Black & White
Year:     1948
Genre:    Comedy
Director: H.C. Potter
Writer:   Norman Panama
Based on  a story by Eric Hodgins
Starring:
Cary Grant     as Jim Blandings
Myrna Loy      as Muriel Blandings 
Melvyn Douglas as Bill Cole the family friend / lawyer
Reginald Denny as Simms the Architect
Louise Beavers as Gussie the Housekeeper

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is one of those movies I never would have seen without NetFlix. The fact that I can get unlimited movies for a flat fee means that I can take chances on movies I wouldn't otherwise have bothered seeing. This one attracted my interest when I found out The Money Pit (1986, Tom Hanks, Shelley Long) was a remake of it. Although it started out a bit slow, the second half of the movie was a triumph of dry wit, and the ending was an unintentionally hilarious side-effect of changing social values that would never be permitted in a movie today, unless it was a parody of the late 40s.

Plot Synopsis

This movie has post-WWII middle American nuclear family written all over it, like a movie-length version of The Donna Reed Show with a little slapstick thrown in for good measure. Add some communist paranoia and it would be perfect. Jim Blandings is an advertising executive with two beautiful daughters on the cusp of womanhood, who is getting a little fed up with his small Manhattan apartment. To solve his problem, he decides to buy a 50-acre lot in the Connecticut countryside to build his dream home. Absolute top on the priority list is four bathrooms — one for each member of the family.

You've been taken to the cleaners, and you don't even know your pants are off.
      — Bill Cole

He doesn't exactly get off on the right foot. A fast-talking realtor convinces him to buy a house he calls a fixer-upper that should be condemned, over-estimates the acreage of the property by 30%, and charges him four times what it's worth. Blandings stubbornly goes through with it anyway, despite the reservations of family friend and lawyer Bill Cole. After consulting a string of experts, he finally gives in and understands that the house must be torn down rather than fixed up, and gets into legal trouble doing so with a mortgage still on the property because he didn't check with the lawyer or architect first.

It's a conspiracy, I tell you. The minute you start they put you on the all-American sucker list. You start out to build a home and wind up in the poorhouse. And if it can happen to me, what about the guys who aren't making $15,000 a year? The ones who want a home of their own. It's a conspiracy, I tell you — against every boy and girl who were ever in love.
      — Jim Blandings

This habit of acting before he understands the consequences follows Blandings through the rest of the movie, and it's at this point when it really starts to get moving. A combination of dry wit, arguments with the builders, a running joke about a closet door that won't open from the inside, a slow-talking well driller, and continuously escalating costs drive the rest of the movie.

The big interest I had in the movie, though, was the post-WWII era setting. Made in 1948, Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House is remarkably dated, but more interesting for that fact. Between Blandings' comfortable Manhattan lifestyle on $15,000 a year, his dream house costing the astronomical sum of over $20,000, and the conservative values exhibited by the characters, this movie is filled with information on the culture and zeitgeist of the era in which it was made.

The unintentionally hilarious punchline of the whole thing rests on this fact, as the subplot of the movie involves Blandings trying to come up with a new ad slogan for WHAM brand ham. His overweight black housekeeper (more than a little reminiscent of Gone with the Wind's Mammy) happens to love the stuff, and cooks it for his family regularly, which Blandings is starting to get a little sick of since he has to deal with it every day at work as well. When she mentions near the end of the movie "If you ain't eatin' WHAM, you aint' eatin' ham!" Blandings uses it as inspiration for his advertising page. The result winds up being a completely inappropriate (for today's audiences) Aunt Jemima-style full-page ad of his housekeeper holding up a huge platter of delicious, freshly-cooked ham with the grammatically stereotypical slogan underneath.

Review

Although the movie gets off to a bit of a slow start, the second half of the movie is really quite funny in a 1950's sit-com sort of way. If you enjoyed reruns of The Donna Reed Show and the early seasons of Bewitched, you'll probably like the trip back in time to an era with strangely different but somehow familiar social values. The ending of the movie would work just as well as a parody of the late 40s / early 50s rather than a product of it.

Overall, I give it 4/5 stars, for effective comedy in the second half and historical cultural value. Recommended.

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