Monday, August 4, 2008

Bilko goes west

Since I got such a kick from the only truly funny joke (the Bilko reference) in “Old Army Game,” the episode of The Jim Backus Show: Hot Off the Wire I watched Thursday, I decided to take a look at another one of the offerings available on Essential Family Television: 150 Episodes, “The Slowest Gun in the West”—a special featuring the reteaming of comedian Phil Silvers and his You’ll Never Get Rich creator, Nat Hiken and originally telecast on CBS-TV May 7, 1960.

The year is 1878, and the location is Primrose City, in the Arizona Territories. Primrose has earned a reputation as being the most dangerous town out West, primarily because it has provided a home for all the outlaws (like Ted de Corsia and Jack Elam) who have run out of every other town. Mayor Carl Dexter (Jack Albertson) and a townsperson named Collingswood (Parley Baer) lament the fact that Primrose can’t keep a sheriff long enough for the town to be tamed into law and order. As if on cue, a stranger rides into town, dressed in black and wearing a hat festooned with silver dollars…he strides into the saloon, asks the bartender who the fastest gun in the place, and then spits the cork out of his whiskey bottle at the individual, Black Bart (de Corsia):

BART: You hit me in the head with a cork? (Kid nods “yes”) It was a mistake, wasn’t it? (Kid nods “no”) You deliberately did it? (Kid nods “yes”) Mister, did you come in here to commit suicide?
KID: Talker? (Looking around) This is a town of
talkers…men carry guns and they talk
BART: Stranger—do you know who
I am?
KID: I hear you’re a pretty
fast gun…
BART: That’s right…

KID: Prove it!

BART: Mister—are you actually
lookin’ for a fight with me?
KID: Lookin’…but not findin’ one…

BART: You found your
fight, stranger… (Backing away and preparing to draw) I never refuse any man a fair fight…
KID: Fair fight?
BART: That’s right…

KID: Okay…if you insist upon a
fair fight… (The Kid removes his pistols from their holster and lays both of them on the bar. He then takes several paces back from where they lay, then claps his hands) Draw!
BART: Draw? Look where your guns are!

KID (Looking around in every direction) What does he want from me? All right… (The Kid then takes off his eyeglasses and sets them on the bar as well) That oughta even it up… (To a bystander) Will you point me toward my guns?

BART (to the crowd):
Who is this guy?
MAYOR: How does it feel, Bart? To finally meet a man who isn’t
afraid of you?
COLLINGSWOOD: How does it feel to be a little bit afraid yourself, Bart?
BART: Afraid of
this joker? All right…put on your glasses and get your guns…we’re startin’ even
KID (feeling around for his eyeglasses and guns) All right—you
heard him…I gave him his chance; you’re all my witnesses… (Puts guns back in holsters) I want your signed statements right after the autopsy… (Claps hands again) Draw! (Clicks his fingers) Start countin’…
BART: One… (The Kid reaches over the bar and grabs a hard-boiled egg, then taps it on the bar) Two…you crazy—what are you doin’?

KID: What am I doin’? I’m eatin’ an egg, that’s what I’m doin’…

BART: I’m countin’! We start shootin’ on three!

KID: You’re only up to two, aren’t ya?

BART: Yeah…

KID:
Plenty of time…Bartender! Salt! (The bartender—on the floor, behind the counter—hands him a salt shaker)
BART: He’s got plenty…
who is this guy?
COLLINGSWOOD
: What’s the matter, Bart?
BLAKE: Yeah, what’s the matter?

BART (helplessly watching The Kid devour his egg) All right, stranger…you ready to die?
KID (he throws away the remains of the egg and shaker, wipes his mouth, and claps his hands): Count!

BART: One! (music sting) Two! (music sting)

(But before Bart can reach three, the Kid holds up his hands and pleads for his life)

KID: Don’t shoot! (Running to embrace Bart) Don’t shoot, I was only fooling, Mr. Bart!

BART (throwing him off): Stand up and go for your guns, you yellow dog!

KID: No! No! I like ya…I can’t…it was his eyes …I like ya!

