Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House by Eric Hodgins
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it was amazing

Eric Hodgins' 1946 Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a wry, thoroughly enjoyable 5-star tale of a well-to-do advertising executive of the innocent interwar period and his droll and long-suffering wife on the grueling, years-long quest, part Thorstein Veblen and part "ravishing desire" (1946 Simon & Schuster hardcover, page 14), for a stately property in the country such as those owned by other prosperous and self-satisfied bigwigs "finding rural escape from the advertising-agency business and the Grand Central Zone" (page 17).

Having repeatedly enjoyed the 1948 film adaptation starring Cary Grant and the placidly sly Myrna Loy, I always presumed Mr. Brandings Builds His Dream House was a contemporaneous tale of the exuberant postwar boom. It is not, however. The book tells us that the last time "a city dweller" had offered to buy the old Hackett place was August of 1929...after which, adds Hodgins dryly, "[s]ome financial trouble in the cities had then ensued, and the deal had not matured" (page 17). Although "his friends had told Eph Hackett that he would probably have to wait a long, long time now to sell his property at the price he wanted," the novel opens "less than a decade later" (page 17), and here come some city slickers again. The period, then, is something a bit earlier than 1939. The mushroom cloud of the atom bomb has not yet towered threateningly, the death camps and gas chambers are yet unknown, the fighting in China is far enough away to be ignored, and Hitler still appears just a comical little figure with a funny mustache. It is an insular, oh-so comfortable time we scarcely can imagine now.

In any event, I discovered to my surprise that a number of other very familiar and amusing things were written into the film rather than being part of the base novel itself. There is no undergraduate dating backstory between Muriel and lawyer Cole here, for example, and hence no exquisite pipe-and-bathrobe "'Cole. Bill Cole. Friend of the family'" scene after the children are kept away one night by a washed-out bridge; here Bill is only "her husband's young friend and attorney" (page 36; emphasis added) rather than a middle-aged contemporary. The thirteen- and eleven-year-old daughters being educated by the "crackpot" Miss Stellwagon (page 25) in the presumably expensive "progressive school" with its "creative, anarchistic, and sexual freedoms" (page 15), by the way, make only the briefest of appearances here, and rather than being rather being dry foils for their father's bumbling, their immaturity is mildly amusing instead. There's no live-in cook and housekeeper Gussie either, and hence no "If you ain't eatin' Wham, you ain't eatin' ham!" off-the-cuff last-minute save for the dreaded big account that means Jim's job or lack thereof.

In fact, here there is no writer's block at all, and instead the protagonist's professional success already has been ensured when, "[w]hile still a relatively young man in his profession, Mr. Blandings had been lucky enough to hit upon a three-word slogan for a laxative account that had broken four successive agency vice-presidents. So compulsive did these three simple monosyllables become, iterated and reiterated to the metabolizing public from magazine pages, billboards, radio loudspeakers (despite veiled warnings from the Federal Communications Commission), and skywriting airplanes, that within three years' time a fading cathartic had come to stand with Ivory Soap, Wrigley's Chewing Gum, and Campbell's Soup as one of the dozen most widely recognized and demanded brand names in America" (page 15). And what are those magical "three simple monosyllables" that can solidify a man's entire career? "Makes you crap!" is my hope, but Hodgins' mock-heroic coyly elides the answer.

In any event, the novel begins in medias res as Mr. and Mrs. Blandings accompany the sharp, never-named "real-estate man" casually "[u]sing a penknife as a key" (page 4) to enter the decrepit old farmhouse. The view out the back window indeed is gorgeous: "The land rushe[s] downward to the river a mile away; then it [rises] again, layer after layer, plane after plane of hills and higher hills lighter beyond them. The air [is] luminous, and there [a]re twenty shades of browns and greens in the plowed and wooded and folded earth" (page 4). Blandings may attempt the pose that "[t]he notion that might buy this old farmhouse, or any other, anywhere, ever, [i]s light, gossamer nonsense; a whimsy; a caprice" (page 6), but of course these city rubes have sold themselves.

