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Some movies are worthwhile for reasons having nothing to do with cinema art. 1953's Top Banana is a direct filming of a hit musical play that ran for 350 performances in 1951 and 1952. Featuring music and lyrics by the legendary Johnny Mercer, the show is about a former Burlesque star that tries to for success in a television show along the lines of Milton Berle's variety-comedy program.
The film version was put together inexpensively by producers Albert Zugsmith and Harry M. Popkin, who caught Phil Silver's production as it closed in downtown Los Angeles and moved it wholesale to a Hollywood sound stage. Top Banana is basically the stage play filmed in the theater, with no special staging or camera angles. Some dialogue scenes are covered by one camera that follows the key action, while musical numbers use two cameras. It isn't exactly Woodstock.
But that's not the point. As the show uses original stage talent (many of whom were in the original Broadway production), it's one of the few major surviving records of what Burlesque was like, in all its gaudy glory. Viewers that enjoyed Norman Lear, Bud Yorkin and William Friedkin's The Night They Raided Minsky's will want to check this out, and fans of the enormously talented Phil Silvers will love seeing him run amuck in his natural element. The hilarity of Burlesque is all here, albeit sandwiched into a TV show storyline.
Star Jerry Biffle (Phil Silvers) drives his writer Vic Davis (Jack Albertson), his barber and various sidekicks and comedy minions to distraction trying to make a hit out of his new TV show. Getting there was hard but keeping the show is tough due to the demands of his sponsor, Blendo Soap. They want a Miss Blendo to appeal to the young female demographic. Jerry hires his girlfriend Sally Peters (Judy Lynn), a model at McCracken's Department Store, as well as Sally's aggressive roommate Betty Dillon (Rose Marie of The Dick Van Dyke Show). But Jerry doesn't realize that Sally and his lead singer, Cliff Lane (Danny Scholl) have fallen in love. Jerry rushes Cliff into a publicity stunt elopement to help the show, not realizing that his tenor is running off with what he thought was his own sweetheart: "The singer always gets the girl!" Without its special attraction the sponsor folds the Jerry Biffle show... leaving Jerry to remember his roots on the Burlesque stage.
Top Banana is a whirlwind of energy -- one gets the feeling that these actors must drop five pounds apiece with every performance. The dialogue and the action are fast, loud and nervy, as one would expect with backstage comics. Jerry Biffle is always on the prowl for one-liners. He pretends that nobody gives him good material but is constantly cribbing gags from others, including his barber. In fact, the barber's jokes are better than those of Jerry's official writer. The entire first act is a workout for all the punch lines Jerry and his cohorts can come up with for "It's so hot that ... " When Johnny Mercer's songs pop on they prove to have lyrics equally as silly: "You're so beautiful / That Lana Turner turns green."
In the key song Top Banana Jerry's comic crew explains to the newcomer Cliff why and how the top comedian is called the Top Banana. The gags remind us of the kind of humor we'd see Abbott and Costello do ... only more direct, more primitive, and sometimes saucier (we have a suspicion that the racier jokes in the play were toned down for the movie). But the key line is sung with great reverence: "If you wanna be the Top Banana / You gotta start from the bottom of the bunch!"
Some ancient punch lines are so etched in concrete that they're jokes in themselves, without the setup lines that are probably long forgotten: "Dis must be the place!" "Dis I gotta see!" "What the hey!" "I've been to Niagara Falls before!" One of the comics sizes up the "new" frontier of TV in a single one-liner: "Ah, what's television? Burlesque with an antenna!"
The department store scene begins with a chorus song outside an elevator. The stage scenery is just as insubstantial as you'd expect it to be, and properly so. Some cheesecake enters the picture when Jerry, hamming it up as a big celebrity, barges into the dressing room for the models.
Rose Marie gets second billing, as a sharp-talking young lady who can bandy words with the master, Jerry. As in standard musical comedy, the ingénue tenor and official leading lady stay largely clear of the comedy stuff, like Zeppo and Maureen O'Sullivan in a Marx Brothers movie. When Rose Marie's Betty says she'll do anything to get into television, Jerry has a quick answer: "It's not that easy." That's about as risqué as things get, unless you count one Jerry Biffle double-take at a buxom model, followed by his instruction to use more balloons in one of the show's acts.
