Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show - 50th Anniversary Edition Review

Running for four and a half years during the heyday of American sitcoms in the 1950s, Nat Hiken’s creation of Sgt Bilko was the perfect vehicle for the comedian Phil Silvers. With a comedy talent honed in live Vaudeville shows alongside the masters Jack Benny and George Burns, Silvers made the transition from stage to television with remarkable ease and facility.

The discipline of honing a character and keeping the same comedy routines seem fresh and spontaneous over multiple performances is undoubtedly one of the reasons why Phil Silvers was able to so successfully keep the character of Sgt. Bilko fresh over the four and a half years, since the character is not a complex one. Bilko is a sergeant in the US Army - a finagler, a shark, a charmer - but not a con-man - his one ambition is to hit on a big money making scheme that will make him his fortune, but as the master sergeant of the motor pool on Fort Baxter in Kansas, his talents are limited to organising illegal poker games, bets and dances for the personnel on the camp, particularly fleecing the willing victims in his own unit, Company B. But the sharp eye of Sgt. Bilko is always on the look-out for opportunities that come his way, whether it is for a quick buck or a major investment. The show was originally going to be called “You’ll Never Get Rich”, a title that sums up its intent quite clearly. It’s a very limited situation, but as many subsequent shows based on a similar premise prove – from Only Fools and Horses to Top Cat (an animation show that is basically a carbon copy tribute to the Bilko show) – it’s a masterful creation of almost unlimited potential in the hands of a master performer and script-writer.

The character types and their characteristics are defined from the very first show ‘New Recruits, and they wouldn’t vary a great deal in the subsequent four years. The show moreover would only very rarely in later episodes break out of the confines of Fort Baxter with its very basic sets – and when it did it was never with as much success as when it relied on the familiar surroundings of the Fort Baxter army camp locations. The scripts therefore had to be constantly inventive in order to meet the challenge of the limited situation and format, and they always rose to the challenge only seeming to get better as the show went on, bringing in guest appearances from up-and-coming talents who would go on to become major stars in their own right. Fred Gwynne, George Kennedy, Dick Van Dyke, Alan Alda and many others all got their big break through walk-on parts on the Phil Silvers Show, as did Neil Simon who also worked as a scriptwriter on the show.

It’s that combination of strong scripts, an outstanding and charismatic central performance and a supporting cast full of strong characters that kept the show going from strength to strength. Every show was worked on over a weekly schedule. The script and routines were rehearsed from Monday to Wednesday, given a dry run on a Thursday and recorded in front of a live audience on a Friday, pretty much ‘live’ using two or three cameras. The discipline and professionalism with which the show is approached is evident in every performance, the consistently funny scripts honed down to perfection, every one-liner calculated and nuanced and delivered with immaculate timing by one of comedy's greatest talents.

Sgt. Bilko is released in the UK by Paramount as a 3-DVD set. The DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2. The three discs contain a selection of only eighteen 25-minute episodes from the full 147 episode run of the show. Inevitably, many classic and favourite episodes will not be present here - personally I miss the Grover and Ritzik UFO episode ‘Bilko and the Flying Saucers’ and the Bilko’s lucky day episode. I have therefore included a brief description of each episode on the set, so that you will know what the set does contain. Each of the episodes here contains a short audio introduction by Allan Melvin (Cpl. Henshaw). It must be hoped that Paramount will eventually release the complete seasons of the show at a future point.

New Recruits
Having lost all his money in a marathon poker game with the other master sergeants, Bilko needs another bankroll to win back his losses, but his platoon are wary and weary of his fund-raising activities. Fortunately Bilko has just been assigned a whole new squad of fresh, eager new recruits. It’s like lambs to the slaughter…

Tired of having to walk around everywhere, Bilko volunteers for a new post with PTP (personal transport provided), making sure that none of the other sergeants applies. But who is this new Sgt. Hogan on the camp who is always one step ahead of him? Has Bilko finally met his match?

The Horse
Not only has Bilko lost nearly all the platoon’s money on the horses, he’s used what was left to actually buy the losing horse, Bellboy. Bilko however has insider knowledge and is sure he can restore the horse back to prize-winning form. But how do you house, feed and train a horse on an army camp?