The Kid faints dead away after Bart shoots off his pistol in the bar to shut him up, and that’s when saloon owner and gang boss Nick Nolan (Bruce Cabot), picking up the Kid’s hat, discovers the stranger’s identity: The Silver Dollar Kid, “the yellowest man in the West.” The outlaws in town soon skitter away from the Kid like roaches once the kitchen light has been turned on—they know that any man who guns down the Kid will see his reputation suffer for the rest of their days on Earth.

Up in the boudoir of dance hall girl Kathy McQueen (Jean Willes), The Kid fesses up to his cowardice after first trying to put on a brave front:

KATHY: Now listen to me…I’m a dance hall girl, I drink with strange men, I smoke…but you get one thing straight—I’m not the kind of a woman you think I am…
KID: You’re not?

KATHY: No!

KID:
Nothin’s gone right for me today!
KATHY: No, and you didn’t too well with Black Bart, either…

KID: Oh…you saw the fight?

KATHY: I was the woman you
hid behind…

(snip)

KATHY: You didn’t answer my question—what’s wrong?
KID: What’s wrong with me? (Puddling up)
I’m yellow…that’s what’s wrong with me! I’m a coward, I’m yellow… (He sprawls out on the bed and begins to kick furiously) I’m the yellowest man in the west…yellow…yellow...
KATHY (sympathetic) Oh, now, now…Silver Dollar Kid…

KID: You know what? That’s not even my
real name…I’m just plain little ol’ Fletcher Bissell the third of Boston…and now you know…
KATHY: Bissell?

KID: Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of the Bissell family…the famous yellow-bellied Bissells? Four hundred years of straight cowardice without a single break…that’s why I came out West to prove that at least
one Bissell could be brave…
KATHY: You mean not one Bissell has ever been brave?

KID: And my father? Bull Bissell? He was a general in the Civil War!

KATHY: Bull Bissell? What did he do?

KID: What did he
do? The only battle he was in, they named after him…Bull Run!

The Mayor and Collingswood get an idea that I’m guessing they cribbed from the Abbott & Costello vehicle The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947)—if they make Bissell sheriff, no one in town will dare try to kill him. The next morning, Silvers acts just like Costello (with a lot of Bilko thrown in), telling the outlaws that he has a lot of big civic projects planned: a Big Brother Club, a Clean Up Primrose campaign…and an arts and crafts workshop, learning beadwork to make moccasins. Nolan insists that Bissell needs to be killed, and orders gunslinger Ike Dalton (Elam) to handle the job:

KID: All right, Dalton…cat’s got your tongue? Oh, don’t be shy with me… (Pats his badge) Don’t let this impress you, I’m just plain folks…
(Ike walks back over to where Nolan and the rest of the gang are standing at the bar)

IKE: I can’t
do it!
NOLAN: It’s
your turn, you gotta do it!
IKE: Look, Nolan—I’ve got a
reputation to protect…I killed thirty-two men by givin’ every one of them a fair draw…he won’t draw his guns and you know it…
NOLAN: Sure he will...he’s all steamed up about being sheriff…just provoke him, he’ll draw…come on…

(Ike walks back over to The Kid)

IKE: Hello, Sheriff…

KID: Sheriff, sheriff! I’m just plain Fletch…you call me Fletch…

IKE: I’m callin’ you a yellow dog…a dirty, crawlin’ skunk—
that’s what I’m callin’ you!
KID: Now see here,
Dalton—I’m givin’ you ten seconds to take that back or you’re gonna suffer the consequences!
IKE: I ain’t takin’
none of it back!
KID: All right! You asked for this…you’re
out of the Glee Club!

With the town becoming more and more respectable by the minute, the bad guys realize they have to resort to desperate measures to rid themselves of the Kid…so Bart comes up with an idea: find an individual who’s even more of a coward than “Fletch.” The answer comes in the form of “Chicken” Finsterwald (“He shot an eighty-four year old woman…in the back…”), played by Silvers’ “special guest star,” Jack Benny.

I realize that I’m a ready-made audience for “The Slowest Gun in the West,” simply because I revere both Phil Silvers and Jack Benny, and also because I believe that Nat Hiken was one of the best comedy writers ever (a man who’s got both The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where are You?—not to mention the Fred Allen and Milton Berle radio shows—on his resume clearly wasn’t phoning it in). It’s well-written, well cast (many of the western “heavies” like de Corsia, Elam and Lee van Cleef are very effective playing off the comedic elements) and a show that simply shouldn’t be missed.

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