Review: William Keighley’s “George Washington Slept Here,” Starring Jack Benny

Jack Benny, Ann Sheridan and Hattie McDaniel in “George Washington Slept Here”
Jack Benny, Ann Sheridan and Hattie McDaniel in “George Washington Slept Here”

Following his career-best performance in To Be or Not to Be, radio comedian Jack Benny signed with Warner Brothers and made four pictures in a row at the studio, starting with an adaptation of the play George Washington Slept Here. The “here” of the title refers to an old dilapidated house in the country that an antiques fanatic (Ann Sheridan) buys without the knowledge of her husband (Benny). Despite his outrage at her rash decision, the couple has no choice but to move into the shack after they get kicked out of their New York apartment. With the help of a local handyman (Percy Kilbride) they set to work making the property habitable, and the writers wring plenty of jokes out of the decrepit state of the home. There’s no bathroom, nor any running water for one, and every other step Benny takes causes him to crash through the floorboards. Yet once the house is in good enough shape, the story becomes a much more generic scramble to raise enough money to pay the mortgage, with various supporting characters including a rich uncle (Charles Coburn) and a villainous neighbor (Charles Dingle) stopping by.

Unfortunately, what good jokes there are in either half of the film are overwhelmed by the toxicity of the main couple’s relationship. Sheridan is depicted as little more than a foolish, impulsive woman that puts Benny through hell seemingly by accident. In the original stage production, written by famed playwriting duo George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it was the husband who bought the house and the wife who was endlessly frustrated. When producer Jerry Wald suggested the play as a vehicle for Benny, the comedian complained that the husband was too much of a straight man for him to play, so Wald had screenwriter Everett Freeman swap the roles.1 It’s possible the stage version was equally unpleasant, with the wife reduced to an unlikeable shrew—but Sheridan’s character here is completely braindead, which is even worse. As a result, George Washington Slept Here sacrifices a potentially amusing premise for the mean-spirited comedy of a bitter husband cruelly berating his careless wife.

Where to Watch

Stream it on Warner Archive

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For More on George Washington Slept Here

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Frank Miller, “George Washington Slept Here,”Turner Classic Movies, accessed August 21, 2017.