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Jack Benny launched a starring contract at Warner Bros. with George Washington Slept Here, the 1942 comic hit about a New York businessman stuck remodeling a dilapidated country estate that seems to have been built under the principles of Murphy's Law. The adaptation of the Broadway (and community theater) smash by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart seemed a perfect match for Bennys talents, particularly after a sex-change at the script level.
When producer Jerry Wald suggested the screen adaptation to Benny, the star went to see the Broadway production before making up his mind. Two things about the production struck him. First, he was bowled over by Percy Kilbride's deadpan comic performance as the handyman who keeps turning up with expensive problems to be fixed. But he was also dismayed to realize that the husband was essentially the show's straight man. As written, he was a gentle soul so in love with antiques that he moves his family into the broken-down mansion, triggering a series of comic one-liners and tantrums from his wife. When he explained his problems with the show to Wald, the producer suggested the simplest of solutions -- he simply had the writers reverse the husband and wife roles so that the wife buys the house and the husband reacts comically to it. All it really required was changing a few pronouns in the dialogue.
Benny was happy to accept and welcomed the chance to co-star with "Oomph Girl" Ann Sheridan, who was cast after Olivia de Havilland was originally announced for the role. But he had his heart set on working with Kilbride. On this matter, studio head Jack L. Warner disagreed. For one thing, he had plenty of character actors under contract to play roles just like that. For another, he thought Kilbride was too funny and would steal the film from the stars. Benny had no problem with that and even pointed out that his radio series was filled with scene-stealing performers -- including Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Mel Blanc, Dennis Day, Mary Livingstone (Mrs. Benny) and Phil Harris -- who often upstaged him. When Warner still wasn't interested, Benny offered to pay for Kilbride's screen test. Warner finally agreed to the test, and all Benny had to do was appear with him.
That's when the trouble started. Kilbride was as funny on film as he had been in the theatre, so funny that Benny couldn't get through a scene with him without cracking up. Finally, the studio pulled Benny from the tests and had Kilbride test with Sheridan, who had the same problem. Even bringing in the picture's director, William Keighley, didn't solve the problem, but at least it convinced Keighley that Kilbride was the best choice for the role.
Once shooting started, Benny still had trouble keeping a straight face whenever Kilbride and he shared the screen. Finally, he had to stay up all night before shooting those scenes so that he would be too tired to laugh.
Something else that may have been keeping Benny up was his off-screen relationship with Sheridan. Accounts differ, but all agree that he was clearly interested in the "Oomph Girl." Some biographers insist the relationship was one-sided, and that she resisted all his advances. Benny's wife, however, was convinced that Sheridan was going after the comic, looking for comfort from her failing marriage to actor George Brent. Knowing of her own husband's wandering eye, Livingstone invited Sheridan to a party, then found a private moment to tell her "Miss Sheridan, I don't know whether you like Jack, or he likes you... But I wanted to remind you of something. Jack wouldn't give my little finger for your whole body! Now, have a good time." (from the biography Jack Benny).
Warner's pulled out all the stops on George Washington Slept Here. To create the perfect broken-down mansion, the art direction team took the set from Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and broke out walls, banisters and pieces of plaster, winning an Oscar® nomination for their creative demolition. The film itself won strong fan support, paving the way for further comic triumphs for Benny as a Warner Bros. star. It also gave Kilbride a new career. Although he had made two minor films in the '30s, it wasn't until he made George Washington Slept Here that he found his niche on-screen. He stayed in Hollywood to play minor roles until he found the next great role of his lifetime, Pa Kettle in The Egg and I (1947), and seven low-budget but very popular Ma & Pa Kettle comedies that followed and made him a household name.
Producer: Jerry Wald
Director: William Keighley
Screenplay: Everett Freeman, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Art Direction: Max Parker
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Jack Benny (Bill Fuller), Ann Sheridan (Connie Fuller), Charles Coburn (Uncle Stanley), Percy Kilbride (Mr. Kinsher), Hattie McDaniel (Hester), Joyce Reynolds (Madge), Lee Patrick (Rena Leslie), Charles Dingle (Mr. Prescott), John Emery (Clayton Evans), Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Gibney).
BW-92m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller