Channelling cynicism: Mr. Blandings and the directed negotiated reading, part one

Why, one might ask, should we care about the troubles of the most fortunate? Why should we not mock, or even celebrate the things that try them?

Writers and artists have been dealing with that particular problem for as long as there have been writers and artists.

Timothy Daulton, in a comment to an earlier post, mentioned watching Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. In addition to the points Timothy made about the movie\’s relevance to circumstances today the movie also stands as a brilliant example of how the screenwriter/director/actors can deflect and channel possible oppositional responses to a narrative and (generally) successfully direct the audiences emotional responses in the desired directions.

Mr. Blandings began its life as an article in Fortune magazine in 1946 and was then published, in longer form, as a book. The movie is both faithful to and departs greatly from the original article. And the way in which it does both is instructive as to how an audience can be seduced and distracted into a dominant or acceptable negotiated reading of the text.

In the case of the movie this seduction/distraction might be argued to take place long before the movie begins with the selection of director, screenwriter and cast but I will defer the discussion of those choices until a later day and begin with first moments of the short story, the book and the movie.

Mr. Blandings, the short story, was published in 1946 and Mr. Blanding the movie was released in 1948. The United States was at the moment of publication and release in the midst of what was generally accepted to be a housing crisis. Housing starts had declined precipitously during the Great Depression and during the Second World War manpower and materials that might otherwise gone to building homes went instead into the war effort. With the end of the war hundreds of thousands of men returned to civilian life eager to get married, find a home and start a family but there were not available the hundreds of thousands of homes and apartments required for them to do so. So they lived with family or shared homes with other young couples in similar circumstances. So it is understandable that the \”money people\” in Hollywood would think that a movie about the troubles that beset a couple trying to build a house would evoke fellow-feeling among members of the audience. But the Blandings in the story, the book and the movie were very unlike most of the millions who desperately needed a home of their own.

If you check the US Census the median household income in the United States was $3200. Just over 3% of American households had an income of over $10000 a year. In the short story the reader learns that the final cost of the land and house was over $50,000 — a figure well beyond the reach of most of the people who would go to see the film. The Blandings are not rich but they are very wealthy compared to the majority of Americans. A the beginning of the film the audience is told that Blandings is he\’s as typical a New Yorker as anyone you\’ll ever meet. And then we are immediately given information that proves that Blandings is anything but a \”typical\” New Yorker. College graduate, ad business, lovely wife, two fine kids, makes about fifteen thousand a year. Yes, Americans who lived in large urban communities make somewhat more than Americans who live in smaller communities with the 1948 median income of $3200 for those living in cities of more than a million. So Blandings was not making a typical New York income. Nor was the typical New Yorker a college graduate. Indeed, directly after we are told that Jim Blandings is a typical New Yorker we are given ample evidence that he is not.

So, how did the movie-makers ensure that audience members would, for the most part, side with the Blandings even while taking delight in their travails? Over a number of posts I\’ll examine the skillful way in which they pulled of this feat.

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