04 February 2013

PERSONAL CANON: A SOLID FOUNDATION

It doesn't speak well of this series that I took off two months after only two entries, but going forward, there shouldn't be any gaps for a while. Please enjoy my continued soul-bearing.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, a 1948 vehicle for Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, enjoys a prominence in the private mythology of your humble blogger that is entirely disproportionate to its qualities as a motion picture. Not to say it's bad, for it isn't that at all It's a fine, rock-solid disposable comedy, and one of the better examples of the new breed of low-key domestic comedies that came to prominence in American filmmaking during and after World War II, replacing the screwball comedies of the '30s that were more manic, funnier, and more timeless. It is also not so good that you'd want to run around recommending it to all of your friends and proclaiming it a high point in the development of cinema (though it did, somehow, land a spot on the AFI's 2000 list of the 100 best American comedies). What it is, to me, is a film of two immensely important firsts in my development as a young cinephile: for one, it was the first time I ever saw Loy in a movie, in the primordial days before she became (alongside Barbara Stanwyck and Greta Garbo), one of the three Hollywood actresses of the '30s whose films I habitually hunt down and watch solely because that actress is in it, even if there is absolutely fuck-all else about the film that would draw me in (in fact, I just last week watched exactly such a Loy vehicle for the first time: 1939's surprisingly decent "colonials in India" melodrama The Rains Came).

My deep love for Ms. Loy notwithstanding, the other reason is actually the more significant one: Mr. Blandings was the very first old movie - which as a teenager in the mid '90s, I hazily described as anything made earlier than some indefinite mark in the '70s* - which I watched for no particular reason whatsoever. That is to say, it was the first one that came across my path not because it had a Reputation or was a Canonical Classic or Important, or even because it had the misfortune to win a Best Picture Oscar at some point, but just because... oh, hey, Cary Grant, and I liked North by Northwest. It is hard for me to think, a lifetime later and firmly entrenched in an advanced state of "to hell with all this new shit, let's spool up a Constance Bennett picture" crabby-old-mandom, that there was ever a time for such a moment of first deciding to watch a '40s picture that I didn't "have to", but there it is.

And so, as the first "unimportant" movie in my film-watching career, Mr. Blandings turns out indeed to be fairly, well, unimportant. But certainly not without its points of interest, chief among them that Grant and Loy were congenitally incapable of turning in poor work in a comedy; that Louise Beavers (a gifted performer who competes only with Hattie McDaniels for the title of Most Ill-Used African-American Actress Ever) crops up and Louise Beavers makes everything better; and that you'd be hard-pressed to find a movie that more succinctly and directly addresses the impulse toward suburban dwelling that suddenly gripped the United States in the latter half of the 1940s, in case sociological history is one of your particular interests. For the film's plot, in essence, looks like this: a Madison Avenue adman is sick and tired of living in a cramped New York cubbyhole, so he moves his family out to the rolling hills of Connecticut to build a small mansion on a vast acreage, all while struggling to come up with a new campaign for his company's biggest client. That's like a 1940s Mad Libs (the novel the film was adapted from came out in 1946).

The specific conflict is not really about that - because this is a comedy, not an Elia Kazan message picture about white flight - but instead about how Jim (Grant) and Muriel (Loy) Blandings' new dream home turns out to be an unlivable wreck, and the house they have to build to replace it ends up costing a ridiculous sum of money that taps out every last scrap of savings the family had stashed away, even Jim's life insurance policy. It's a comedy about pervasive financial woes, that is to say, and that too is almost impossible to imagine existing at any earlier point in cinema history, certainly in anything resembling the form it takes here. Basically, Mr. Blandings is a bubble-light satire on the newfound affluence that America suddenly found itself with after surviving a decade of the Great Depression and a half-decade of a resource-draining war, only to have come out on top as the most technologically advanced nation in the history of the world. That fact that the movie does not overtly talk about this, or even seem consciously aware of it, is exactly the reason that it's a fascinating time capsule now: it's a pretty tremendous depiction of a mindset and physical environment specific to an awfully narrow window of history, and it's sort of invaluable for that exact reason.

