Thursday, July 7, 2011

“Click click click…”


When I reported back in June that Atlanta’s WSB-DT had divorced the Retro Television Network and tied the knot with Me-TV, I was pretty excited about the switch because with the exception of a few programs in RTV’s lineup most of what was on its schedule filled me with overwhelming ennui..  Me-TV definitely has a lot more of my classic television favorites, and the one I was particularly looking forward to was one of my favorite sitcoms in the history of boob tube mirthmaking, The Phil Silvers Show (aka Sgt. Bilko).

Me-TV reruns Bilko on Sunday nights at 12:30am EDT, which is sort of a scheduling problem for me because it’s on at the same hour as TCM’s Silent Sunday Nights—and if the movie that evening on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (ka-ching!) is one I’ve already recorded or have little interest in, that’s fine…but for the first couple of weeks of Me-TV I missed Bilko due to this conflict.  When I finally freed up a week, I discovered that Me-TV’s rotation is working its way through the first season of The Phil Silvers Show…and since that has mercifully been released on DVD I’ve been watching a few of those episodes every night for the past three weeks now.  I finished up the last of the discs Sunday night and as far as I’m concerned, Season 2 can’t come quick enough for me.

Before CBS DVD-Paramount rewarded fans with the long awaited first season last year, Bilko-philes had to be content with a 50th Anniversary release that came out four years earlier (2006) and contained a piddly total of eighteen shows—and if you already own that collection, there’s a teensy bit of overlap in that ten of the shows (from the inaugural season) are on both sets.  I’m not entirely certain who’s in charge of choosing which shows will go in the anniversary collections but while I have no quibbles with such Bilko classics as “The Eating Champion,” “The Twitch” and “The Con Men” I have found that there are funnier programs on the first season set that definitely would have been welcomed…by me, anyway.  An example of one I could have done without on Bilko 50—and I realize this is treading dangerous ground, because many Silvers fans considered it a classic—is “The Court Martial,” in which a new induction system implemented at Fort Baxter results in the initiation of a chimpanzee into the Army…and the only way to rid themselves of the simian to avoid embarrassment is to institute the titular proceedings, with Bilko serving as the chimp’s counsel.  It is held in high esteem by many a Bilko fan, but I personally find the situation a bit ludicrous.  I know comedy is supposed to be slightly exaggerated in order…well, for it to be comedy but I have a threshold for how much I’m willing to put up with and I guess “Army chimp” crosses it.

One of my first season favorites is “The Boxer,” and the reason why this is so is because while we often like to both admire and talk about what a amiable scoundrel Ernest G. Bilko was his softer side (the traditional “heart of gold,” so to speak) often goes ignored.  Bilko was a con man, no getting around it—but he was a principled con man.  The men in his platoon were his sheep, waiting to be fleeced…but if anyone else thought about muscling in on Ernie’s racket, he made short work of them within the half-hour.  This quality of the man is on display in an episode like “The Con Men”—Private Duane Doberman (Maurice Gosfield) has received a check for $500 from an insurance company (he was hit by a bus five years earlier) and he offers Bilko the stipend, to which the master sergeant is sorely tempted but he maintains his resolve.  Bilko suggests that Doberman use the money to deck himself in a new suit but learns when “Dobie” returns to the barracks that he was cleaned out in a poker game in town by a trio whose specialty is working hotels near military bases for that purpose.  So Bilko goes in and returns the favor (he pretends to be a greenhorn named “Clem Bilko”; his ordering of a lemonade at the hotel bar is hysterically funny), warning the scam artists not to return to “his town” after they’ve learned their lesion.

In “The Boxer,” Bilko is on the hunt for a pugilist to enter Fort Baxter’s boxing tournament… the best he’s able to come up with is the scrawny Private Dino Paparelli (Billy Sands)—and that’s only because Paparelli was the only man to volunteer (Bilko: “This boy is all heart…if only he had a few muscles”).  The platoon member Bilko really has his sights on is Claude Dillingham (Walter Cartier), a two-time Golden Gloves champ (Cartier actually did a little amateur boxing before settling into an acting career) who at first is thought to be a “pansy” because of his love for horticulture and plant growing…the only problem is, Dillingham won’t fight because his fiancée Felicia (Hollis Irving) has forbidden him to do so.

