The Blandings Break Their Fast: Mr. Blandings and the directed negotiated reading, part four

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

Jim Blandings, having survived his morning shave, is now sitting at his dining room table drinking a cup of coffee and reading the morning newspaper. Muriel and the children (Joan and Betsy) are breakfasting with him. Jim turns the papers of the paper and notices that a small piece has been cut out. Jim demands to know who \”did it\” and after Betsy indicates that it was she, goes on to complain:

Haven\’t I repeatedly told you not to cut up the paper until I\’ve read it?

When Betsy explains that she used it to complete an assignment handed out by her teacher without asking for any details Jim snidely comments, \”Another of Miss Stellwagon\’s so-called progressive projects?\” Muriel responds by admonishing Jim — asking him what the point is of sending his daughters to an expensive school if \”you undermine the teacher\’s authority in your dining room?\” Jim responds by arguing that since he is in the advertising business, \”[k]eeping abreast of the times is important.\”

Jim finally invites his daughter to read her finished assignment to him and Betsy fetches her notebook off the nearby sideboard as she explains:

Miss Stellwagon has assigned us to take a classified ad and write a human-interest theme on it.

Jim protests that he would like to have his breakfast without \”social significance.\” Betsy reads the assignment:

Forced to sell.
Farm dwelling.
Original beams.
Barn.
Apple orchard.
Trout stream.
Seclusion.
Superb view.
Will sacrifice.

Jim is not impressed. To him the ad is simply an example of someone trying to sell something and make some money. When his daughters quote Miss Stelwagon\’s description of advertising as a parasitic profession Jim counters by pointing out that is his job in advertising that pays for his daughters\’ tuition.

Since the writer of the original Mr. Blandings short story and novel (and co-writer of the film) was himself an advertising man living in New York City he had no doubt had sentiments expressed to him similar to those the Blandings children bring home from school. The criticism of advertising as the means of encouraging people to spend more than they have on things that they would not otherwise have desired predates the Second World War. So why did the writers have Blandings put forward such a weak defense of his profession?

I think that this is one of the ways in which the movie allowed for negotiated and counter-dominant readings. The audience experiences the events on the screen through the POV of Jim Blandings. They are encouraged to root for Jim throughout the movie. At the same time the screenplay allows room for the audience to mock Blandings as a victim of his own propaganda. He defends encouraging other people to buy things that they don\’t need with money they don\’t have. And soon the Blandings will be building a house that they don\’t need and in the process run through money they had had no intention of spending.

So, the audience member who watches the \”typical\” New York family have breakfast served to them by their maid while criticizing the teachers at their daughters\’ expensive private school can have the enjoyment of feeling that Jim and Muriel are headed to disaster.

If Jim had responded to his daughter by explaining that it was advertising that fueled the American capitalist engine and that, indeed, making other people buy things they couldn\’t afford and would not want otherwise was the very heart of his job. In fact it was at the very heart of the booming post war American economy. Jim would have been right but his rightness would have alienated him from parts of the audience and cut off avenues of negotiated readings of the scene.

It is a fine line that the writers/director walk and it speaks to the skill with which they did so that one may not even notice that a line is being walked until one has watched the film several times.

Timeline glitch Jim complains about Betsy having cut something out of his morning paper. Exactly when did she do this? Apparently the ad was cut out, put into her notebook and she wrote an assignment based on it in the few minutes between showering and having breakfast.

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