Films to Love: The Magic of Old Houses


Since Monday’s post about old houses, I’ve been thinking of movies that have homes central to the plot. Today’s Films to Love post is devoted to that theme. Let’s start with a few laughs, shall we?

Anyone who’s ever done any remodeling will tell you that there’s one thing they’ve learned- the best laid plans of mice and men do so very often go awry. In Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Cary Grant does an exceptional job of highlighting how very true this is. This situational comedy co-starring Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas is hilarious. At times, you might find yourself biting your nails as Mr. Grant encounters one frustration after another. Starting with a brilliant sequence of silent acting where he’s trying to do the basic shower, shave, and dress in a crackerjack box apartment in downtown NYC, Grant guides us from how a man can arrive at the conclusion that he needs to abandon the big city for the pastoral country life. The home they buy needs some work, but the longer the remodel progresses, the more Blandings realizes that some translates into an entire rebuild. Myrna Loy, who plays Muriel Blandings, is alway fabulous. Coupling her comedic timing with her impeccable delivery and dry wit, Loy compliments Grant superbly. When he’d reached the end of his rope, she throws another curve ball with that matter of fact delivery that makes us laugh as he slowly goes out of his mind. Melvyn Douglas, who plays the Blandings’ lawyer, is an excellent foil to Grant as well. This movie abounds in humor and has a satisfying ending to boot.

Cary Grant is a particular favorite. What I appreciate about this film is that it showcases Mr. Grant’s talent as a comedian. You can’t top Cary Grant’s expressive face.

And since we’re on the topic of building and renovation, this gem features a rundown mansion. Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is a fun frolic. If you’re a fan of Doris Day or David Niven, then you need to give this one a shot. There’s the musical fun that we all associate with Ms. Day, but there’s also a sophisticated story line interwoven with a lot of fun which is what one would expect from a film starring the all around British gentleman Mr. Niven. Niven plays Laurence MacKay, a theater critic, married to Kate, and father of four boys. They live in a small New York City apartment. But, when they a told to vacate within a month’s time, they are thrown into a tizzy searching for places to live. They’ve always dreamed of moving to the country and see this as their chance. However, with such little time, they are left with very few options. Kate finds a ramshackle mansion that needs TONS of work. So, while Laurence is commuting back and forth from the country to the city, nurturing his burgeoning career, Kate is trying to make a house a home. Throw in a little marital drama and four rambunctious boys and you have a delightful family film.

While old houses can provide ample subject matter for humor, in compiling today’s list, I came to a realization. Old houses hold a touch of magic.

When it comes to the magic of a place, I have to start with The Enchanted Cottage starring Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire. Set at the end of World War II, we find Robert Young playing the part of a former soldier bearing the scars of war, not just emotionally, but also physically. He’s been disfigured. His fiancee abandoned him when she saw him, and he’s licking his wounds in the cottage by the sea that was supposed to be his honeymoon cottage. A plain-Jane local nurse comes there to care for him. Together, these two misfits find that they are good companions for one another, such good companions that to stave off loneliness, they agree to marry. What they don’t count on is the secret enchantment that surrounds the cottage. As they live together, peeling back the layers of defenses and hurts, they uncover two people with wonderful hearts that slowly knit together. That’s the magic of this enchanted cottage- it encourages love to grow, even in the most unlikely soil.

And speaking of homes that encourage love to grow magically, I have to mention The Lake House. (Yes, I know that I mentioned a book by the same name in Monday’s post- see here. But this is a wholly different plot.) This is a slow moving love story, but I appreciate it for that precise reason. The film starts with Kate Forster (Sandra Bullock) closing up on a magnificent belvedere style lake house. She’s lived there for the last two years with nothing but the fondest memories, but she’s moving to Chicago to start her residency as a doctor. She’s got an apartment in a new building. But, as she’s leaving, she drops a welcome note in the mailbox for the next tenant. What she doesn’t expect is that Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves), the man who replies to her letter, is the son of the architect who built the lake house and who lives in it- though not in her present time, but two years prior. Through nothing short of magic, they start corresponding via the mailbox and falling in love with each other. However, when they try to meet in her present, he never shows up. She doesn’t know why. And he doesn’t know why. What has happened to him in the two years in between? And how can they really have a true romance with such an insurmountable obstacle? It’s not just distance that separates them, but time. Will the Lake House hold the magic that will finally bring them together?

One word I would use to describe this film is gentle. The love story is gentle. The music is gentle. Even the timbre of the film is gentle. If you’re looking for something soft and tender to watch, particularly on a snowy afternoon like it is here, then this is the movie for you.

Now, for something further afield. A Good Year starring Russell Crowe takes place in a chateau and vineyard in Provence, so you can only imagine what sort of scenery you’ll be seeing. Plus, there’s a rather fabulous sequence where Charles Trenet sings. (Love him!) Set against such a romantic backdrop, it’s not surprising that magic ensues. Crowe plays callused, self-serving investment banker Max Skinner who inherits his uncle’s home in France. While he plans on staying there only as long as it takes to put the house on the market and sell it, Skinner finds one thing after another keeps him there. That’s the magic of the chateau. Quite suddenly, Max sees that his life back in London is missing all the good bits of life. Flanked with a cast of character actors, this movie adds up to a well laid table in a rustic setting with a full-bodied red wine.

I’ll finish with this one. While My House in Umbria ranks up there for me, it’s actually one of my mother’s favorites. Eccentric romance novelist Emily Delahunty- played by Dame Maggie Smith- has sought refuge from a traumatic past by settling in a secluded villa in Umbria. She lives alone apart from a few servants and her friend Quinty. On a shopping trip to Milan, the train she is aboard is bombed by terrorists. When she wakes up in the hospital with minor injuries, her heart is torn to see her fellow victims. She opens her home to those who seem to have been the hardest hit- General who lost his daughter, a young man, Werner, who lost his fiancee and sustained extensive burns to his arms and torso, and a mute young girl, Aimee, who lost both her parents. Cradled in the sun-soaked landscape of central Italy, these four forge bonds of healing together. That is until Aimee’s repressed and prudish uncle arrives from America, intent on taking Aimee back to his loveless home. Add to all of this the encroaching investigation of the train bombing that ferrets out the villains who are closer to home than is comfortable, and you’re in for an excellent crafted drama.

Maggie Smith is magnificent. That’s nothing new. However, when given the beauty of rustic Italy as her stage, she is effervescent. Her home is exactly what a true home should be: welcoming and safe. And because of her own troubled past, she embodies the spirit of her home- embracing those who need to be loved freely, with open arms, even when they reject and abuse her. By the end of this movie, you will want to pack up all your most beloved possessions and move to such a halcyon climate in Umbria.

Now it’s you’re turn, dear readers. When I say old houses, what movies do you think of?