued until her last film, The Facts of Life (1960), in which she played another maid also called Gussie. Given the state of African-American actors in Hollywood, at the time, there really weren’t many other roles available for her.

The acting is across the board top notch. Every character seems believable from the stars down to the supporting cast, which included Jason Robards, Sr., Ian Wolfe, Reginald Denny, Lurene Tuttle and Lex Barker.

Like so many other directors of films we’ve reviewed at Trophy Unlocked, the name H.C. Potter is not very well known. In his day, he was perhaps best known for this film, as well as Mr. Lucky (1943), with Grant, and The Farmer’s Daughter (1947) with Loretta Young. He is one of those directors that doesn’t seem to have an obvious touch, like Ernst Lubitsch or style like Alfred Hitchcock. That said, there really isn’t anything that rings false in the film. Sometimes the material doesn’t need a director who puts his stamp on the film to work. Instead, Potter relies more on the story, the actors and the house to carry the film.

Having at one time added on to my own house, I can personally attest to just how true much of the film is. Though I didn’t have exactly the same experiences, I’ve had the pleasure of working with contractors and construction. Nothing ever seems to go right, schedules are missed and money is never a consideration, except for the person who has to pay the final bill. While my problems were nothing compared to Mr. Blandings’, I can honestly say I’ve lived through some of his heartache. And while it’s too soon for me to find humor in my add-on project, a lifetime won’t be long enough for it ever to be funny; I do find Blandings' follies very amusing.

I would definitely recommend you see Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, especially if you ever find yourself contemplating re-modeling your house.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is available as a single disc or part of the Cary Grant: The Signature Collection at:
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