Eric Hodgins, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1946)
The tale of Mr. Blandings is briefly told: A successful New York advertising executive is suddenly seized with the wish for a country retreat for his family. He finds an old house he loves on a hill in Connecticut, but after paying far too much for it he learns it’s not worth fixing and that he’d better tear it down and build a new one. Costly misadventures with contractors, builders, bankers, lawyers, and other rapacious members of the home ownership business ensue, after which Mr. Blandings at last has the house of his dreams — and some new nightmares.
If you’ve suffered through much the same trials as Mr. B. — and even after 70 years, I don’t think they have changed that much — you may find them hilarious in retrospect, or unbearably painful. Drunken workers, missing equipment orders, mysterious “extras” on the contractor’s bill, expensive changes made in response to casual remarks by one’s unwitting wife…there’s not much on the “plus” side to balance out such disasters, so you’d better laugh if you don’t want to finish the book in tears.
The main theme throughout is how much more everything costs than expected — about five times as much. In today’s money, a house that should have cost maybe $200,000 ends up at almost a million. This may seem incredible, but it’s exactly what happened to the book’s author, who nearly went bankrupt building his own “dream house” in New Milford, Connecticut, and had to sell it at a loss just two years later. That may be why the book’s humor is somewhat weighed down by an aura of bitterness.
I confess to finding this constant harping on finances to be somewhat annoying, coming from a very wealthy person who often as not had only his own extravagance to blame for his problems. I liked the book better when Hodgins got away from the money theme, as when Mrs B. tries to describe the paint colors she wants to the contractors (“If you’ll send one of your workmen to the A&P for a pound of their best butter and match that exactly, you can’t go wrong”) or when Mr. B. is assaulted by Republican canvassers while trapped in an unfinished bathroom. Such incidents are easier to relate to for those of us who don’t have millions to throw away on our dreams.
In a further ironic twist, after selling the movie rights for $200,000 (over $2 million today), Hodgins tried to buy his house back, but didn’t succeed. The house still stands, and the current owners are quite proud of its heritage, even preserving the butter-yellow dining room. The film, starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, became a classic and according to many is better than the book; the house built in California for the movie set is also still there, used as the headquarters for the Malibu State Park. In a further metafictional twist, replicas were built around the country as a promotional gimmick — here’s one in Portland, Oregon. And so the dream lives on…