Escape from New York: Mr. Blandings and the directed negotiated reading, part two

How did the director/screenwriters make the ordinary member of the film going audience feel sympathy for and empathy with the Blandings given that the Blandings were clearly members of a socially, financially and culturally privilege class?

By putting the Blandings into contexts and circumstances that were understandable to that public and which even made members of the audience share their frustrations.

Spoiler Warning: Discussion of the differences among the three presentations of the Blandings story will necessarily involve implicit and explicit spoilers

Let\’s begin by looking at where the film, book and short story start. The short story (and the book) each begin in medias res. The Blandings have already found the house which will lead to their adventure with home ownership, restoration, destruction and construction.

The sweet old farmhouse burrowed into the upward slope of the land so deeply that you could enter either its bottom or middle floor at ground level…..In front of it, rising and spreading along the whole length of the house, was the largest lilac tree that Mr. and Mrs. Blandings had ever seen. Its gnarled, rusty trunks rose intertwined to branch and taper into splays of this year\’s light young wood; they, in turn, burst into clouds of blossoms that made the whole vast thing a haze of blues and purples, billowed and wafting. When the house was new, the lilac must have been a shrub in the dooryard–and house and shrub had gone on together, side by side since then. That was a hundred and seventy years ago, last April. [1] 309; [2] 3

Thus we first meet the Blandings without having any sense as to why they are looking for a home.

The movie, on the other hand, delays our first meeting with the Blandings, and indeed the Blandings desire to buy a home, until after carefully providing the audience with the context for why the Blandings were looking for a home. Indeed the very first shot of the film is of New York and the first word spoken is Manhattan. The voice of the narrator is that of Bill Cole (who we soon find out is the Blandings\’ lawyer and Jim Blandings best friend.) For the first minute and a half of the movie we hear paeans to Manhattan (wide streets, gracious living) while seeing the opposite on the screen (people struck in traffic jams and screaming at each other, people scrambling to get onto overfilled subway cars, people crowded into comfortless diners.) The \’amusing\’ disconnect between what is said and what is seen signals the audience to \”take with a grain of salt\” pronouncements made by the characters. The footage of the miseries of life in Manhattan prepare the audience to see the city as something anyone would leave, if only they could.

Bill Cole then tells the audience about the Blandings, the atypical \’typical\’ New Yorkers that we are to sympathize and empathize with–but doing so only after showing the discomfort and indignities of urban life and by reminding us that Jim and Muriel Blandings are just like thousands of other New Yorkers. While the claim that the Blandings are like thousands of other New Yorkers may be technically true (since in a city of such size there may well be thousands of members of the upper 3% of American society) they are not typical of the average American sitting in the audience in the cinema.

These verbal directions that we should see the Blandings as sharing the same misfortunes as do members of the audience are further buttressed by the audiences first glimpse of Jim and Muriel as we see the couple struggle through the difficulties of getting up, getting dressed and getting breakfast in an apartment which seems overfilled with people, furniture and possessions and undersupplied with closets and storage areas.

We first meet the Blandings as their alarm clock rouses them from sleep. (Since all the Blandings share the same last name from this point on I will refer to each by their first name.) Jim and Muriel (each, as the Production Code preferred, in a separate twin bed) each try sleepily to take control over the alarm clock — she trying to turn it off as he tries to turn it on. Then he makes his way across a room overcrowded with beds and dresser to the closet where he struggles to find his dressing gown among the clothes jammed in so tightly they seem not to need hangars at all. Having found his dressing gown he makes his way down the hall, knocking at the bathroom door to greet one daughter, going into the girls shared bedroom (we can see the twin beds) to wake the other, picks up the broom left behind in the living room, works his way around the table that almost completely fills the dining room, takes the cover off the bird cage and finally trades the broom he is carrying for the glass of juice that the maid has ready for him.

Insert here the sound of tires screeching. The Blandings have a maid. From all indications a live-in maid. Our supposedly typical New Yorker (Mr. Blandings) not only makes more than 97% of Americans and, unlike the vast majority of his generation, has a college degree, his family also has a maid.

Back to the movie….Once Jim has drunk his juice he trades the empty glass for a cup of coffee he takes back down the hall and gives to his wife who is still sitting, semi-comotose, in bed. Jim searches through the dresser for his underwear and socks. Directed by Muriel to look for his socks in the closet he clumsily moves around boxes only to have a number of them fall on him and the floor. Frustrated he heads to the bathroom. His daughter screams as he opens the door and enjoins him to knock before coming in. I find myself agreeing with her. Since he saw her running down the hall in front of him to get access to the bathroom before him it would seem only reasonable for him to check to see if she had finished using it before barging in.

By this point in the film it is fairly clear that Jim feels more than a little sorry for himself. It is not clear how much members of the audience are supposed to feel empathy or sympathy with him.

The movie has already passed the 10 minute point. We have met the Blandings, been shown how difficult, crowded and frantic life is in New York and are watching the family negotiate a morning in a crowded and badly organized apartment. The discomforts of their lives are being made salient to us and soon we will forget that in education, social and financial status the Blandings are quite unlike most of the audience.

The Blandings may be looking for their dream house. They already have a life that most members of the audience can only dream of.

[1] Hodgins, Eric.\”Mr. Blandings Builds His Castle\” in Adaptations : from short story to big screen : 35 great stories that have inspired great films. New York : Three Rivers Press, ©2005.

[2] Hodgins, Eric. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. New York : Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004, ©1946.

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