One of the best television comedies ever, The Phil Silvers Show - or, as it was first known, You'll Never Get Rich; or, in syndication, as Sgt. Bilko - is one-third of that great triumvirate of 1950s television comedy that included I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners. Those shows served as templates for countless sitcoms that followed in their footsteps, but Sgt. Bilko was pretty much a one-of-a-kind original, built around the irreplaceable talent of its star and the eccentric comic sensibility of creator Nat Hiken. Both Silvers and Hiken would eventually move on to other worthwhile projects (including Silvers' return to the stage in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Hiken's fun cop comedy, Car 54, Where Are You?, hopefully a future DVD release), but Bilko was essentially a star vehicle impossible to duplicate. This was made thunderously clear when someone got the bright idea to remake Sgt. Bilko with Steve Martin in the title role, which makes about as much sense as making a movie of The Jack Benny Show with Martin Short.
An absolute must-have for anyone who likes to laugh, Sgt. Bilko - 50th Anniversary Collection (The Phil Silvers Show) has been a long time in coming, but definitely worth the wait. Though some decry Paramount's decision to test the waters with an 18-episode "best-of" collection rather than plunge directly into a first season set, there's no denying that the representative shows presented here are classics of television comedy, and combined with its mountain of great extras this unquestionably is one of the best DVDs sets so far this year.
At Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas, Master Sgt. Ernie Bilko (Silvers) runs the camp's motor pool, though there's nary a Jeep in sight. An incorrigible con artist and gambler, Bilko bilks his company of misfits at every opportunity with one outrageous scam after another, from pooling their money to buy a racehorse to betting on how many times an officer's erudite wife (Charlotte Rae) lecturing the men on Beethoven will "twitch," pulling on her girdle.
Aided by loyal lackeys Corporals Barbella (Harvey Lembeck, fresh out of Stalag 17 and several years away from the beach as Eric von Zipper) and Henshaw (Allan Melvin), Bilko staves off the weary, ineffectual efforts to tame him by long-suffering C.O. Col. Hall (Paul Ford), one of TV's great comic foils.
This often hilarious show works on several levels. In the conservative 1950s, Bilko was a veritable celebration of vice, populated by ordinary, often dead-broke schlubs in a medium that favored a much more attractive, upwardly mobile middle-class America. Bilko's platoon (like the Brooklyn precinct on Car 54) was populated by a realistic cross-section of races, creeds, and ethnicities. As personified by slovenly Pvt. Doberman (Maurice Gosfield, reportedly much like Doberman off-camera as well as on), Bilko's men were gullible, unkempt, and lazy, easy marks for his outrageous grifts. The large ensemble, composed of minor nightclub comedians, struggling actors, gambling friends of Hiken and Silvers, ex-boxers and the like, is a great mix of talent, grotesques straight out of a Fellini movie. Many of these regulars, including Herbie Faye, Ned Glass, and Billy Sands (a former umpire), would go on to appear in hundreds of other sitcom episodes. Other semi-regular and one-shot visitors to the motor pool included future Oscar-winner George Kennedy (who began his career as Bilko's military advisor), Joe E. Ross & Fred Gwynne (pre Car 54), Al Lewis, Alan Alda, Dick Van Dyke, and Murray Hamilton. Hiken and Silvers were also sports fanatics who liked putting their sports star pals on the show, sometimes as themselves, often in uncredited bit parts, among them Rocky Graziano, Whitey Ford, Sam Snead, Red Barber, and Yogi Berra.
Tellingly, many of the shows writers and at least two actors went on to create shows and movies of their own, including Neil Simon, Bernard Fein (Hogan's Heroes), Leonard Stern (Get Smart), Sydney Zelinka (various sitcoms and a regular writer on The Honeymooners), and director Mark Rydell.
Bilko was such a smash both critically and with audiences that it literally became a victim of its own success, and perhaps is the only TV show ever cancelled because it was so popular. To Silvers' eternal frustration, CBS cancelled it in its fourth year because they wanted to reap the benefits of syndication while the show was still at the top.