Bilko’s plan is to get Dillingham so steamed he’ll come out swinging, Felicia-be-darned…so he arranges a get-together at the local hangout and cajoles a couple of sailors into propositioning Feleesh and uttering other crudities in the hopes that Claude will deck the two swabs in anger.  This sequence is falling-down-funny; every time Silvers’ Bilko thinks Dillingham is suitably riled he whips off his eyeglasses and starts yelling “Fight!  Fight!” while the place threatens to break out in pandemonium.  The icing on the cake is that Sands’ Paparelli horns in several times yelling “Step aside, Sarge—I’ll handle this!” in that hilarious nasal whine of his, complete with spastic boxing gestures.

Bilko finally finds the way to motivate Dillingham into fighting when he learns that a donnybrook broke out at a flower show after someone criticized “chrysanthemums” in Claude’s presence.  Bilko then spreads the fable that Dillingham’s opponent is guilty of chrysanthemum slurs…only to discover by the time of the bout that the two men have figuratively kissed and made up.  So once again, the hopes of the platoon rests on Paparelli’s shoulders…and he doesn’t even get out of the locker room, because Bilko sends him to the floor while slapping his cheeks, demonstrating how to wear down his opponent.  Coming to, Paparelli is told by Bilko that he knocked out his man in the first round and that he won the C-note that Bilko had planned to wager because “you’re the bravest man in the platoon.”

Billy Sands’ Paparelli figures in another funny first season Bilko outing, “The Centennial,” which I think would have made a better contender among the episodes included on the 50th Anniversary DVD collection (I’d swap it with “The Revolutionary War” because both episodes are sort of similar); Bilko devises a plot to rid Fort Baxter of an overzealous Special Services officer (Al Checco)—who insists the men engage in such activities as modern art classes—by staging a pageant to honor the base’s “centennial.”  (The “history” of the base comes from a diary Bilko claims to have discovered in the “archives.”)  Rehearsing a scene in the play where Ernie plays Indian-fighting “General Baxter,” Paparelli is brought in with an arrow sticking out of him…and for the rest of the scene; the dialogue gets interrupted by his plaintive pleas of “General, pull out the arrow.”  It’s one of those bits where the line becomes funnier and funnier through sheer repetition, and Sands’ delivery of it is a textbook example of expert timing.  When Bilko’s supervising producer Edward Montagne became executive producer of McHale’s Navy, he poached a lot of the actors and writers from his former show (since the sitcom was essential a naval version of Bilko) and Sands was the most prominent, playing the part of machinist’s mate Harrison “Tinker” Bell on that series’ four-year-run.

“The Eating Contest” is another great example of how Bilko may have been motivated by the prospect of making a fast buck but sometimes events would conspire to appeal to his better nature.  In this classic episode, Bilko is looking to get even with rival Company A Sgt. Allan (played by a young Murray Hamilton) after his men are skunked in a football game (Bilko: “Sixty-eight to nothing…you’d think they’d have given us one point for showing up!”) and when his sidekick Corporal Rocco Barbella (Harvey Lembeck) recognizes a new transfer to the platoon, it would appear he’s going to get his wish.  The transfer is Ed Honergan, a tall drink of water (played by future Car 54, Where are You?/Munsters star Fred Gwynne) who was known in the South Pacific during the war as “The Stomach” because he emerged triumphant in every “eating contest” he entered.  The dollar signs appear in Bilko’s eyes, and so he makes a bet with Allan on such a competition—and when the news that Company A has its own eating “champeen” in “Hog” Henderson (Bern Hoffman) reaches our hero he acts terrified to lull Allan into a false sense of security.