I'm sure I've seen some of Silvers' comics caricatured in Mad Magazine. "Little Man" Johnny Trama has a tiny face with a huge nose shaped like a bottle opener. He stays silent and figures in several visual gags. One involves joining hands with Jerry and another comic and twisting until they're all tied in knots. Joey Faye is also very recognizable. Phil Silvers is in better shape and is more flexible than you'd think. Superb comic timing does quite a bit of the work. Silvers is usually up front and center but he doesn't hog the screen with as much mugging as you'd think. After a few minutes we begin to appreciate that the Burlesque is an art form of its own. Vulgar, maybe, but an art form.
Cliff and Sally croon a soppy love ballad and more tunes accompany rehearsals, etc. Rose Marie becomes the butt of jokes when she continually volunteers to go to parties, get engaged with Jerry, etc. Announced to perform in a song, Rose contributes a few notes to a chorus after a long dance number, but never does a solo.
When it looks like the TV show is a washout, Jerry bounces back with a "remember Burlesque" medley of songs, joke routines and Burley-que girls that strut about (clumsily on purpose) in the most garish and tacky costumes imaginable. A cooch dancer comes out for a couple of minutes as well, but never really dances. Jerry appears as an oily emcee, a goofy magician and finally a 100% baggy pants comic with a ridiculous exaggerated costume (think green plaid). Jerry's verdict: "Those were the days!" When the "The End" title comes up over the curtain bows, we see Jerry struggling with the "Little Man" hanging on one arm and a stubborn dog on the other.
The directing, and editing are primitive to say the least. The film is perhaps just 60 or 70 master shots tacked together. The happy result is that almost the entire play is recorded, without being chopped up editorially. We not only see the actor speaking, we can see what the other actors are doing to not draw attention, or to prepare for their next cue. All shots are from the audience POV. A few erratic cuts to the audience are introduced, but without any particular purpose. At one point an audience cutaway seems done to motivate a complete change of what's happening on screen. According to the IMDB, producer Albert Zugsmith made a claim on directing the movie as well, but there's really no directing to speak of. The two cameramen clearly worked out who would cover what in each section of the play. The art direction doesn't seem to have been changed for the color cameras, but the costumes are definite stage originals and some of the scenery doesn't pop as it should, as if there were lighting problems. The big fire dance number is designed in red, and mostly looks like a mistake!
Those gag lines never really stop. At one point Jerry is shouting into a phone for an underling to get the news out to Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan: "I said columnists, not communists! Columnists!" That line really needs to be excerpted for a documentary about the blacklist in New York television.
I lied about there only being two tame sex jokes. During the final Burlesque number with the girlie chorus, future Star Trek beauty Grace Lee Whitney wears a brassiere top with large propellers attached to the, you know. In his act as the stuffy emcee, Jerry spins one rotor, and then stops it short right on the beat of the music. Whitney maintains her smug showgirl composure. At least Top Banana gets away with something!
Unfortunately, my final memory of the talented Phil Silvers is a 1980s newspaper story that characterized him as bitterly angry over the way show business had dealt him a raw deal. His TV show Sergeant Bilko was a big moneymaking hit before a 1960 Guild deal that guaranteed actors residuals. Apparently Silvers saw Bilko playing on a cable station and was furious that his work was earning money for everybody but him. That seems dreadfully unfair, but it's yet another cruel story in the Naked showbiz City. Top Banana is well worth checking out.
Judging by the United Artists logo upfront on the master, MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-R of Top Banana appears to be sourced from a master made for VHS in 1996. Colors are bright and the image is reasonably sharp. The "Color Corporation of America" hues are a little garish, having a slightly contrasty old Kodachrome look.
Film historian / expert Bob Furmanek explained the film's strange genesis and distribution fate in an email to The Home Theater Forum. He explained that Top Banana was originally filmed in 3-D, but a decision was made not to distribute it that way. Several other films shot but not widely exhibited 3-D have survived with both "eye" records intact, but not this United Artists title. Furmanek believes that negative for the "other eye" was junked when the Color Corporation of America lab went out of business in 1955.
That's not the worst of it. Top Banana was originally fifteen minutes longer, and this original version appears to have been destroyed as well. What remains is the shorter 84-minute copy, which has several continuity breaks that would seem to indicate missing musical and comedy numbers. The 'cooch' dancer's specialty number terminates in an abrupt cut, and a talking dog act billed prominently in the opening titles is nowhere to be seen, unless you count the dog that comes out of nowhere to bite Phil Silvers at the fade-out. It is likely that Rose Marie had at least one real song of her own to sing, as well. The IMDB soundtrack listing page names several more Johnny Mercer tunes than are heard in the surviving cut. One song might have gone with the dog act.
No extras are included and MGM's package top is as minimal as minimalist design gets. Want your palm read?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Top Banana rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.