Entry from July 14, 2010

This summer I am presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of six films on the general theme of “The Pursuit of Happiness.” The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the EPPC website for details or to register to attend. The series continued on Tuesday, July 13th with Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, by H.C. Potter, starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about it as follows.

Before I say a few words about tonight’s film, Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House by H.C. Potter, based on a best-selling novel by Eric Hodgins, I want to ask for the indulgence of those who missed last week’s movie, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and return to it for just a moment. It occurred to me after we left last week that the situation Tim Holt’s Curtin confronts with Cody and, later, with Humphrey Bogart’s Dobbs on the trail, are exactly parallel to each other and so stress the centrality of Curtin’s character to the moral issues raised by the film. If anything, the arguments in favor of Curtin’s shooting Dobbs would seem to be much stronger than those for shooting Cody. He probably risks no more than the loss of some money if Cody is allowed to live, yet he casts the deciding vote to kill him. By contrast, he must know that he risks his life as well as his property if he allows his former friend, the raving paranoiac Dobbs to live, and yet he spares him when he has a chance to kill him. What are we to make of this?

Does Dobbs have a point when he calls him “yellow” and so unable to pull the trigger while Dobbs is looking him in the eye? Or does his self-sacrificing act of mercy mean that he has grown in moral sensibility in the interim? Perhaps he was chastened by the pathos of the letter from Cody’s wife about “life’s real treasure”? Certainly his suggestion that they send a quarter of their “goods” to her argues a guilty conscience. Without ruling these explanations out, I think Curtin’s opposite behavior in these two similar situations must also have something to do with the ties of comradeship he shares with Dobbs. Cody, an outsider trying to horn in on their find, awakens in him no sympathy; Dobbs, though he has treated him very badly and accused him of dreadful crimes, has a shared history with him from their days of working together — and being cheated together —  on Pat McCormick’s oil rig. That and the hardships they have endured since must have created a bond Curtin is unwilling to break, even if it costs him his life.

The Pursuit of Happiness, we should not be surprised to find, though it may be primarily a matter of the acquisition of gold and other material goods, is nevertheless inseparable from, even inconceivable apart from our relationships with friends and family. Yet these relationships so often appear merely incidental to that Pursuit, rather than life’s real treasure. Tonight’s movie is also a movie about a complicated friendship — among other things. In college, Cary Grant’s Jim Blandings and Melvyn Douglas’s Bill Cole were once rivals for the attentions of Muriel, played by Myrna Loy, who is now Jim’s wife. They were presumably close friends then and remain so now. Rather curiously, as it may seem, Melvyn Douglas’s pipe-in-hand speech to the camera near the beginning of the picture says he is Jim’s “quote best friend unquote” — as if he didn’t quite believe it himself, or perhaps as if he were providing the evidence (this is an exact quotation, folks) because he thought us unlikely to believe it.

For even though it’s not exactly the murderous rivalry between Dobbs and Curtin, there are clear tensions between the two men. I’ve already mentioned Jim’s jealousy of Bill’s past connection with Muriel, and this is also something that Muriel, while always completely faithful to Jim, seems to enjoy. Why does she think that Bill has never married? “Because,” she says sweetly to Jim, “he couldn’t find another girl as pretty and sweet and wholesome as me.” Moreover, we hardly ever see Bill when he is not making sardonic and satirical remarks about his supposed best friend, insulting him and, in effect, calling him an idiot for his gullibility and foolishness in spending way more money than he needs to spend on his new house through his failure to consult his canny lawyer-friend first. This gullibility is set in a deliberately ironic context: that of Jim’s own job in an advertising agency where he may be presumed to be taking advantage of the gullibility of others. We could say it’s a case of the biter bit.

Here’s what Bill says to him when he finds that Jim has paid five times what the land is worth for his new property in Connecticut. “Every time you get tight, you weep on my shoulder about the advertising business, how it forces a sensitive soul like yourself to make a living by bamboozling the American public. Well, I’d say that a small part of that victimized group has now redressed the balance.”