And yet, maybe it is a little bit aware of it? Certainly, the direction by H.C. Potter (whose career included virtually nothing else of particular note, unless one of the worst Astaire & Rogers films is noteworthy, or shepherding Loretta Young to an astoundingly weak Best Actress Oscar win) would seem to be drawing our attention to the film's "documentary" aspects, though surely we can come up with a better word (I'd prefer to credit cinematographer James Wong Howe with whatever success the visuals, but it doesn't feel very much like other things he shot, so that's probably unfair). The opening - which is incredibly slow-moving by our standards, or the standards of films just eight or ten years older than this - depicts in long, tableau-like shots the physical weariness of living in in a teeny tiny apartment, while the later shots of the inside of the long-awaited dream home, even when it's still casting nothing but misery to the Blandingses, are wide shots with blocking that emphasises how comfortably far apart everybody is able to stand now; there's a spectacular 360° of the Connecticut property that is about as close as a '48 film is going to get to lifestyle porn, showing us exactly how sprawling and open the land is out there, and wouldn't you just desperately love to live there, where it is clean and natural? In a film where the new industry of advertising is poked and prodded with an amount of sophistication that one wouldn't necessarily be inclined to anticipate, for reasons of genre if nothing else, it's not hard to suppose that Mr. Blandings is meant to be designed as a commercial for this new kind of commuter living; nor is it hard to suppose that it's being a bit more cynical and cheeky about the lifestyle it's depicting than what I just wrote.

All of this is, honestly, bit to the side of the film's main appeal, which is watching Grant lose his cool on a semi-regular basis while Loy gets increasingly annoyed at him, while hiding it behind the alabaster facade of a dutiful wife. Two old pros doing what they were best at, basically, and Potter mostly stays out of the stars' way, favoring them with simple wide shots that allow them to react and interact without driving any of the jokes home, instead just letting them warmly ebb and flow. It's this kind of unforced humor, so very different from the surgical filmmaking of, say, Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks, that marks Mr. Blandings as a particularly distilled example of a more a laconic strain in comedy, in which we are not being dragged manically along with the laughs being wrung out of us almost violently, but given likable characters doing silly but not egregiously absurd things. None of which is to slight the fact that Mr. Blandings is, given this tradition, awfully darn funny: I'd rank it above any of the similarly-placid Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy comedies that aren't Adam's Rib, or the previous year's Grant/Loy "brave new world of the '40s" comedy The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, or any of the dozens of similar domestic comedies that kept cropping up throughout the '50s. Screenwriters Norman Panama and Melvin Frank were a couple of old pros whose work was never necessarily revelatory but virtually always solid, workmanlike Hollywood entertainment on the right side of the bell curve, and their script is dotted with plenty of terrific little lines that come out perfectly from the solid cast; "Just a private joke between me and whoever my analyst is going to be" Jim says at one point, while Loy gets an outstanding monologue about color choices that's not even meant to be witty - Muriel is the butt of the joke - but becomes a small masterpiece through the actress's starry enthusiasm.

Not everything is perfect: Melvyn Douglas is saddled with the part of Jim's lawyer buddy, a part that exists much too often to drive the plot forward (especially when he is obliged to deliver gruesomely sarcastic voiceover that telegraphs the jokes about three lines in advance), and it doesn't end so much as it runs out, culminating in a kind of awful final scene that breaks the fourth wall ineffectively. But, whatever. Nobody, at any point in history, required that Mr. Blandings should be flawless, just that it be likable, and that it certainly is. Likable enough, at any rate, to launch a lifelong fascination with classic Hollywood's B-sides and semi-obscurities.

3 comments:

Blauriche said...

Maybe Vernon and Irene Castle was a weaker Astaire/Rodgers movie, but Ginger Rodgers and "worst" shouldn't go in the same sentence, according to my stylebook anyway.

This is a perfect example though of a movie that you would only ever watch because it was on Turner Classic Movies or caught your eye at the library or something. Not a classic, but a pleasant enough way to pass the time.

Tim said...

I have to say, just because it fits so perfectly, that I saw it on a TCM-branded VHS tape that I picked up at the library. I don't know why I remember that so clearly.

javi75 said...

"to hell with all this new shit, let's spool up a Constance Bennett picture"
That's the life! haha. I've never seen a Constance Bennett picture. I'm aware she was a bing thing in the early '30s, I believe. And of course I have seen Joan Bennett movies. I believe there was a third sister too.

Neither have I seen this one, although there's a somewhat similar one that I did see, starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, "The egg and I"(1947).