Appellate Judge James A. Stewart wouldn't have lasted long in Sgt. Bilko's platoon, since he's lousy at poker. Of course, Bilko might have preferred it that way.
"Bilko, you're a gambler, a sharpster, a promoter. You're everything I'm here to prevent soldiers from becoming. Why do I like you?"—Fort Baxter's chaplain, on a certain member of his flock
In 1955, even Sgt. Ernest Bilko wouldn't have bet that comedian Phil Silvers (It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) would win the Tuesday night ratings battle when his new show went up against early TV legend Milton Berle (whose show was the first No. 1 Nielsen hit in the 1950-51). Still, the 1955-56 season ended with The Phil Silvers Show a hit and Milton Berle leaving weekly television, even though he had a 30-year contract with NBC.
The show featured burlesque comedian Silvers as a motor pool master sergeant who gambled constantly—on anything—and could count money just by running his fingers through a bankroll. His Sgt. Bilko was a smooth talker and a shirker who could see an angle in anything.
"He'll find regulations that the Pentagon doesn't know about," his commanding officer Col. Hall (Paul Ford, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) says of Bilko. It's not a compliment, but Bilko would take it as such.
The series began as You'll Never Get Rich, but the name was quickly changed to The Phil Silvers Show by CBS to take advantage of Silvers's popularity, as the commentaries note with a sense of awe. Even though Bilko was serving in peacetime in Kansas, he found a ready audience in a generation of veterans with World War II fresh in their minds. It ran from 1955 to 1959 and was dumped abruptly by CBS. The Museum of Broadcast Communications notes that CBS was eyeing the fortune that would come from syndicated reruns, where the show would be known as Sgt. Bilko. No 30-year contracts there, bub.
Since the show didn't last as long as CBS had hoped in reruns, some viewers may be more familiar with Top Cat, the cartoon sitcom that featured a feline, Bilko-like schemer.
During its four-year run, the show won a fistful of Emmys—scenes from two ceremonies are included in this set—against competition from legendary shows like The Honeymooners and Caesar's Hour.
Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show 50th Anniversary Collection picks 18 episodes from throughout the series' four-year run, highlighting guest stars like Fred Gwynne and Dick Van Dyke who went on to fame along with some of the best-remembered Bilko bluster and bunkum from the series.
Facts of the Case
At Fort Baxter, the company bugler is awakened by an alarm clock. He turns on a phonograph, which gives the wake-up call as he goes back to sleep. Sgt. Bilko's already—or still—awake, though, since he and his fellow master sergeants have been playing poker in his quarters all night. He races through roll call to get back to the game, only to find the other players ready to call it a night, since it's morning.
This first encounter with the sneaky Sgt. Bilko is one of 18 episodes from the series on three discs, in original broadcast order:
• "The Horse"—Wouldn't you know it? When Bilko and his men decide to bunk a horse in the guest quarters, there's a high-ranking guest on the way.
• "The WAC"—The soldiers in the newsreel had a Jeep, so Bilko wants one, too. "I joined the Army. That's where I made my mistake. I should have joined the newsreel," Bilko says. All he has to do to get that Jeep is outwit a savvy WAC.
• "The Eating Contest"—Fred Gwynne (The Munsters) guests as a champion eater who could munch Bilko's platoon to victory. Sadly, he only eats when he's sad.
• "Bivouac"—Bilko's a real pain when he tries to get sick leave to escape bivouac, especially when he gets his buddies quarantined with him.
• "The Investigation"—"They found out about Bilko," Col. Hall says as he watches a TV panel discussing military waste. Not yet, but they soon will if Bilko's plan to show the panel how underfunded the base is fails.
• "The Revolutionary War"—The sergeant learns about "the great military tradition of the Bilkos" by reading an ancestor's diary about his service with George Washington, which comes to life as he reads.
• "The Court Martial"—What could make a monkey out of Col. Hall when he aims to sign 300 recruits? Try an actual monkey. Fortunately it's the monkey who gets court martialed here, but even a monkey deserves a better advocate than Bilko.
• "The Con Man"—It takes a geek (actually the sharklike Bilko in disguise as a too-perfect rube) to win back Doberman's $500 from card sharps.
• "A Mess Sergeant Can't Win"—Bilko's "pet pigeon," Sgt. Ritzik, is leaving the Army to open a luncheonette. Bilko decides to let Ritzik win a sure bet as a going-away gift, but the odds are against it.
• "Doberman's Sister"—"The uglier the brother, the more beautiful the sister" is the law that Bilko invokes to hook a date for slobby Doberman's sister for a base dance. Will Bilko be a sinker when he falls for his own line?
• "The Big Scandal"—Bilko's spellbound by hypnotism after being put under during a presentation. Trouble is, he conjures up an entranced romantic rival for Col. Hall in Doberman. Julie Newmar guests.
• "Hillbilly Whiz"—When a new recruit (Dick Van Dyke) helps Bilko's barracks to a baseball victory, Bilko gets the man a Yankees tryout. Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto appear as themselves.
• "Bilko The Art Lover"—Bilko's "acting like a sergeant," so naturally his men are worried. The doctor calls for a restful break, so Bilko visits a wealthy friend in New York—just as the young man, an artist, has a falling out with his father. Alan Alda portrayed the artist as a young man.
• "Bilko Joins the Navy"—On a trip to San Diego, Bilko rolls snake eyes with the ladies, but sees a chance to float into a Navy-only craps game. Since they're disguised as sailors, you know Bilko and his men will find themselves at sea. Larry Storch guests as a sailor who sank a fortune into the game.
