Saturday, June 8, 2013

15. H.C. Potter - Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a film directed by H.C. Potter, featuring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas. Based on a 1946 book by Eric Hodgins of the same name, the film's release in 1948 coincided with the beginnings of Levittown and what we have come to know as the post-World War II American suburban morphology. In returning to the research originally undertaken during my thesis, the democratization of suburban dwellings was originally implemented in the United States primarily for ideological, anti-communist, ends, with public programs such as "A Nation of Home-Owners" (1922), American Individualism (1922), and How to Own Your Home (1923). Within the great depression, industry recognized housing as a means to spur the economy, which was itself politically institutionalized in 1934 with the Federal Housing Administration.

Upon its release 73 replica "dream houses" were built across the country, made available for public viewing, and subsequently raffled to the public. The vast majority of these houses were equipped with high-end General Electric kitchens, which in following with General Electric's promotion of the FHA and pro-home ownership initiatives, leads me to believe the promotion, if not the movie itself, was promoted by said company.

GE Advertisement referencing Mr Blandings Builds his Dream House in LIFE Magazine, 28 June 1948

The story itself does not shed a positive light onto the trials it takes to build a home, more explicitly represented in the book's more recent interpretations as films with the titles of The Money Pit (1986) and Are we done yet? (2007). Mr. Blandings is a successful advertising agent in New York City, who after being confronted with the problems of Manhattan apartment's 'space problems' and the price/inutility of an interior decorator, sets his mind on moving to Connecticut. He is taken to see a purportedly 50-acre property whose house is nearly falling down. After buying it for more than twice the price it would have sold for to non-Manhattanites, consultants with various structural engineers convinces Mr. and Mrs. Blandings to tear down the house. When speaking to an architect to build a new house on the site, confronted with generic plans, the couple go wild with their every wish, literally not even letting the architect get a word in edgewise within the discussion: closets and a private bathroom for each child, a sewing room, private dressing rooms, a sun room, and the enigmatic "flower sink", among others. Upon leaving, they ask the architect to have it cost "under $10,000", which the architect promptly responds is impossible, but $12,000-12,500 may be possible. After synthesizing all of their whims and desires into a shockingly generic looking house (although they claim to "want something a little different"), the couple return and are presented with an estimate of $21,000, which prompts the architect to claim that it may be possible to reduce to $18,000. Furious with the budget's inflation, the Blandings leave, but on their way out see a rendering of the projected house, and seduced by its allure, agree to $18,000. In an attempt to further reduce costs, the architect asks whether it is really necessary for each of the two young girls (no less than 13 years old) to have their individual private bathrooms and closets, to which the Blandings vehemently refuse to give way on. With the construction underway, foundation work reveals a ledge rock that needs to be demolished with dynamite, an unforeseen stream is found 6ft below grade and floods the site, and an elusive well ends up containing highly corrosive water, demanding special filters so that the pipes won't rust. On top of this yet despite all of these problems, the Blandings receive a 30-day eviction notice for their apartment in Manhattan, and move into their semi-finished house.

The Blandings' Dream House

Bernard Hoffmann for Life Magazine, Bernard Levey Family standing in front of their Levittown house

Plagued with faulty locks, missing windows, an inconvenient commuting schedule, and ever-accumulating minor-fees, Mr. Blandings is unable to focus on his imminent deadline and begins to lose trust in his wife when he suspects her of being in love with his best friend. The story ends when after a failed all-nighter in the office trying to prepare the submission for his deadline the next day, Mr. Blandings gives up, claims to "just care about the little things," leaves his office accepting the fact that he will be fired, and goes home. He arrives to find the architect explaining to his wife the need for additional services, as well as his best friend walking down the stairs in his robe. A neighbor who drilled the well comes to return money that he overcharged the Blandings for his work; his friend, on his way out the door and into the City, turns around to the family and says something along the lines that even though you have faced a great deal of hardship and spent way too much, you made the right decision: "Maybe there are some things you should buy with your heart, not your head. Maybe those are the things that really count." The kids come running in and the (black) house-maid makes breakfast, unknowingly saying the catch-phrase that Mr. Blandings needed for his deadline, saving his job right after his ego. The film ends with an idyllic scene of the Blandings sitting on their lawn with their friend, their kids playing in the background, saying "Drop in and see us sometime."

So despite its initial appearance of being anti-home ownership, it is dreadfully clear by the end to have switched opinion. But its promotion of home ownership is highly particular: despite the fact that throughout the movie it is repeated that it is not a house they are building but a home, the ideological emphasis in the end is exactly on the house. What the story reveals is that a house does in fact lead to a home, but the process of the house coming to be can threaten the livelihood and happiness of the individuals. Therefore, what is advocated is an approach to housing that is pro-suburb, pro-developer, anti-architect (as the architect is merely the person who figures out how to take a list of things given to him and make it work as cheaply and beautifully as possible).

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