By Craig Leask
Homeownership has always been the basis of the American Dream. That sense of accomplishment, a pride of ownership, the creation of lifelong memories. While purchasing your first home can be a very proud milestone, it can also be a very arduous and frightening move – sometimes you just don’t get that feeling of security that a home purchase should bring, leading to stress, lost sleep and sometimes feelings of remorse. Prior to the success of HGTV, DIY and home improvement shows too numerous to mention, there have been several movies produced which follow hapless homeowners as they enter the life-changing world of home purchase and renovation. These movies played up the anxieties, fear and humour that accompany the unknown surrounding that first purchase. Your idyllic new property could very easily be haunted (Amityville Horror (1979)), your new neighbours could be Satan worshipers (Rosemary’s Baby (1968)), or you could unwittingly be marching headfirst into renovation hell (George Washington Slept Here (1942), Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), and The Money Pit (1986) to name a few).
George Washington Slept Here (1942)
George Washington Slept Here is a comedy based on a 1940 play of the same name written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The script was adapted for the movie by Everett Freeman, directed by William Keighley and stars Jack Benny (Bill Fuller), Ann Sheridan (Connie Fuller), Percy Kilbride (handyman Mr Kimber) and Hattie McDaniel (the Fuller’s maid Hester).
In writing the play, Kaufman and Hart drew upon their own experiences in buying and renovating historical farmhouses in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the play, it is the husband who buys the house and the wife who’s frustrated by the expenses and the trials and tribulations of renovating a 200-year-old house. In order to align the dispositions of the main characters with Jack Benny’s well-known miserly personality and acerbic observations, the roles were reversed at Benny’s insistence.
In order to create the dilapidated farmhouse for the movie, the sets constructed for Arsenic and Old Lace (1944 – filmed in 1941) were repurposed and “rusticated” by breaking up bannisters, plaster walls and rafters, dirtying up the entire set and removing several floorboards giving the house the abandoned look it required.
The story starts with a Manhattan couple being evicted from their rental apartment due to the family’s dog Terry (the original Toto in The Wizard of Oz (1939)) damaging of the building’s carpets. In searching for a new home, Connie Fuller secretly purchases a broken-down house in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania without her husband Bill’s knowledge, but certain that he will fall in love with the place as she has. The realtor has convinced her that for a brief period during the American Revolution, the building was lived in by George Washington, adding to the pedigree of the property and her longing to own it. Much to Connie’s disappointment, Bill cannot see beyond the poor condition of the house, nor the inconvenient commute to the city and immediately hates it. Having been evicted from their apartment, with nowhere else to live, they have no recourse but to move into the un-renovated building. To add insult to injury, the couple soon learns that it was not Washington who had slept in their newly acquired home, but Benedict Arnold.
The house has no water (save for that which flows in through the leaky roof), no wall in the kitchen, their budget triples, and a hostile neighbour denies access to the road and freshly dug well. Add a series of uninvited guests, 17- year locusts, and deadpan Mr. Kimber (Pa Kettle from the series of Ma and Pa Kettle films) as handyman, and the antics create themselves.
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)
Much like George Washington Slept Here, where the authors of the original play based their writing on their personal experiences in buying and renovating old farmhouses, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was based on the 1946 book written by Eric Hodgins, where he chronicles his own experiences in moving out of the city and constructing his ultimate dream home. The real house Hodgins built for himself and his family was constructed in New Milford, Connecticut and was completed in 1939. The original budget for his home was $11,000, with the final costs coming in at $56,000 resulting in the unfortunate need to sell and recoup what he could of the staggering debt. The house finally sold in 1945 for $38,000. Hodgins tried to buy the home back after receiving $200,000 for the movie rights to the book but was unsuccessful. The house still stands today and remains in private hands.
Although it is a dream of many to design and construct their own home, to their own exacting standards, anyone who has tried can relate to the trials and tribulations of Jim Blandings, beautifully played by Cary Grant. The main cast is rounded out by Myrna Loy as his wife Muriel and his lawyer and voice of reason Bill Cole, played by Melvyn Douglas. This was the third and final movie in which Grant and Loy were paired (Wings in the Dark (1935) and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947)).
Blandings’ humble plan of living the simple life in the country goes off the rails in every direction. From wells that cannot locate water to basements that do, to trying to “out-design” an Architect (as everyone wants to do) resulting in a second-floor plan, twice the size of the first floor on which it was meant to stand. Skyrocketing costs, shady realtors, the legalities of knocking down a house which carries a mortgage, and lost windows all add to the experience and the charm of the story.
In order to locate a rural setting to film the exterior shots of the house under construction, RKO was given permission to build a set on 2,000 acres in the Malibu Hills owned at the time by neighbouring studio 20th Century Fox. Interesting to note that the house built for the movie remains standing, and is now being used as the Malibu Creek State Park ranger station.
To market the movie, David O. Selznick and his head of publicity, Paul MacNamara, developed an interesting scheme to promote their film involving the construction and raffling off of replicas of Mr. Blandings Dream Home throughout the United States. 100 locations were initially planned with 73 finally being built; each one being raffled off on the night of the movie’s premiere in that particular city.
The movie’s release in 1948 was well timed in the post WW2 era, a world that was undergoing a strong desire to return to an idealized normal way of life. The romantic vision of returning to the countryside, of fresh air and food, fostered the explosive growth of the subdivision and offered a lifestyle all were hungry to obtain.
The timing and pace of the situations and polished delivery of well-scripted lines by Grant, Loy and Douglas under the superb direction of H.C. Potter are what make the film the classic it is. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was one of the final great successes for RKO Pictures, a box-office hit and one of the biggest money earners of the late 1940’s.
The Money Pit (1986)
Unlike George Washington Slept Here and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, which were both loosely based upon the real-life adventures of their respective authors, The Money Pit was pure fiction.
The premise of the movie is the immediate need of a couple, Walter Fielding (Tom Hanks) and Anna Crowley (Shelly Long) to find a new home. The immediacy is based upon their sudden eviction from their New York apartment. With limited funds, they are directed to a beautiful old mansion being sacrificed by a motivated seller. Maureen Stapleton plays the homeowner Estelle, who shows them around the grand home stressing her immediate need to sell, hence the ridiculously low price. As with most things that are too good to be true, the house turns out to be a lemon and Stapleton, a con artist.
The hapless couple is faced with faulty wiring and plumbing, structural issues, racoons residing in the dumbwaiter, crumbling chimneys and a virtual parade of contractors and tradespeople.
The movie opened to mixed reviews, mainly due to the unimpressive script and lack of chemistry between Hanks and Long. The house in the centre of the movie is falling apart, and this fact forms the basis of the story. The storyline takes the leads to extreme situations that are unnecessary. It would have been much more comical and entertaining if the couple faced normal problems with renovating their house instead of such unrealistic ones.
The exterior shots in The Money Pit were completed at an 1898 Long Island mansion known as Northway, a 14,000 square foot Georgian mansion positioned at the end of a quarter mile gated driveway. Miniature models of the house were constructed for use in the outdoor demo scenes and stunts with interiors shot on soundstages at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, New York.
Following the completion of the movie, the house sat empty and began to deteriorate until 2002 when it was purchased for $2.1 million, renovated and was back on the market in 2014 for $12.5 million. Since then, Northway has been on and off the market with subsequent price drops, most recently listed at $5 million. It would appear that at the end, Northway truly lived up to its fictitious persona as The Money Pit.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.