Silver Screen Standards: Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)
I’m in the process of moving houses this fall, and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) is one of the reasons. Faced with the terrifying prospect of completely remodeling our old house, I thought of the expression of pure misery that constantly appears on Cary Grant’s face throughout the film and realized that I would not see the humor in enduring that experience myself. No dream-house-turned-nightmare-ordeal for me, thanks! We’re moving to a much newer house where all of the latest features are already present. It even has four bathrooms, which would make Muriel Blandings happy, and we’ve had a thorough inspection done to head off any nasty surprises.
Every time I watch Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House I think it ought to be required viewing for anyone contemplating a major home remodel or a new build from scratch. This classic comedy, directed by H.C. Potter, offers us a front-row seat as the Blandings, played by Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, encounter every possible setback and crisis as they attempt to relocate from a cramped Manhattan apartment to a dream home in the Connecticut suburbs.
It’s not that the Blandings don’t need more space; we see how uncomfortable they are in the tiny apartment, especially with one bathroom shared by the couple and their two daughters. Even Marie Kondo would have a hard time making that space livable for four people. No, the problem is that Jim and Muriel Blandings absolutely lose their minds somewhere along the way. They make terrible decisions from the start. They buy a dilapidated old farmhouse because it’s cheap but soon find out it’s a complete teardown, which opens the floodgates on insanity as they build a completely new home. Every aspect of the project is plagued with problems, which the Blandings inevitably make worse, and the result realistically ought to be bankruptcy and divorce rather than a happy ending. Luckily for the viewer and the Blandings family, this is a comedy, so it all works out in the end.
The movie is an adaptation of the novel by Eric Hodgins, who based the story on his own experience building a house in Connecticut in the 1930s. Unfortunately for Hodgins, the final cost of the house was so extravagant that he had to sell it, but he later made enough money on the film rights to make up for the loss. Hodgins wrote a sequel, called Blandings’ Way, after the success of the 1948 film, but it didn’t enjoy the runaway success of the original. The house itself passed to other owners and eventually ended up being the residence of writers Stephen Citron and Anne Edwards, who talked about its history in a 1992 New York Times article. According to the New England Historical Society, the house sold in 2004 for $1.2 million.
Ironically for a film that satirizes the modern American urge to build dream houses in the suburbs, RKO promoted the release by doing just that. They built 73 full-scale replicas of the Blandings house around the country, in addition to the actual movie set built in California, and sold them through raffle contests. The Bella Online article, “RKO’s Dream House for Mr. Blandings,” discusses the publicity stunt in detail. Dozens of families in different states got to move into the Blandings’ dream house without the hassle of having to build it themselves, although one hopes that the similarities did not extend to the self-locking dressing room door. The house used in the actual film is still standing and is now part of Malibu Creek State Park, where it serves as the administrative office for California State Parks.
Hodgins’ novel and the film adaptation offer a comical warning to homeowners and those foolish enough to jump headfirst into building a new house, but the number of houses being torn down in my neighborhood to make way for massive new dream homes shows that such advice hasn’t been heeded. It also explains why remakes of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House appear every few decades. In 1986, Tom Hanks and Shelley Long fell into The Money Pit of disastrous home renovation, and in 2007 Ice Cube and Nia Long asked Are We Done Yet? as their suburban dream home turned into a nightmare. Every generation repeats the errors of its predecessors, it seems, but at least we get funny movies out of it.
By the time this column appears, I should be comfortably settled in my new house and looking forward to the holidays, but just at this moment, I’m enduring the sound of the plumber sawing away under our old house to repair a bathroom leak that must be fixed before we can sell. By the end of the day, I might be wearing Cary Grant’s expression of horror after all, especially when the plumber hands me the bill. I’ll remind myself that it’s still better than remodeling.
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a Ph.D. in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.