“What are you talking about?” says Jim.

“You. You’ve been taken to the cleaners, and you don’t even know your pants are off.”

Jim, that is, must be aware that he is in the bamboozling business and must have at least a slightly guilty conscience about the fact. Perhaps he’s even compensating for it by allowing himself to be taken advantage of by the Connecticut rustics — though that would presumably be a matter for the psychiatrist he only jokes about seeing when he talks about “just a private joke between me and whoever my analyst is going to be.” His breakfast table conversation with the family also indicates that there are certain moral matters he would prefer not to think about. When his daughter Betsy, played by Connie Marshall, talks about her school project on “the disintegration of our present society,” her father replies: “I wasn’t aware of the fact our society was disintegrating.”

“I didn’t expect you to be, father,” says Betsy primly. “Miss Stellwagon says that middle class people like us are all too prone to overlook the — “

Whereupon Dad interrupts by turning away from her and towards her mother: “Muriel. I know this is asking a lot, but just one morning I’d like to sit down and have breakfast without social significance.” The irony he imparts to those words is palpable.

A bit later, his other daughter, Joan, played by Sharyn Moffett, tells him that the teacher, Miss Stellwagon, who apparently teaches both girls, “says advertising is a basically parasitic profession.”

“You don’t say,” replies Jim Blandings.

“Miss Stellwagon says advertising makes people who can’t afford it buy things they don’t want with money they haven’t got.”

“Oh, she does, does she? Perhaps your Miss Stellwagon is right. Perhaps I should quit this basically parasitic profession which at the very moment is paying for your fancy tuition and those extra French lessons and that progressive summer camp, to say nothing of the very braces on your back teeth.”

At this point, mom speaks up again: “Jim, I wish you wouldn’t discuss money in front of the children.”

Neither parent cares to answer Miss Stellwagon’s indictment of the advertising business. Jim merely points out that it pays the bills ¡ª including Miss Stellwagon’s salary. That seems answer enough to him and, in 1948, the same year as Treasure of the Sierra Madre and the beginnings of America’s half-century-long Cold War with Soviet Communism, Jim’s attitude appears to me to be a fairly typical one. Just as the Blandings’s move from the city to the suburbs —  except that, at this point, Connecticut still counted as the country and was not yet the suburbs —  was being repeated all across the country with what consequences we were to discover a decade or so later, so there were a lot of middle-class professionals of Jim’s and Bill’s generation, the C students and fraternity boys, who were aware that their contemporaries who were A students and intellectuals had all become anti-business at best, where they were not communists or radicals of some kind. Like Jim and Bill, perhaps, many of them seem to have accepted in some sort of vague way that the brainiacs must be more or less right about “social significance,” but that didn’t mean that they needed or wanted to be bothered with it at breakfast —  or any other time. They were busy pursuing happiness in the traditional American way by making money.

And by spending it. For Mr Blandings also marks a transition in the history of the American idea of the Pursuit of Happiness from production to consumption. Instead of getting rich the happiness people were pursuing was a matter of being rich, at least relatively speaking. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre looked backward to a time when the pursuit of happiness was a quest for treasure at the risk of life and limb, a deadly serious business even for ordinary folks like Jimmy MacDonald in Christmas in July, who’s got to make more money if he wants to get married. Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House looks ahead to the world we are still living in, where wealth, by most of the world’s standards anyway, almost seems like an entitlement to the American middle classes. What makes Mr Blandings decide that the family has got to move is the abundance he has already come to take for granted. They just have too much stuff to fit it all in their New York apartment. With problems like that, who has time for social significance?

