Long before I ever owned a home, much less thought about remodeling one, I loved the movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, my two favorite actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. When my husband and I began pursuing the idea of doing major renovations on our house about five years ago, the movie became even more meaningful to us. Having finally completed the remodel journey earlier this year, my husband surprised me with a copy of the book on which the movie is based for our 23rd anniversary.💗
To sum up the story: New York City dwellers Jim and Muriel Blandings decide they want to leave the confines of the city for a home in the country. They find a dilapidated farmhouse on 50 acres (more or less) and fall in love with it. No sooner do they close the deal for the land, which turns out to be closer to 31 acres, than they realize the house is such a disaster that they would be better off tearing it down and starting from scratch. City slickers, am I right? If you have ever built a house or done any major renovations you can guess what happens next: delays, loans, confusion, subcontractors, possible legal action, and, of course, money. In Mr. Blandings’ case, the budget overruns are truly horrifying. While he initially imagines he’ll spend around $20,000, the final cost of his new home is $56,263. Now you can all stop your snickering while I put this in perspective: $20,000 in 1946 would equal a little over $300,000 today (which is still laughable if you are checking home prices in my neighborhood); $56,263 translates to $854,000 (getting warmer). Also consider that Mr. Blandings went over-budget by 280%. He’s an advertising man, not a financial whiz!
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was written by Eric Hodgins, who got an engineering degree from M.I.T. before deciding to pursue a career in publishing. He became publisher at Fortune and eventually Vice President at Time, Inc. before deciding to take a leave of absence and get back to writing. The novel is an expansion of a short story he wrote for Fortune earlier in 1946. I give you that background, because this is such a good, old-fashioned charmer of a novel. It reads like an extended story in the New Yorker, complete with illustrations by famed cartoonist William Steig. Example:
The witty writing made its way into much of the dialogue of the film, such as this excerpt where Blandings’ lawyer Bill Cole lets his client know that he’s being taken for a ride: “Every time you get a little tight you weep on my shoulder about what a terrible thing the advertising-agency business is for a sensitive soul like yourself because you make your living out of bamboozling the American public. I would say that a small part of this victimized group has now redressed the balance.”
It’s old fashioned without being cringe inducing, except maybe in one scene where Mrs. Blandings has screwed up so badly (the “four little pieces of flagstone” debacle for you movie fans) that she is humbled for a time, and Mr. B. enjoys it. And maybe the way they carry on about how much she loves closets, but I gotta admit, that stereotype hits home for me.
If you’re looking for a moral, you’re not going to find one. Privacy and space are themes that are explored, but that’s as deep as it gets. I do love this excerpt, though, where Blandings contemplates his loss of privacy in moving to the country: “He wanted privacy–and that was not to be had on a mountaintop; true privacy existed in its perfect flowering on a Bronx Park Express between five and six P.M. True detachment was to be achieved not among the rocks and rills of the countryside but on the pavements of the harsh, uncaring city, across a mile of which a man with a dagger might pursue a screaming woman with a child in her arms and evoke, in the true city dweller, no feelings other than mild wonder and philosophic speculation.”
If you are a fan of the movie (Please, are there other fans out there? I want to hear from you!) you’ll recognize the basic structure of plot and some dialogue, but the movie outshines the book with its additional characters and scenes and, of course, Grant’s and Loy’s chemistry and comic timing. This book is simply fun, something to read on a lazy Sunday as you enjoy your view of the countryside. . . or maybe of Central Park.
As a last note, I want to leave you with one of the best scenes from the film, which was indeed inspired by lines from the book. Myrna Loy slays me.