Here's the breakdown of episodes: Disc 1: "New Recruits" (the premiere episode), "The WAC," "The Horse," "The Eating Contest," and "Bivouac." Disc 2: "The Twitch," "The Investigation," "The Revolutionary War," "The Court Martial," "A Mess Sergeant Can't Win," and "Doberman's Sister." Disc 3: "Bilko's Tax Trouble," "The Big Scandal," "Hillbilly Whiz," "Bilko the Art Lover," "Bilko Joins the Navy," and "Weekend Colonel" (the series finale).
Video & Audio
Sgt. Bilko - 50th Anniversary Collection (The Phil Silvers Show) is presented in flawless transfers over three discs with virtually no sign of age-related wear, with strong blacks and a sharp image. Episodes are uncut and are not time-compressed. They retain the original syndication openings (with an animated, cartoon Sgt. Bilko and Pvt. Doberman), though the original opening (as "You'll Never Get Rich") is included as an extra. The mono audio is very clean also and the only shortcoming here is the lack of subtitle or alternate audio options.
Deservedly, this set of Sgt. Bilko shows has been supplemented with lots of great supplements spread over all three discs.
They include a Lost Audition Tape, a 33-minute pilot film preserved as a 16mm kinescope culled from the Nat Hiken Collection. It's virtually identical to "The New Recruits" with one major exception: Jack Warden plays Corporal Henshaw, suggesting that if he had got the part, maybe we'd have seen Allan Melvin in movies like 12 Angry Men while Warden would have gone on to play Sam the Butcher on The Brady Bunch! Also included is Bilko's first-ever TV appearance, in a sketch on The Ed Sullivan Show a week or two before You'll Never Get Rich's premiere.
There are clips from the 1956 Emmy Awards, where You'll Never Get Rich pretty much swept all the comedy awards, in spite of such prestigious competition from the likes of The Honeymooners, The Jack Benny Show, and Caesar's Hour. A delightful appearance by Phil Silvers and Jack Benny on The Dick Cavett Show, circa about 1971-73, is nearly worth the price of the set all by itself. Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, and Phil Hartman talk about the show in Nick at Nite Taping/Sgt. Bilko Movie Promos and, looking slightly embarrassed, talk about their own movie version. Well, Hartman does a good imitation of Paul Ford. The late actor (Hartman that is) also appears in raw footage for Nick and Nite Episode Intros. Finally, there's audio of a Friars Club Stag Roast for Humphrey Bogart (1955), hosted by Silvers. And all that is just on Disc One!
Disc Two includes the Original Network Opening and Original Commercials, both preceded by a warning: "Please do not smoke," a reference to Bilko sponsor Camel Cigarettes. As with other seminal '50s shows, it's strange to watch Silvers (who suffered massive strokes possibly related to smoking) Harvey Lembeck (who died of a heart attack at 58) extolling the virtues of Camels. Also included is a Gag Photo courtesy Mickey Freeman, and a brief segment, also from Nick at Nite, with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman Remember[ing] Bilko.
Disc Three offers more Emmy Awards clips, this time from 1957; a Bilko sketch excerpted from a kinescoped TV special, Phil Silvers on Broadway; a 1959 Pontiac Commercial featuring the star; and a terribly lame and labored New Phil Silvers Show Promo: CBS 1963 Fall Preview, which mentions several shows but includes no clips.
A sharp but physically very frail-looking Silvers appears in Phil's Final TV Interview with Sonny Fox from 1985, the year he died. In it, Silvers pays tribute to the late Harvey Lembeck and Joe E. Ross ("I think he married 11 times, each time to a hooker"). The Bilko Growl, audio only, is a you-have-to-hear-it-to-believe-it novelty song written by Silvers' son-in-law Iren Koster, and apparently designed to repeat the popular success of "The Curly Shuffle." Finally, a very good Photo Gallery rounds out the package.
Alas, most of the cast and writing talent have since passed away, but several of the show's survivors provide charming Audio Commentaries: Allan Melvin, who provides brief audio introductions to each show and most of the special features, also does a full-length commentary track for "The New Recruits"; George Kennedy offers a wonderful, anecdote-filled one accompanying "The Court Martial," while Larry Storch and Mickey Freeman ("Private Zimmerman") talk about "Doberman's Sister" and "Bilko Joins the Navy"; finally, Dick Van Dyke discusses about his early appearance on "Hillbilly Whiz."
For longtime fans of Sgt. Bilko, this boxed set is long overdue. For those new to the show, we envy your discovery of one of the best sitcoms ever. An easy DVD Talk Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.