Heck, Jim Blandings hasn’t even got time for his parasitic profession. He no more takes the advertising business seriously than does Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July, which also admits, by implication, that it is all a matter of bamboozling the public. Mr Blandings never seems to have any work to do, apart from thinking up a catchy slogan for Wham, and he has six months to do that in from the time when he finds out that the account has devolved on him. For this, the agency pays him $15,000 a year, or the equivalent of between $250,000 and $350,000 today, depending on the equivalency measure you choose. And when he finally does stumble on a slogan, it isn’t even his but that of Gussie, the maid, played as a now cringe-inducing stereotype by Louise Beavers. Rather like the gold-seekers in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the advertising business seems rather buccaneering. Finders keepers and tough luck Gussie, who makes a final appearance in an exaggerated chef’s toque and presenting an enormous platter full of Wham above the slogan: “If you ain’t eatin’ Wham, you ain’t eatin’ ham”  —  a patent falsehood to rank with “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk.”

Yet neither question — that of the slogan’s rightful owner or its truthfulness — ever arises in the movie. Its concern isn’t with how Jim gets his money but with how he’s going to spend it. Though his income is enough to provide a servant and a private education for his children, they all have to share a bathroom, and that really is beginning to seem like a hardship, even to people less well off than Jim, by 1948. The joke about how, in the new house, they’ll just have to “rough it” with three bathrooms shows a certain awareness on the film-makers’ part that what is going on is what at the time they were already beginning to describe as the “revolution of rising expectations.” They’re still close enough in time to Depression and war to find this rather funny, a joke at their own expense as you might say, and that’s what I think we are seeing in a lot of the humor of Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House.

Moreover, among those rising expectations are a certain expectation as to what we would now call the quality of life. That opening montage of the frustrations and stresses of life in the city and the contrast with the idyllic country life they seek — even though the film itself makes a point of exaggerating both — is now itself a bit of advertising for a common middle-class aspiration of the period, a new idea of the pursuit of happiness that can take a certain level of material comfort for granted and now looks, in its own conceit anyway, to a much older, more aristocratic vision of quasi-pastoral independence on one’s own acres that could claim descent from Jefferson’s ideal of a nation of yeoman farmers. Both Cary Grant and Myrna Loy sing —serially — “Home on the Range” in their single shower as a way of reminding us of the longing for the wide open spaces of the Western range and what they have always symbolized to Americans. Now we have the Connecticut version of the home on the range as a confirmation of Bunny Funkhouser’s version of the Blandingses as “very American, very grass roots, very blueberry pie.”

Bunny Funkhouser, the presumably gay and Jewish interior decorator, never appears in the movie, but it’s worth pausing for a moment over Jim Blandings’s, and the movie’s, sneering at his expense. Art, like social significance, was generally thought to be the province of such socially marginal figures as the sandal-shod Bunny or the “progressive” crypto-radical Miss Stellwagon. And yet, even as such people appear to be contemptible to the likes of Jim Blandings and Bill Cole, they are at some level also enviable and have the power to make them feel ashamed of their presumed intellectual inferiority. That, at any rate, is how I read Bill’s revelation that Jim, at least when he is drunk, regards himself as a “sensitive soul” who is “forced” into advertising by the need for money, but who privately thinks of himself as displaced from something better, perhaps as some kind of writer or artist manqué — the kind of figure which has since become almost a cliché in fictional portrayals of the advertising business, right down to “Mad Men” which I mentioned in connection with Christmas in July a couple of weeks ago.

But those who have been following that series, which begins its fourth season the week after next, will recognize that it doesn’t treat its hero, Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, as an artist who has sold out to commerce so much as an artist tout court, a creative genius whose medium is the TV spot and the magazine spread. Advertising — or, as Miss Stellwagon says, making “people who can’t afford it buy things they don’t want with money they haven’t got” —has grown to be not just intellectually respectable but a kind of mystic medium for the transmission of vital cultural information by the best minds we have and not mediocre ones with inferiority complexes like Jim Blandings. This must have something to do with the institutionalization of the consumer culture that Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House helped to usher in. Mr Blandings himself tells us that buying his house is like buying a work of art, something you do with your heart and not your head. That the heart’s satisfactions now come from spending money is both a sort of apology for the advertising industry and an indication that we were entering into a new concept of the Pursuit of Happiness, and one which has persisted until the present day.

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