‘George Washington Slept Here’ (1942)

Jack Benny meets a money pit.

According to the back of the box, Manhattanite Moss Hart moved to the country and renovated a Colonial estate. Out of this experience, he and co-writer George S. Kaufman hatched George Washington Slept Here, one of their many hit Broadway comedies. It was “opened out” into a film version that’s still funny today, despite or because of the loud and obvious nature of the humor, which involves Jack Benny falling through ceilings and down stairs with no more result than spouting one more exasperated, sarcastic one-liner.

Overall, he displays surprising equanimity to the fact that his wife (Ann Sheridan) purchased a dump in the country without telling him, and without any water or plumbing, and in some cases without walls. I guess when you’re married to Ann Sheridan, you overlook a lot. The story collects an eccentric bunch of characters, including the hayseed of a caretaker (Percy Kilbride, soon to be known as Pa Kettle, here reprising his Broadway role); a maid (Hattie McDaniel) who sometimes goes beyond the sassy stereotype into actual anger; an insufferable rich uncle (Charles Coburn); an equally insufferable nephew who’s only there until his divorcing parents settle his custody (neither wants him); and a number of others, not counting animals.

Director William Keighley keeps a tight hand on the proceedings. Benny’s belly-aching gets loud but he’s got funny lines. One of his high points is when he “crosses the Delaware” to protect the reputation of his teenage sister-in-law. Another nice scene, emphasizing timing and performance in the interaction of well-defined characters, is when half the cast gets soused on cider.

As scripted by Everett Freeman, this movie reinforces the importance of Kaufman and Hart’s comedies in pop culture. It’s a link between their wacky-yet-sophisticated family frolics, such as You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner (mentioned in the dialogue, wink wink) and the postwar trend in domestic comedies about noisy families who move to hapless hijinks in rural or suburban fixer-uppers, including The Egg and I (which introduced Ma and Pa Kettle), Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and TV’s Green Acres.

That postwar trend was encouraged by the creation of new suburbs and the baby boom, yet it’s anticipated here in a film that, at the end, gently remembers that the action takes place during WWII. The film is now available on demand from Warner Archive.

RATING 7 / 10