Connie Fuller (Ann Sheridan) has a fondness for antiques that her husband, Bill (Jack Benny), begrudgingly accepts (albeit with an air of exasperation). Connie longs to get out of the city and away from apartment living, so without telling Bill—a dedicated New Yorker if there ever was one—she purchases a dilapidated old farmhouse in the country. Legend holds that George Washington slept in the house after his famed crossing of the Delaware, but soon after moving in, the Fullers find that the tale is untrue; it was actually Benedict Arnold who had once spent a night on the farm.
By this time, the Fullers are stuck with the house, as well as the wealth of problems it presents. The well has run dry, the walls are filled with holes, there are no bathrooms, and, as Bill discovers on multiple occasions, the floors have rotted through, threatening to send anyone who walks on the second floor crashing into the kitchen below. As the costs for repairing and renovating the farmhouse continue to skyrocket, Bill grows more and more frustrated with the entire affair.
Things get no better for Bill as everyone around him seems to lose their minds all at once: his teenage sister-in-law, Madge (Joyce Reynolds), falls for a married actor and aspires to join him on the stage; Connie’s pain-in-the-ass nephew, Raymond (Douglas Croft), comes to stay and indulges in mean-spirited, childish pranks; Connie’s supposedly rich Uncle Stanley (Charles Coburn) drops by for a visit; a belligerent neighbor (Charles Dingle) conspires against the Fullers in an attempt to buy their property; and if all that weren’t enough, Bill becomes convinced that Connie is having an affair with the owner of the local antique shop (Harvey Stephens). All told, it’s enough to drive a man insane—and Bill gets closer to the edge with every new complication that pops up.
The concept of a couple moving to the country and rebuilding an old piece-of-crap house is nothing new; the idea has been the basis of a number of films over the years, including the Cary Grant vehicle Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) and its 1980s Tom Hanks remake The Money Pit (1986). As anyone who has renovated a house can tell you, it’s a situation ripe for comedy, because if you can’t laugh about the inevitable difficulties that come with such a project, you’ll only cry uncontrollably. And perhaps no other film revels in the utter chaos of renovation as gloriously and hilariously as 1942’s George Washington Slept Here. Based on the 1940 play of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, George Washington Slept Here features a wonderful supporting cast that revolves nimbly around the talents of comedian Jack Benny, who somehow manages to hold barely-dignified court amid the insanity.
GWSH presented Benny with his first starring role at Warner Bros. Though much of his fame up to that point derived from his radio shows, Benny was no stranger to the big screen, having appeared in a number of films—mainly musicals—over the previous decade. GWSH came on the heels of Benny’s starring role in Ernst Lubitsch’s darkly comic satire To Be or Not to Be (1942), in which Benny arguably delivered the performance of his career. But while that film was not an immediate commercial success, GWSH proved to be much more popular with audiences, underscoring Benny’s comedic appeal. Here, Benny plays the straight man that is not quite so straight; as each new trouble pops up, his character slowly unravels, all the while shooting back a series of quick-witted, sarcastic barbs with the impeccable timing that was Benny’s hallmark as a comedian. His facial expressions as he delivers his lines are especially priceless—particularly the smart-assed smirk of irritation (tinged with weary resignation) that he wears perpetually throughout the film.
Sheridan plays a sort of muted screwball heroine in this film; while she’s not nearly as frenetic as many of the female leads in that genre, there’s still an air of daffiness to Connie, encapsulated in her impulsive purchase of the farm and her insistence that all of their troubles will work themselves out in the end. Though her whims are the crux of the problem, Connie still functions as more of a “straight man” than her husband. She’s relatively unflappable, willing to go with the flow and find solutions while Bill reels off biting one-liners and bemoans what has become of his life. Indeed, Connie’s sunny optimism in the face of Bill’s pessimism is rather charming, and it’s hard not to root for her as she works to make the inhospitable farmhouse a real home.
What really makes George Washington Slept Here appealing is the fantastic group of characters with which the Fullers surround themselves. Hattie McDaniel, in one of her typical servant roles, has some truly amusing moments as Hester, the family’s maid; like Bill, she thinks the entire affair is foolish, and is hard-pressed to understand Connie’s enthusiasm for the house (and equally hard-pressed to accept horses running through the kitchen). Charles Coburn, always a welcome sight, is wonderful as Connie’s skinflint (with good reason, as it turns out) uncle. Charles Dingle is an oily delight in one of his usual villainous roles. And in his film debut, Percy Kilbride—a favorite of Benny’s, who fought to ensure his casting in the role—recreates his deliciously deadpan stage role as Mr. Kimber, the caretaker who raises Bill’s ire with a litany of never-ending costs. Kilbride would later find stardom of his own as Pa Kettle in eight films of the popular Ma and Pa Kettle series.
A couple of minor characters also make their mark in the film. William Tracy, arguably best known for his supporting role as Pepi in The Shop Around the Corner (1940), plays Madge’s maybe-kinda boyfriend, who jealously watches as she pursues the latest in a long line of older-man crushes. Franklin Pangborn is hilarious in his all-too-brief role as the apartment manager whose anger at the Fullers’ rug-chewing dog prompts their move to the country. And Lee Patrick makes the most of a small role as Rena, the actress wife of Connie’s newest crush, Clayton (John Emery); indeed, Patrick snaps off one of the best lines of the film as she complains about the “rustic” nature of the area.
Clayton: “What do you expect of a summer theatre anyhow?”
Rena: “Not a great deal, Clayton. I’d just like them to take the pigs out before they put the hams in.”
George Washington Slept Here is available on DVD through Warner Archive’s MOD (manufactured-on-demand) service, and the newly remastered print is lovely and clear. As typical with such releases, there are no extras to speak of aside from the theatrical trailer. For the record, however, that little gem is definitely worth watching, if only for Benny’s opening shtick: he begins the trailer by watching bits of Sheridan’s love scenes from other films, declaring all the while that he’s a much better kisser than folks like Ronald Reagan and James Cagney before hopping on the phone to “Mr. Warner” to demand more love scenes with the “Oomph Girl.”
I don’t know if Sheridan ultimately agreed that her costar was a “better kisser” (rumors about Benny’s real-life romantic interest in her aside), but she and Benny make a pretty entertaining onscreen couple nonetheless, and the film is that much more fun to watch for their warm and humorous chemistry. And when you combine these two with the great supporting cast and some effective visual humor—highlighted by the rundown house in all its dangerous and pratfall-worthy glory (this set, incidentally, earned the film an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction)—you’ve got yourself one hell of an enjoyable comedic romp.
True Classics thanks Warner Archive for providing a copy of George Washington Slept Here for the purposes of this review.