The impending contest hits a tiny snag when it’s learned that Honergan can only display his considerable eating prowess when he’s depressed; he was miserable during his time in the South Pacific because he had received a “Dear John” letter from his gal but a chat with an Army psychiatrist straightened him out.  Bilko is able to re-stoke the memory of Honergan’s gal (he and the other guys in the platoon start playing records until “The Stomach” hears “their song”) and the contest is on:

ALLAN: Well, well…if it isn’t the suckers from Company B…well, Bilko—where’s your boy?
BILKO: He’ll be along…I think he stopped in the coffee shop for a snack… (Chuckles) Henshaw!
HENSHAW: Yo!
BILKO: Got our man here?
HENSHAW: Right here, Sarge…
BILKO: Fellas, I’d like you to meet…
HENDERSON: It’s…it’s Ed Honergan…the Stomach!
ALLAN: The Stomach?  (To Bilko) Bet’s off…you brought in a ringer!
BILKO: Hold the phone, pal…it’s all legitimate… (He produces Honergan’s paperwork) Here’s his name, right on the roster…”Edwin C. Honergan”…
HENDERSON: Gosh…it’s really him! 
HONERGAN (shaking Henderson’s hand): Hello, Hog…
HENDERSON: He remembered my name!  He remembered my name!
ALLAN: Will you pull yourself together—you’re eatin’ against him!
MAITRE’D (entering): Yes, sir—a banquet…how many will be in the room?
BILKO: There’ll be fifty of us…just a minute… (He pulls out a sheet of paper) Here’s the menu we want…
MAITRE’D: Oh…yes…thank you…ah…ten dozen oysters…
HONERGAN: Uh…with….uh…plenty of crackers…
MAITRE’D (continuing): Five gallons of soup…
HENDERSON: Uh…maybe a little light consommé
HONERGAN: Uh…cream of tomato with lots of croutons…
MAITRE’D (continuing): Twelve chickens…three bushel of salad…fourteen steaks…six pies…
HONERGAN: Uh…with…with cheese

“The Stomach” wins the contest for Bilko and Company, and is even reunited with his estranged love, thanks to some last-minute matchmaking by the base chaplain (OTR veteran John “Ethelbert” Gibson).  The chaplain shames Bilko into turning over the money won to Honergan and the future Mrs. Stomach (using Bilko’s earlier words about the money being part of the platoon’s “welfare fund”) and to add insult to injury, Bilko and his men have to foot the bill for the food consumed in the competition—so he orders his men to march out to the hotel kitchen for some extended KP because everyone is tapped out.  But after a quick glance at the soon-to-be newlyweds billing and cooing, Bilko motions for Barbella and Henshaw (Allan Melvin) to follow him out to the galley to help out with the dishes.

The one episode from the first season that left me positively gobsmacked as to its MIA status on the Bilko 50 set is “Bilko and the Beast,” an uproarious outing in which our hero meets his match not with an opponent brainier than he but brawnier—a drill sergeant who answers to Quenton Q. Benton (George Matthews), or as he is affectionately nicknamed, “The Beast.”  “Beast” is able to push Bilko and his men around with very little effort because the thought of tangling with this hulking land mass has very little appeal for Ernie and his crew.  Bilko not only gets ribbed by his fellow sergeants for seemingly allowing himself to be manipulated by this bone-crushing osteopath but loses a little respect from his “boys,” resulting in a hilarious bit of double talk from Silvers’ character in which he explains that “Beast” is just suffering from an inferiority complex (and he finishes this up with “Now…how do we get rid of the creep?”) and “needs to be loved.”

So Bilko resorts to psychology: he takes out a $100,000 life insurance policy on the guy, all the while cajoling and flattering him (he constantly calls him “Beastie boy,” which sort of made me snicker)—and Benton slowly starts to become convinced that Bilko has insured him because he’s planning to make sure he won’t last out the week.  He looks out of his window to see Paparelli and Doberman picking wildflowers, and later Fender (Herbie Faye) holds up a tape measure to his body and shouts out: “Make it six-foot-five…with silver handles!”  (Bilko even manages to convince the chaplain to recite a farewell just as “the Beast” passes by an open window!)  Benton grabs his gear and hauls ass and elbows off the base in record time, leaving Bilko to inform his men: “When it comes to a battle between brains and brawn…bet on brains!”

