I saw this movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, on television a long time ago, I’m guessing when I was maybe 12, 13 years old, and it always bugged me, but I never did anything about it. Every once in awhile something would trigger a memory (the last one being watching 1950s Don Draper on Mad Men quiz an African-American busboy about cigarettes to figure out an ad campaign for Luckies), usually some existing chunk of Racist America out there on the shelf in the grocery store, using a minority as a product mascot. I found the film on the Netflix thing that sends you DVDs (yes, the thing that killed Blockbuster Video is still around), and I watched it, and it’s still irritating, and also weird.
This movie was made in 1948 from a book, and I didn’t read it and you can’t make me. Overall, the film is a comedic look at the affluent Mr. Blandings (Cary Grant) who works in advertising and lives in a 3 BR 1 BA apartment in New York City, and he and his wife Muriel (Myrna Loy) want to live in a big house in Connecticut so they can have more than one bathroom.
They have two children who tell their dad shitty (true) things about what he does for a living, such as, advertising is basically a parasitic profession that “makes people who can’t afford it, buy things they don’t want with money they haven’t got.”
At the office, Mr, Blandings discusses the WHAM account, the backbone of the agency. WHAM is some sort of ham product, and Mr. Blandings’ predecessor got canned because of WHAM. According to Mr. Blandings’ assistant, “Mr. Johnson lost the touch,” and we are presented examples of rejected slogans such as “When you’ve got the whim, say ‘WHAM,'” and “For the grand slam in ham, try WHAM.” Mr. Blandings is now in charge of the deadly WHAM account, and it’s the payoff to this subplot that really made me angry at the movie.
The Blandings employ a domestic servant, Gussie (Louise Beavers), and she cooks the meals. There’s a point in the movie where, because of the comedy with the house (it’s a money pit) Mr. Blandings keeps blowing off his deadline for the new WHAM campaign, and it’s preying on him. He’s served his breakfast, and he starts complaining:
MR. BLANDINGS: WHAM again!
MR. BLANDINGS: Muriel, I thought we’d agreed—
MURIEL: Gussie, from now on, no more WHAM for MR. Blandings
GUSSIE: What about the rest of us?
MR. BLANDINGS: Gussie, I’m sure there are other substitutes, bacon, sausages, something like—
GUSSIE: The chIldren like WHAM!
MR. BLANDINGS: Well, There must be other things—
GUSSIE: Mrs. Blandings likes it too.
MR. BLANDINGS: Just the same—
GUSSIE: And I consider it very tasty!
MR. BLANDINGS: Gussie, I spend eight hours every day trying to cram this stuff down the throats of a hundred million people. I know alllll about it, its succulent goodness, it’s sugar smoked tenderness, its—
GUSSIE: You don’t have to sell me, I like it!
We’ll get back to the Gussie situation in a minute. There’s another character in the movie, Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas), Mr. Blandings’ lawyer and it seems, best friend. They went to college together, alongs with the future Mrs. Blandings. He also narrates parts of the film.
Bill spends a lot of time with the Blandings. He’s always stopping by on lawyer business or just showing up to hang out. He goes with the Blandings when they are looking at the property they’re going to buy in Connecticut, to satisfy the title of the movie, and he spends time trying to talk Mr. Blandings out of doing dumb stuff, such as moving to Connecticut and dropping a bundle on a new house.
In between pipe-puffs, Mr. Cole also says stuff like:
“Every time you get tight, you weep on my shoulder about the advertising business. How if forces a sensitive soul like yourself to make a living by bamboozling the American public.”
It should be noted that “tight” used to mean drunk. I learned that in one of those awful Ernest Hemingway books. Anyway, Bill Cole has the best wardrobe, he’s chill, and he reveals no interior life to his friends.
There’s another sub-plot involving Mr. Blandings wondering if he’s being cuckolded by Bill.
MR. BLANDINGS: Why is he always hanging around, why doesn’t he get married or something.
I don’t know if it’s the actors, or if it’s by design that the audience is supposed to be in on the gag, but never for one minute do you think Bill and Muriel are doing anything.
There’s a repeating gag about Bill getting stuck in a closet with a door-lock that was specially requested by Mr. Blandings. I contend that this film was made in 1948 and a reference or an allusion or a joke about men in the closet would not register, even when Cary Grant also ends up stuck in the closet.
There’s also a quick moment when the Blandings move to Connecticut, and Gussie and Bill are brought along in steerage. I guess, again, in 1948, this was an easy gag with no deep implications perceived outside the dominant social and political structural realities of 1948 America.
Mr. and Mrs. Blandings are assholes to everybody who works for them, and there’s a painful scene when Mrs. Blandings tells the painters all the colors she wants for the rooms, and there’s no paint chips, just her vague approximations, such as “not as green as a robin’s-egg blue.”
OK, back to Gussie and her defense of WHAM. Mr. Blandings is in a jam. He let the deadline roll up on him and he has zero ideas for the big WHAM presentation, so he pulls an all-nighter and tries to float some garbage past Mary, his assistant:
MR. BLANDINGS: Compare the slice, compare the price, take our advice: Buy WHAM! If’d you’d buy better ham, you’d better buy WHAM!
MARY: Boyle Petroluem. “If you’d buy better oil, you’d better buy Boyle.”
MR. BLANDINGS: This little piggy went to market as meek and as mild as a lamb. He smiled in his tracks, when they slipped him the axe, he knew he’d turn out to be WHAM!
So that’s all not going to work, and Mr. Blandings loses his shit on no sleep, flees the office and ends up back in Connecticut at breakfast time.
GUSSIE: “Come and get it everybody, breakfast is ready!”
CHILD 1: What are we having Gussie?
GUSSIE: Orange juice, scambled eggs, and you know what!
CHILD 2: Ham?
GUSSIE, AFTER A REPROACHFUL LOOK: Not ham! WHAM! If you ain’t eatin’ WHAM, you ain’t eatin’ ham! (laughs) Now you kids go wash your hands.
MR. BLANDINGS: Muriel! Darling! Give Gussie a 10-dollar raise!
The first time I saw this, I missed the “10 dollar raise” remark and got pissed that he ripped off the help for the idea to save his career and pay for his fat pad in Connecticut, but taking into account Mr. Blandings’ stated 1948 salary of $15K a year (about $150K in today’s dollars), he’s only giving Gussie about a hundred bucks per unstated pay period.
Somebody should remake this movie.