Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House
One of the things I will most about FilmStruck is the ability to randomly browse the menu and pick a movie. Last Sunday, I watched for the first time the 1948 film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, a gentle, sitcommy comedy starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas about a middle-class husband and wife who decide to abandon the hectic, cramped lifestyle of apartment living in Manhattan to experience the blissful life of a Connecticut farm. Written by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, (who would later co-write and co-direct The Court Jester, one of my favorite stupid, stupid comedies) and directed by the mysterious H.C. Potter, it’s a film that establishes many sitcom tropes that would become terribly well-worn over the next few decades: The daffy, overconfident husband, the patient, loyal sighing wife, the smart-ass kids, the wry, knowing best friend who knows better than our heroes.
As hard as it is for me to believe, it’s a 70-year-old picture now, an interesting and amusing artifact that is as comfortable and harmless as an old sweater, although there are hints of darkness at the edges. As it’s presented, it’s an amusing sitcom, but it could have been presented as the dark tale of postwar smugness, as it makes fun of the American overconfidence that followed the victory in World War II and the suburban dream that followed, with millions of Americans flocking to the newly-created suburbs. It could have been a rather dark tale.
As H.C. Potter presents it (Who is he??), with flat lighting and a gentle touch, it’s our three stars who carry the film with their charm and ease. By 1948, Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas had made hundreds of pictures between them in the preceding 20 years and they’re at such ease it’s almost hard to appreciate how incredibly skilled these three pros were. Facing the end of the studio system and the beginning of the television era, all three were at the end of their respective eras. Grant would continue as a star, albeit reluctantly, but Loy would increasingly turn to politics as roles for her dried up and Douglas would turn to the theater before his own cinematic renaissance as an Oscar-winning supporting actor in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Seen by the youngsters today (I’m 46 and get to call them youngsters) I’d have to imagine Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House must seem hopelessly antiquated and at times offensive today, but it’s truly a harmless formula picture that provides some gentle humor that is refreshing in contrast to today’s comedy, which seems to have forgotten how to write relationship-based humor. What I imagine would grate especially is Loy’s role as the endlessly patient housewife. Simply dismissing her work, however, would be a mistake. While Loy was often billed as “the perfect wife” (much to her actual chagrin as a four-time divorcee) and that label has aged extraordinarily poorly, she had the ability to listen and underplay better than anyone on film. Sure, she’s an old-fashioned housewife, but she’s clearly smarter than everyone in the room and when she’s not, she thinks she is, but she doesn’t need to tell anyone about it.
The best comic sequence in the film is the paint scene. Myrna Loy plays it beautifully.