I grew up on reruns of many classic TV shows, but to this day I have never seen an episode of The Phil Silvers Show…or Bilko, as it was sometimes known. Yet Silvers was a familiar face to me. He made guest appearances on many other shows, from Gilligan’s Island to The Love Boat to Happy Days. His career went well beyond television, though. He also appeared in many movies and popular Broadway shows. Those two things came together in 1954 when Silver’s starred in a movie version of one of his stage hits…Top Banana.
The film focuses on Jerry Biffle (Silvers), a former Burlesque comic who now hosts one of the most popular shows on television, The Blendo Soap Program. Jerry has an entire entourage of people who follow him around, including writers, his personal barber, and even the delivery guy from his favorite deli. Jerry also has a lovely young girlfriend, Sally Peters (Judy Lynn), who works as a model at a department store.
Sally ends up becoming a part of Jerry’s company of singers and dancers when the big wigs decide to cast a “Miss Blendo” in hopes of a bit of a ratings boost. Little does Jerry suspect, however, that Sally has started to fall for the show’s strapping young singer Cliff Lane (Danny Scholl). In fact, when Jerry finds out that Cliff has a girl that he wants to marry, he has no clue it’s Sally. Jerry even ends up arranging a publicity stunt where Cliff and his girl will elope…thus giving Jerry and the show even more attention in the papers. However, it also means that Jerry has sabotaged his own chances with Sally. Along the way there are several songs written by Johnny Mercer, including the famous title song…which I always remember being sung by Milton Berle and Fozzie Bear on an episode of The Muppet Show.
It should be noted that Top Banana no longer exists in its complete form. The lab which processed the film went out of business shortly after its release. It is believed that several of the original elements were essentially pitched when that happened. Therefore, when you watch the film today there are several moments where we jump from one scene to another quite abruptly. Clearly there are segments missing.
It is also important to take note of the unique style of this film. This film is pretty much just a filmed version of the stage production. It was filmed in a Hollywood studio made up to look like a Broadway theater. The touring cast of the show, which also included the likes of Rose Marie, Jack Albertson, and Joey Faye, reprised their roles. The sets that had been used on stage were used again for the film. The idea was to create a new style of bringing stage productions to the screen in order to give audiences all over the country the feel of attending the play themselves. It was even shot in 3-D, though it was not released that way, with the intention of making it feel more like you were there with the actors. Phil Silvers claimed the whole thing was shot in a day and a half.
One thing that comes through loud and clear with this film is that the performers certainly knew what they were doing. They should! I mean they did it on Broadway, they did it on the road…they certainly were capable of pulling it off for the cameras. The show does have a fun, somewhat manic energy to it, with Silvers leading the charge. Silver’s background working in vaudeville and burlesque certainly pays off and makes him a perfect choice for this role. He does a fantastic job with the title tune as well as fun number toward the end of the film that celebrates how it used to be done in the days of burlesque. This sequence is probably the film’s most bizarre moment and features some really wild costumes. One girl in particular seems to be dressed as a cross between a Dutch maiden and windmill. You get just one guess as to where her pinwheels are located.
While there’s certainly no denying the skill and energy of the performers, the presentation of the material is a bit awkward. I’ve seen many movie musicals, and I’ve seen more than a fair share of ones that I’d call a bit “stagey.” To use that description for this film would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions. I mean, stagey is one thing…but this film has absolutely no cinematic sensibilities. The filmmakers essentially set up some lights and some cameras and let the company do their thing. Much of the film ends up being filmed in a medium shot. Close ups are rare. I get that you wouldn’t get multiple angles if you were in a Broadway audience…but come on. There are a few times a close up is used, including one shot where a burlesque dancer tosses roses out to the audience. Clearly an attempt to capitalize on the 3-D effect which ultimately wasn’t used. Also a bit strange is that every now and then the film cuts to a shot of a theater audience watching the production. They clap at the end of a few numbers, but otherwise we don’t hear their laughter or reactions to anything else in the show. Instead, we hear every stomp, squeak, and thud of the actor moving around on stage as if this were being performed in a high school gymnasium.
Viewing Top Banana was a very unique experience. On the one hand I thoroughly enjoyed the show itself, the songs, and especially Phil Silvers’ performance. On the other hand, it is clear to see why this experiment in bringing Broadway to the screen in a quick and cheap way ultimately failed.