They also, of course, are "being flimflammed" (page 40). After all, in that neck of the woods, "[w]hen the natives sell to one another it's around $40 an acre or less," and whereas "$100 is the standard top-gouge real-estate price per acre to city slickers," Blandings' already high bid combined with a reduction from a very liberally estimated 50 acres to a surveyed 35-ish acres "brings the price up to $330 an acre" (page 42). And while we initially may shrug at the $11,000 purchase price--before needing to tear down the original unsound house, then designing, building, and outfitting a new one brings the project to more like $56,263.97, which does not include ensuing "barn repair, driveways, landscaping, boughten and transported trees, lawn seed, repairs to fences, the setting out of shrubs and bushes, tree surgery, restoration of orchards, etc." (page 233)--we should remember that just as a lot of water has gone under the bridge since 1937 or '38, so has a lot of inflation. In fact, ye olde Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator might inform us that the initial 11 thou' would be akin to $202,000 today, so that 56k semi-final cost is over $1,000,000. Ouch.

As long as it's not our million smackers being spent, though, the tale is a hilarious one. At one point, even before the new hole in the ground has been dynamited from the unforgiving rock, Mr. Blandings ruefully longs for the "true privacy" and "[t]rue detachment" of "the pavements of the harsh, uncaring city, across a mile of which a man with a dagger might pursue a screaming woman with a child in her arms and evoke...no feelings other than mild wonder and philosophic speculation" (page 158). 'Tis too late to go back, though. And although he cannot quite recall how the slide into mayhem began and would prefer to blame someone--"Was Mrs. Blandings responsible? Mr. Blanings sort of thought so, but he could not exactly recall" (page 135)--he knows that he himself has also swallowed all the guff "he had ever read from the pens of all his brother copywriters" (page 135) about the joys, indeed glory, of home ownership. With a narrative that can shrug airily that "there [i]s no way on earth to cut a $31,000 house down to a $21,000 house any more than there [i]s a way of making marmosets out of a zebra by trimming down and rearranging the zebra" (page 139), Eric Hodgins in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House will carry us from one cringeworthy situation and zany piece of prose to the next, making us love every moment of it.
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Reading Progress

February 22, 2021 – Started Reading
February 28, 2021 – Finished Reading
March 7, 2021 – Shelved

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message 1: by Charismatic (new)

Charismatic Thanks, I just love this book and I was able to read it "unspoiled" because I didn't see the film first. (Movies have a way of being so visual and relatable, with "stars", that people often prefer them to novels.)

Everything you say is spot on. The real Eric Hogkins really lived this, the story is quite autobiographical and you are correct -- it happened in 1937-1939. Many people mistake this for the post WWII "boom" but that is adamantly not true. And DURING the war, it was impossible to build -- all materials had gone to the war effort!) -- so a home built in 1939 or so would be the last bit for 7 years!

In fact, Mr. Hodgins did indeed spent $56K -- it ruined him financially -- he had to sell the house for $38K. He tried to buy it back over the years but couldn't. Sad story.

He was an ad man, and I might be wrong, but I think he wrote the famous ad copy "Quick Henry! The Flit!" (fly killer) and while 4 words, it certainly sounds like Mr. Blanding's big ad coup. ("Makes you crap" is hilarious. I was thinking something like myself!)

Not only is this book hilarious, but it stands up the test of time as you could EASILY make a film of it today in 2021 and you'd only have to add a few zeros to all the prices.

BTW: I doubt you could build this home today for anything like $1 million. The land alone in a prime Connecticut suburb would cost that much -- the house is GINORMOUS -- probably 4000 square feet or more -- construction costs, materials, regulations -- I think for new construction you'd be looking at $2 million. From $56K (which was obscene in 1939) to $2 million in 80 years. YEESH!

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