A curious old relic made in the immediate aftermath of the Second War War, Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House is a good example of a film that’s so outdated it has become almost subversive
Cary Grant plays James Blandings, an advertising executive who lives with his wife and his two daughters in New York City. He’s basically Don Draper, if Don Draper were a nice guy instead of a misogynistic asshole, and were played by a dashing Hollywood icon instead of a mediocre TV actor. While these days his apartment on the Upper-East-Side of Manhattan would probably go for 5000 dollars a month, we’re supposed to think it’s too small. The film never mentions the Second World War, but Blandings, who’s described as “young” by his best friend and lawyer William Cole, is clearly meant to represent 12 million recently demobilized American soldiers who are trying to put their lives together with the help of the GI Bill. While the 44-year-old Grant may seem an odd choice to play a “young” husband and father, the decision to cast the star of films like His Girl Friday and Only Angels Have Wings is central to the film’s overall message. He is the image of what a demoblized American soldier in the late 1940s might have wanted to become.
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is both a satirical take on, and ultimately an endorsement of the great move from the cities to the suburbs that took place in the 1940 and 1950s. When James and Muriel Blandings leave Manhattan for suburban Connecticut, they are already an established, upper-middle-class couple with the money to knock down an old farm house, and build an expensive new mansion. Like Mad Men, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House glamorizes the advertising industry even while it purports to criticize it. James Blandings hates his job. He knows the advertising industry “makes people who can’t afford it buy things they don’t want with money they haven’t got.” Indeed, there are times when Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House almost feels as if it had been written by John Cheever by way of Charles Bukowski. Realizing that the commute to Midtown Manhattan will be much more difficult from suburban Connecticut than it was from the Upper-East-Side, Blandings throws his hands up in despair.
JIM: That’s fine! For the rest of my life I’m going to have to get up at five o’clock in the morning to catch the six-fifteen, to get to my office by eight, which doesn’t even open until nine — and which I never get to until ten!
MURIEL: Perhaps if you started earlier you could quit earlier.
JIM: So I could get home earlier to go to bed earlier to get up earlier!
BILL: Maybe you can have the railroad push the train up to four-fifteen — then you won’t have to go to bed at all!
But not so fast. That everything goes wrong is the point. Only the suave Cary Grant could make decisions as foolish as Mr. Blandings does, and still come off looking like something to aspire to. Yes, the film was telling people in 1948, you may get cheated by your real estate agent on the price of the land. You may spent far too much money on that boxy little Cape Code in Levittown. Your commute may be a nightmare, but everything’s going to be OK. Cary Grant and Myrna Loy had the same problems.
What’s more, while James Blandings may hate the advertising industry, the working class, as represented by “Gussie”, the Blandings’ maid, thinks differently. Gussie – who’s black, and who the screenwriter don’t seem to think merits a last name or a back story – is an enthusiastic, happy consumer of the very products Blandings feels guilty about selling. Commissioned by his advertising firm to come up with a new slogan for “Wham”, obviously Spam, a canned meat product at which he turns up his snobbish, Ivy League nose in disgust, Blandings gets a case of writer’s block. For the first time in his life, he can’t think of a slogan. So he decides to quit. He’s willing to give up everything, the new house in Connecticut, the private school for his daughters, the cushy job that doesn’t seem to require him to do much more than think up a slogan or two every six months, just to be an honest man. But in the nick of time, Gussie saves him from having to become a hippie 20 years too soon. “If you ain’t eatin Wham,” she tells him. “You ain’t eatin ham.”
His faith in the consumer society restored, James Blandings “reacts with the sudden exhilaration of Balboa first seeing the Pacific.” He snaps his fingers. “Darling,” he says to his wife, “give Gussie a ten dollar raise!” It’s a happy ending. In the film’s final frame we see a picture of Gussie, smiling, holding a platter with an enormous ham. Under it is a caption.
“IF YOU AIN’T EATIN’ WHAM, YOU AIN’T EATIN’ HAM!”
That it was actually Gussie, not himself, who came up with the successful slogan for “Wham” and that it is she, not he and his family, who should own the new mansion in Connecticut, never seems to occur to James Blandings, nor, I would guess, did it occur to the film’s screenwriters. But you never know. The end of Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House is more ambiguous than the ending of almost any film I’ve ever seen. Were the film’s screenwriters closet anti-racists who were arguing that the plantation house of America was built on the back of the labor of black women? Or were they just clueless? I honestly couldn’t figure it out. See it for yourself. In the end, it probably doesn’t matter. Whether the writers intended it or not, this creaky old relic of a film exposes the injustice at the heart of the post-war move to suburbia before the Interstate Highway System was even a glimmer in the mind of the yet to be President Eisenhower.