September 25, 2011

9 Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

Country: US
Director: H. C. Potter

When I think of a Cary Grant movie, I tend to think of him playing someone unmarried, generally a sophisticate of some kind—a playboy, cat burglar, spy, or professional gambler. Whether he is being pursued or doing the pursuing, I think of Grant as becoming romantically involved during the movie with a beautiful woman—Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Deborah Kerr, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn. If he does happen to be married (or divorced), I see him in a tempestuous relationship with someone like Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, or Rosalind Russell. What I normally don't picture when I think of Cary Grant movies is Cary Grant living a settled middle-class family life with a wife, children, and unexciting job. Yet that is exactly the kind of man he plays in one of my favorite films of his, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

In this picture Grant plays a New York adman, Jim Blandings (even his name makes him sound ordinary), with a wife, Muriel (Myrna Loy), and two young daughters. Everything about the Blandings is conventional. They live in a New York City apartment, their daughters attend an expensive, progressive private school, they have a devoted longtime housekeeper and a pet canary. The only real problem they face is that they have outgrown their two-bedroom, one-bath apartment. This is conveyed in the opening minutes of the picture, as Grant gets out of bed at exactly 7:30 a.m. and begins his morning regimen. In one long take the camera follows Grant as he moves through the cramped apartment, down the narrow hallway, carefully maneuvering around furniture from one small room to the next. He finally ends up in the tiny bathroom, where, in a precisely timed physical comedy routine performed from the waist up, he attempts to shave while his wife attempts to perform her morning toilet at the same time .

Muriel's solution to the uncomfortable living conditions is to knock out a wall and redecorate. Jim has a more radical solution—buy a Colonial farmhouse in Connecticut he has seen advertised in the newspaper, join the postwar exodus from the city, and become a commuter. When Muriel agrees to the plan, the Blandings think their space problem is solved. Little do they know that their real problems are just beginning. When the house they've bought turns out to be a wreck that is beyond repair, they reluctantly follow expert advice to have it demolished and start from scratch with a new house. The new solution to their problems, however, proves to be a Pandora's Box, as one complication leads to another in a cascading series of comic mishaps. As each of these crises is dealt with, another arises and expenses mount. "Anyone who builds a house today is crazy," Jim finally complains. "You start to build a house and wind up in the poorhouse." But by now it's too late to turn back, and when the Blandings family is suddenly evicted from their apartment, they must move into the new house before it is even finished.

Jim has other problems to deal with as well. At work he has been saddled with a problem account no one else has been able to cope with, a canned pork product called Wham. As the deadline for a new advertising slogan for the product approaches, he just can't come up with anything suitable. On the personal front, he must deal with family friend Bill Cole, an attorney whose constant presence advising the Blandings on the numerous legal ramifications of the project begins to arouse Jim's jealousy. You see, Muriel dated Bill in college and was once briefly engaged to him. That Bill has never married leads everyone (including the viewer) to suspect he is still carrying a torch for Muriel.

Like the W. C. Fields movies of the 1930s, this film is a study of comic frustration, the reactions of a man to situations and people—including his own family—that test his patience at every turn. But being Cary Grant, not W. C. Fields, Jim Blandings must keep up his cool demeanor and conceal his bewilderment at all times, whether dealing with his patronizing daughters, sweetly headstrong wife, difficult construction workers, or that elusive advertising slogan. Grant plumbs these situations for their maximum comedic effect and, using his finely calibrated sense of timing whether the comedy is physical or verbal, never lets us lose sight of the exasperation simmering just beneath his controlled surface.

He always seems to find just the right balance between expressiveness and restraint, the constant struggle to tamp down explosive emotions just before they manage to burst through. From the slow burn as his young daughter lectures him at the breakfast table on the advertising industry's callous exploitation of human gullibility, to the record number of trademark Cary Grant double-takes he delivers in the scene where he comes home after spending the night in the city, only to find that his one-time rival Bill Cole has spent the night in the house alone with Muriel—above all, he uses his facial expressions to convey the struggle between his inner frustration and his need to maintain composure. Seldom has the depiction of such a struggle—played with apparent seriousness—seemed so funny.

If Grant uses all his considerable expertise to suggest without openly showing, in all fairness it must be admitted that he is given an ideal context in which to showcase this ability. The excellent screenplay is by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, a writing and later writing-directing team who were no strangers to comedy that blends subtle physical humor with witty verbal humor, working together on some thirty pictures, including several films for Bob Hope, Bing Crosby (both separately and together), and Danny Kaye. The plot, adapted from a 1946 novel, isn't exactly unfamiliar, resembling in many ways the very entertaining 1942 Jack Benny movie George Washington Slept Here, based on a play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. But if a number of the situations are similar, the characters are distinct from Hart and Kaufman's, and the addition of elements such as the Blandings children moves the plot in new directions. And Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, with their obvious onscreen chemistry, strike me as a more convincing couple than grouchy, self-centered Jack Benny and gorgeous Ann Sheridan.