The joy in watching these classic episodes comes from a variety of sources—but chiefly the force of nature that is Silvers’ Bilko, who’s constantly in motion, flattering and sucking up to authority and never at a loss for an explanation when challenged on his schemes (it always reminds me of that line Bogart has in The Maltese Falcon: “Well, what you want me to do—learn to stutter?”)  Some of the funniest moments involve Bilko and Nell Hall (Hope Sansberry), the wife of his commanding officer, Colonel J.T. Hall (Paul Ford).  Bilko will be talking to Hall and suddenly he’ll notice Mrs. H’s presence, spouting some b.s. like “Colonel, I wasn’t aware that we had a movie star on the post…I…why, it’s Mrs. Hall!”  Sure, it’s comedy that’s older than the hills…but in the hands of Silvers it never stops being funny (particularly since they used so many variations on the gag)—and it’s compounded by how he’ll lean over and start whispering things in Mrs. Hall’s ear…which results in the two of them giggling like schoolgirls, much to her husband’s annoyance (this gets a great workout in the episode “The Twitch”).

I also get a kick out of Ford’s performances (he has, of course, always been a TDOY favorite—“You watch your phraseology!”) because he’s able to produce this deer-in-the-headlights reaction when he learns that Bilko’s got something cooking that never fails to break me up and is able to make a phrase like “What is he up to?” sound fresh no matter how many times you hear it.  I also like to watch the expressions on the faces of Silvers’ sidekicks—Harvey Lembeck and Allan “Sam the Butcher” Melvin—as they react to Phil’s antics; Melvin is pretty consistent staying in character but Lembeck often has trouble keeping a straight face when Silvers in “on”…and just between you, me and the lamppost I don’t think I could maintain a stone-faced countenance around the man either.  The supporting players—Sands, Gosfield, Faye, Mickey Freeman, etc.—also get their respective days in the sun and you’ll also spot a lot of up-and-comers like Terry Carter, Barbara Barrie, Tige Andrews, Ned Glass, George Kennedy, Dan Frazer, Dody Goodman, Joe E. Ross and Beatrice Pons (the last two are husband and wife on Bilko but they were also manacled together on Car 54, Nat Hiken’s other classic sitcom creation).

Now…here comes the part of the review where you get to interact from home.  We all know all the DVD business works—if not enough people buy DVD sets, the studios pretty much turn off the spigot and that’s as far as it goes.  If you haven’t bought a copy of The Phil Silvers Show: The First Season yet, I cannot impress upon you the importance of doing so in order to send a message to CBS-Paramount that there is an audience out there for this classic series and that they’re willing to support second, third and fourth (and final) season sets.  Don’t just do it for me…do it for that young person who’s yet to be exposed to vintage hilarity and certainly isn’t going to come across it anytime soon on their local TV station or TV Land or what have you.  Do it for the love of classic television.  I thank you.

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3 comments:

Page said...

Ivan,
Your passion for this show bursts through the page here to the point where I'm grinning ear to ear.

I am going to get the head turn and side eye for this one but Phil Silvers isn't my cup of tea. I know, I know this comes from the girl who doesn't enjoy musicals or Lucille Ball so to make it up to you and the millions who want to pinch me hard and ignore me going forward, I will purchase the DVD just to give the middle finger to the corporate fat cats. Oh, and more importantly, to support you and your fantastic writing and passion for this era of television.

(Any hate mail directed at me can be sent through Ivan and he will make sure I get it)
Page

Hal said...

"The Centennial" might well be my favorite BILKO episode of all. Season Two is right up there with Season One ("The Face on the Recruiting Poster" is a riot especially) but the quality slipped a little in 1957-58 when Nat Hiken stepped aside. Still, even the California episodes are worth watching; they pale only in comparison to early BILKO. It was still one of TV's best shows when cancelled.

Yes, I already have both BILKO boxes. :)

LOVE THAT BOB needs the full season set treatment too IMO.

ClassicBecky said...

Ford has been a favorite of mine since as a kid I first actually noticed him in The Music Man. (Watch your phraseology! Perfect quote for him!)

And Phil Silvers -- my Dad never missed that show, and though I have not seen it since it was on, I remember loving it too. You brought some happy memories with this in-depth and fun article!