• "Weekend Colonel"—"Today is Bilko's debut on television; tonight his rating goes down to corporal," Col. Hall says after catching Bilko in a crap game on closed-circuit television. It's actually the show's finale; Seinfeld riffed on this one for his finale a generation or two later.
Whatever you call this show, it's a showcase for Phil Silvers. Sgt. Ernest Bilko was a character designed for Silvers's broad burlesque delivery, full of fast patter and mugging. The antihero's gambling habits—Bilko would bet on anything, including how many times a speaker tugged at her skirt—were an exaggeration of Silvers's own penchant for cards. The best Bilko scene is in the first episode, with the slippery sergeant entrusted with his new recruits' money. Silvers's silent debate between responsibility and the big poker game as he sits in his quarters eyeing the wad of bills is a classic comic scene.
His main foil in these episodes in Col. Hall, who's in charge of Fort Baxter, but wearily concedes that Bilko really runs the show. The man Bilko dubs "Old Sourpuss" is a good guy, but he usually gets taken in by Bilko's fast talk, even when he sees it coming. This would be one of the biggest problems with the show, because Paul Ford plays the hapless Hall as too nice a guy to be the butt of Bilko's schemes.
Bilko's fellow master sergeants make juicier targets, since they're always scheming to outwit the master of mischief himself, as in an opening scene when they find a devious way to dull his legendary edge at poker. Notable among them is Mess Sgt. Ritzik (Joe E. Lewis, Car 54, Where Are You?), played with a hangdog expression and an "Oooh, oooh" that became famous.
Always along as Bilko schemes are Cpl. Henshaw (Allan Melvin, All in the Family) and Cpl. Barbella (Harvey Lembeck, Pajama Party). On his commentary, Melvin jokes that his character only got to say, "But, Sarge …," in his first appearance. He's got a point. Melvin and Lembeck are good actors, but they don't get much to say as Bilko's sidekicks. That's the chief problem with The Phil Silvers Show. With 22 characters, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, you don't really get to know the supporting players.
Only one of the platoon, Pvt. Duane Doberman (Maurice Gosfield, Top Cat) stands out in the episodes shown here, and that's as a visual joke, since the character is a short, slobby soldier. You get to see characters tag along with Bilko, and Mickey Freeman's Pvt. Zimmerman gets a good scene as he mulls over some fast talk from his sergeant in "Doberman's Sister," but the episodes here don't really develop these characters. More often, the platoon members are seen as a group, trading quips in a style that's almost like Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In or as a mob, the whole group tumbling into Bilko's quarters when he opens the door, indicating that they've all been listening in on his conversation. It might be a symptom of life in the Army or any large group, but Bilko's platoon members tend to be interchangeable.
In short, you get a show that can be funny (Neil Simon was one of the writers who helped create Silvers's dialogue), but rests almost entirely on Phil Silvers's shoulders. No one gets the lines to be a Norton or a Kramer.
However, if The Phil Silvers Show did leave an impression on you, Paramount's package also will leave a good impression. The black-and-white picture's good, a sign of the high production values the show employed in the first place. It's filmed rather than kinescoped. Paramount may have done some restoration along the line, since the pilot and various clips are scratched and faded. The sound isn't stereo, but it does the trick. The commentaries by Allan Melvin and others involved in the show (including George Kennedy, who was a technical adviser and a bit player) are warm and nostalgic, reflecting the admiration they had for Phil Silvers. The latter-day material from Nick at Nite and TV Land promos isn't that interesting, though.
If you want to see something that's not shown on TV today, this DVD set includes an unusual set of clips, one that carries a stern warning from Paramount. I'm talking about commercials for the show's original sponsor, Camel cigarettes, of course. Whether you're a smoker or non-smoker, I doubt these spots will cause you to change sides, but view them at your own risk.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While it was an important part of TV history, the reason that Sgt. Bilko doesn't turn up on TV as often as I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners is that it hasn't held up as well. Sgt. Bilko's antiheroics might have been a breath of fresh air in 1955, but a sitcom with a 22-man cast is hard to get into, especially with a sometimes unlikeable con-artist lead. The material here is uneven, with laugh-out-loud lines and moments followed by gags that fizzle.
Moreover, as Dick Van Dyke notes in his commentary, the performances by vaudeville and burlesque veterans were much broader than you see on TV today. Silvers, who makes faces and keeps in motion in every scene, even when other characters are talking, had an acting style designed for the stage. You get a hint of Phil Silvers unvarnished for television in a (bleeped) Friars Club roast audio clip.
If you watched the series on TV and enjoyed it, you'll like this set, since it's a good sample of the show with lots of extras. Allan Melvin, Mickey Freeman, and George Kennedy do a good job of recalling their experiences in a sort of sitcom boot camp, with guest stars Larry Storch and Dick Van Dyke contributing their memories as well.
As a viewer who had only seen Sgt. Bilko once or twice in its occasional reruns, I was intrigued when I saw this comedy with all those Emmys on the docket. I didn't hate it, but I can think of a lot of 1950s shows that I'd want to see and own before this one. Phil Silvers's routines can be fun and you can see how they influenced later comedians and sitcom actors (Jerry Seinfeld, for example), but they get repetitive after a while. The high point of this set, if you're not already a Bilko fan, would likely be the episodes that showcase guest stars.
Paramount Home Video deserves a medal for this DVD set, since they did an excellent job of preserving a piece of TV history. Whether you find it guilty or not guilty probably will depend on whether you're already a character (or lack thereof) witness for Sgt. Ernest Bilko.
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