Kudos must also go to Grant's costars, Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas, who lend Grant expert support. At this point Loy, who had been one of the biggest box office stars of the late 1930s when she was at MGM, was just re-establishing her acting career after taking several years off during World War II to work for the Red Cross. Like most actresses in their early forties, she didn't have an easy time finding more mature characters to play. Onscreen, she had been a mother for several years, to Nick Junior in the Thin Man movies, but by the mid-1940s that series was winding down. In The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), playing the mother of a grown daughter, she showed what a fine dramatic actress she could be. But she was really at her best in light comedies like Mr. Blandings. No screen actress of the studio era was able to combine a surface manner of deadpan comic vagueness with underlying intelligence the way Loy did, a combination of qualities that comes through beautifully in the scene where she describes to the decorators the exact shade of color she wants each room in the new house to be painted.

An equally inspired casting decision was the choice of Melvyn Douglas to play Bill Cole. Like Loy, Douglas had been involved in the war effort for several years and when he returned to pictures after the war found it impossible to get the kind of parts he was accustomed to. In the 1930s Douglas was a sort of "poor man's" Cary Grant, often being cast as the same kind of sophisticated, urbane character Grant was associated with. In fact, Douglas got the best role of his early career, playing opposite Greta Garbo as an impoverished French count in Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka, only because Grant, Lubitsch's first choice for the part, turned it down, probably because he sensed that Garbo's was the dominant role. So casting Douglas as the college rival of Jim Blandings for Muriel's affection made perfect movie sense. For his part, Douglas seems content to play second fiddle to Cary Grant, never trying to upstage him, but finding his own niche in the proceedings by regarding Jim Blandings's befuddlement and misguided jealousy with amused detachment as he narrates the picture in voice-over.

Despite the departure of Cary Grant from his accustomed screen persona and despite the presence of old pros Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas, not to mention a number of scene-stealing character actors like Louise Beavers, Reginald Denny, and Harry Shannon, this is first and foremost a Cary Grant picture with Grant very much at the center of the movie. Cary Grant was really a far more versatile actor than he is usually given credit for. He may have made a very successful career of impersonating his own self-created screen persona, but if you look at a list of all the movies he made, it's clear that this screen persona was actually quite an adaptable one. It also seems clear that for a few years after World War II he made a real effort to stretch the boundaries of that persona in films like Notorious, The Bishop's Wife, People Will Talk, and this one before returning in the 1950s to roles that were a more comfortable fit with his debonair image. Grant's harassed family man in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House might not be as extreme a departure as some of the parts he essayed during this period, but in hewing closer to the familiar and still being in many ways unprecedented, it is one of his most delightful performances and among my very favorites of the thirty-five year long career of the man I consider the quintessential screen actor.

This post is part of the LAMB Acting School 101 on Cary Grant. For more on this event click here.


  1. While this is not one of my favorite Cary Grant movies, I think you did an exceptional job in showcasing that Grant was a "far more versatile actor than he is usually given credit for." Indeed, he was a fine comedian, capable of playing traditional comic roles (e.g., ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, BRINGING UP BABY) and characters that display a casual, subtle humor (NORTH BY NORTHWEST). As for BLANDINGS, I think the film works better in parts than as a whole. Still, compared to similarly-plotted films like THE MONEY PIT, it's rightly a comedy classic and Grant & Loy are a great team.

  2. Excellent look at a continually entertaining movie and its continually appealing players.

  3. LOVE 'Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House,' one of my favorite films, period. Grant in the late 40s-early 50s seems to have moved somewhat into a paterfamilias role in his films (eg, his films w/Betsy Drake), before returning to his better-known suave persona. 'Blandings' is so funny because of its witty script and sharply observed comic situations, plus its wonderful performers. The "paint colors" scene is now one of those touchstone scenes of movie comedy. Thanks for your fine post.

  4. "Like the W. C. Fields movies of the 1930s, this film is a study of comic frustration, the reactions of a man to situations and people—including his own family—that test his patience at every turn."

    Masterful point here, and one I completely agree with. This is an exceedingly delightful and charming film, and a wonderful choice as favorite among Grant's works. Typically you frame teh wide appeal through your meticulous examination of the film's components and of the chemistry of the lead stars, all celebrated in their own right. Yes, Grant and Loy work wonders and the great Melvyn Douglas offers stellar support. I guess I have grown to see BRINGING UP BABY as my favorite Grant, but who can blame anyone for connection with this timeless film that defies time and place.

    Calling Grant the "quintessential screen actor" certainly deserves some serious heeding, methinks.

    Wonderful review in every sense.

  5. Your usual fine work here R.D. Like Rick, this is not one of my top Cary Grant films, but it is more the storyline for and certainly not Grant who is always wonderful. This past week I watched ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS again which gave Grant his first opportunity to step outside of comedy and into an adventure picture. Great film with, in addition to Grant, Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell and a very young Rita Hayworth. I am sure you have seen this.


