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Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

By Katie Hutchison
Published: Oct 12, 2009
Category: Comedy

“A lot of our problems today are psychological,” John McCain said in April 2008. Then Phil Gramm called America’s troubles a “mental recession”. More than a year later, after enduring the all-too-real recession, I’m well aware of the economic causes — but I’m also beginning to believe that our collective state of mind is a significant economic factor. Not the toll of negative thinking; I mean the power of positive thinking. 

Of the movies made about houses — their purchase, renovation, preservation and ruin — Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is the one we should be watching now, for Jim Blandings had no shortage of positive thinking when he set out to create his ideal home.
Life in the 1948 black-and-white film is full of good-natured humor and wit. Bill Cole, the narrator and Jim’s lawyer, tells us that Blandings, a successful Manhattan ad man earning $15K a year, is “as typical a New Yorker as anyone you’ll ever meet — at least he was.” Jim won’t be able to shake Bill the whole film; nor, unfortunately, will we. Bill is the Debbie Downer of the ‘40s. But he is right about Jim in one way: Jim’s a typical white-collar, college-educated, family man playing at commerce in the city.
As the film begins, Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) and his wife Muriel {Myrna Loy) live in cramped quarters in Manhattan that they share with their two daughters and their housemaid Gussie (Louise Beavers). They sit down to a family breakfast, served by Gussie, and get to talking about daughter Betsy’s homework.
Miss Stelwagon, Betsy’s teacher, has asked the class to comment on a classified ad of their choosing. Betsy informs us, “I found one typical of the disintegration of our present society.” She proceeds to read, for dramatic effect, a plaintive home listing by a farmer “forced to sell.” Little sister Joan pipes in, “Miss Stelwagon says advertising is a basically parasitic profession. Miss Stelwagon says advertising makes people who can’t afford it buy things they don’t want with money they haven’t got.”
Jim Blandings wouldn’t last among AMC’s “Mad Men” — he has inherited an undesirable account for WHAM Ham, a Spam-alike, from a former colleague and spends the better part of a year failing to come up with an acceptable WHAM slogan. That seems rather unlikely for an optimist.
After Muriel’s meeting with Bunny Funkhauser, an irresistibly named interior decorator, about dressing up their flat to the tune of a whopping $7000, Jim comes across an ad that suggests a better solution. “Come to peaceful Connecticut,” it lulls. “Trade city soot for sylvan charm.” Jim and Muriel visit the property for a look. While we see an old, crumbling house, Jim and Muriel see a beautiful alternate reality. Muriel envisions herself picking flowers in front of an adorable thatched cottage. Jim sees himself outfitted for hunting accompanied by a loyal bloodhound outside a handsome Tudor estate. They’re sold, just as many of us were by our own dream homes, whether those homes required subprime ARM loans or not.
Bill Bummer suggests they’ve been bamboozled into offering $11,500 — at the time, a fortune — for a dump on 35 acres. Jim’s response: “Muriel and I have found what I’m not ashamed to call our dream house. It’s like a fine painting. You buy it with your heart, not your head. You don’t ask how much was the paint, how much was the canvas. You look at it and you say, ‘It’s beautiful’. I want it, and if it costs a few more pennies, you pay it and gladly, because you love it, and you can’t measure the things you love in dollars and cents.”  

Of course, the house is a total wreck and needs to be torn down; enter the architect, Henry L. Simms, a well-groomed, bow-tied gentleman with a light touch. After patiently allowing Jim and Muriel to sketch all over the prospective plans, Henry gently informs them, “In the first place, I’m afraid you’ve got the upstairs about twice as big as the downstairs.”
Jim hopes beyond reason to hold the house construction price down to $10,000 despite the increasingly large scope of work. Soon it’s $13,000, then $15,000, then $21,000. Dismayed, Muriel intones, “But we only asked for the barest necessities.” You can almost hear in the pause afterwards the wah, wah of a muted trombone.
They forge ahead; construction begins. The excavator hits ledge. The crew finds water where it isn’t wanted and struggles to find it where it is wanted. The Blandings’ city landlord wants them out before the new house is complete. Change orders pile up. Jim’s advertising talent escapes him. 
Just when it all seems too much, Mr. Tessander, the well digger, drops by to see the Blandings about a matter of $12.36. It’s the final straw — or so it seems until Jim comes to understand that Mr. Tessander isn’t charging an additional $12.36, but refunding $12.36 for overpayment. Good will is restored. To top it off, Gussie delivers a winning WHAM slogan at breakfast: “If you ain’t eatin’ WHAM, you ain’t eatin’ ham!” 

Sure, Jim’s tendency to make decisions with his heart rather than his head may be exactly the type of behavior that helped get us into our current financial crisis. But that same faith in the American dream could help us pull out of it. Mr. Tessander returned his $12.36; now banks are beginning to return their bailout money. Perhaps good will is being restored for us too. Bring on the WHAM. If you ain’t thinkin’ positive, that’s your prerogative.
— Guest Butler Katie Hutchison is a residential architect happy to serve the Blandings families of New England. Katie blogs about architecture and design at House Enthusiast.