  6. R.D. - I've always enjoyed this film but in recent years have found myself liking it more and more. You have done an impeccable job of breaking down why it works so well and, perhaps, why it has grown on me so.

    Recently read a Billy Wilder bio and learned that the great director always wanted to work with Cary Grant...wanted him for the Humphrey Bogart role in "Sabrina" and the lead in "Love in the Afternoon." But it never happened. Tony Curtis is quoted as saying that one reason he imitated Grant in "Some Like it Hot" was that he knew how much Wilder admired and had wanted to work with him. Curtis also talked about knowing Grant and remarked that Grant told him that film acting was an art that, properly executed, must seem artless. How well he knew.

  7. Thanks to all who have commented. Unless there is a satirical point of some kind, I find comedy the most difficult kind of movie to write about and really admire those who are able to do this. How can you elaborate on, explain, or even describe what is funny? Even with musicals I can always fall back on the songs and the dances.

    Rick, I too prefer Grant in his comic roles, although some of his more serious performances, like those in "Only Angels Have Wings" and "Notorious" have much to recommend them. Comedy really seemed to be his metier, and you make an interesting point about how many styles of comedy there are and how adept he was at all of them. I like him in the domestic style of "Mr. Blandings" because the postwar naivete of this kind of movie appeals to me, rather like Spencer Tracy in "Father of the Bride." Like a lot of classic movie fans, though, I'm especially crazy for the screwball comedy of the late 30s-early 40s, and for me he was the king of that genre.

    Caftan Woman, "appealing" and "entertaining"--a great way to describe this movie.

    GOM, love that paint scene. It really jumps out of the movie, doesn't it? It was a wonderful gesture on the part of the writers to give Loy that scene, which she made a real meal of and turned into one of the signature scenes of her career

    Sam, I've long called Grant my favorite screen actor. My absolute favorite of his performances is in "North by Northwest." But I could name a dozen others I like almost as much, and this is one of them. He was admired by other actors and often emulated, but nobody played Cary Grant like Cary Grant himself. I would have loved to see him as Norman Maine in the Cukor-Garland version of "A Star Is Born." That would have been a real change of pace. Don't know why he backed out of it (although James Mason was a perfect replacement). Grant was always very savvy about his career and seemed to have a sense for what to steer clear of. Maybe he thought playing a has-been would jinx his career, which was just entering the difficult phase of middle age.

    John, I'm a big fan of "Only Angels," which I saw for the first time only a couple of years ago. As a team, Grant and Hawks were second only to Grant and Hitchcock.

    Eve, great comment about Grant believing film acting should seem (key word--"convey the illusion of") being artless. It's absolutely fundamental to understanding what Cary Grant the actor was all about and why he was so admired by other actors and loved by viewers. Maybe that's why as a group his more dramatic performances aren't as appealing, because the artistry doesn't seem effortless and invisible the way it does when he's in his comic mode.

  8. R.D., I'm sorry to be slow to comment, but I seem to keep falling behind with the world of blogging at the moment. I am another fan of Cary Grant but hadn't seen this film - I've just watched it after being tempted by your review and did enjoy it, although there are other films of his that I like more, with 'Only Angels Have Wings', 'Notorious' and 'None But the Lonely Heart' being among my favourites - I think he is great in more serious and sometimes slightly more macho roles as well as in comedies.

    Having said that, it is great fun to see him as the father of a middle-class family in this, and I agree he makes a great combination with Myrna Loy - the opening with the long shots of him wandering up and down the hall organising his daughters and the husband and wife using the bathroom at the same time is wonderful stuff. (I also liked the fact that they use the bathroom at once in the same way in their expensive new house later on, despite all their insistence on having three bathrooms!) I do wonder what we are supposed to make of Loy's relationship with Melvyn Douglas, who is great as the intrusive family friend/old flame Bill - I note he is still sitting right next to the couple in the final scene! Great review, R.D., and I am now hoping to catch up on more of the Cary Grant films that have passed me by so far.

  9. Judy, thanks for returning to leave a comment after watching the movie. I like Cary Grant in everything. He's best remembered as a comic actor, but I agree that he was also a fine dramatic actor. On the whole, though, I think his more dramatic films tend to be less strong as films than the comic ones, thus providing him a less effective context to show off his acting skills. The performances you name are all good ones, and "Notorious" and "Only Angels" in particular are excellent films, but then as I said, he probably did his best work for Hitchcock and Hawks. One thing your comments make me realize is that even in comedies Grant approached his acting seriously. For me his greatest strength as an actor was his ability to give the appearance of effortlessness, and when he appears trying too hard to be funny, he can come off as forced. I'm thinking of "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "Monkey Business." I might characterize many of my favorites of his films as "light dramas"--movies like "The Bishop's Wife," "To Catch a Thief," "Charade," and my all-time favorite "North by Northwest," for example. Anyway, thanks for adding to the conversation and causing me to think more on the subject of my favorite actor.