The Eating Contest
Bilko thinks he’s onto a sure-fire scheme to make money in an eating contest when the legendary Ed “The Stomach” Honergan (Fred Gwynne) joins Company B, but since Ed has gotten over the girlfriend who dumped him, his days of heavy comfort eating are over. Bilko has to find a way of making him miserable again…

It’s bivouac time again, which means its time for Bilko’s annual visit to the hospital to report his latest illness, and take part in the traditionally big poker game with all the other “sick” master sergeants. But Colonel JT Hall is ready for Bilko this year and has employed a bright new medical officer, Capt. Curtis. Not for the first time, Col. Hall’s optimism proves unfounded.

The Twitch
Not for the first time (or the last time), Col. Hall is intent on cracking down on gambling on the camp, which is reaching epidemic proportions. A new entertainment’s officer is brought in to divert the men’s activities, but how is Bilko going to get the men interested in lectures on Beethoven and Stravinsky, and more importantly, how can he make money out of it? Mrs Whitney’s unusual delivery presents Bilko with an opportunity.

The Investigation
Congress have ordered an investigation into the waste and extravagance on military bases, and a committee is sent out to a small base in Kansas to identify what cuts can be made. With Bilko as guide however, the committee are more likely to recommend a raise for the troops.

The Revolutionary War
Bilko receives a package from his aunt containing mementos of a famous ancestor – Major Joshua Bilko – who fought in the Revolutionary War and even crossed the Delaware with George Washington. Bilko decides it is time to change his ways and live up to a proud family heritage, but the Major’s diary reveals that he’s been truer to the family tradition than he realises.

The Court Martial
Fort Baxter us the testing centre for a new army initiative to make the induction process more efficient by eliminating red-tape. Unfortunately, the process allows a chimpanzee to enlist with flying colours. There’s only one way to save the army’s embarrassment – the chimp must face a court-martial, and Bilko has been appointed counsel for the defence. An out-an-out classic episode.

The Con Men
Private Duane Doberman receives an insurance payment of $500 and loses it all on a poker game. He’s lost it all not to Bilko as might be expected, but to a group of card sharps operating in town. Bilko intends to teach them a lesson with the famous “Bilko Shuffle”.

A Mess Sergeant Can’t Win
Tired of being the gullible victim to Bilko’s endless schemes Mess Sgt. Ritzik decides to leave the army. Feeling somewhat guilty, Bilko attempts to pay him back all the money he has taken from him over the years, but it’s not easy as it might seem to let Ritzik win anything. Another gem of an episode starring the hilarious Joe E. Ross as Ritzik and Beatrice Pons as his nagging wife Emma.

Doberman’s Sister
It’s open day at Fort Baxter and the GI’s families are all visiting, so Bilko wants to be sure that all his troops and their sisters are matched up for dates at the dance. But who is going to want to date Doberman’s sister? Employing reverse psychology and application of Mussleman’s Law – the uglier the brother, the more beautiful the sister – even Bilko starts to have doubts.

Bilko’s Tax Trouble
An administrative error in the Tax Office leads to Bilko’s affairs being investigated. Bilko has nothing to hide – “All the money I make in these dances I lose on the horses. I’m a non-profit organisation” – but there’s an awful lot of paperwork and some memories to refresh for all his activities in the 1953 tax year.

The Big Scandal
To win a bet – what else – Bilko attempts to hypnotise Sgt. Ritzik into falling in love with the Colonel’s wife, but is unaware that he has put Doberman in a trance. Julie “Catwoman” Newmar makes a guest appearance here as the saucy maid Bilko used to correct the troubles he has caused in the Colonel’s love life.

Hillbilly Whiz
After the defeat of his baseball team by the WAC typists, Bilko is in danger of losing his with Grover and Ritzik. Fortunately a new recruit, Hank Lumpkin (Dick Van Dyke) proves to be a hotshot pitcher. Bilko has higher ambitions than the camp baseball league, but how can he convince the young hillbilly to try out for the Yankees.

Bilko The Art Lover
On two weeks’ furlough, Bilko invites himself to the New York home of one of his former troops to collect an old debt. It just so happens that Carlyle Thompson III (Alan Alda) is due to come into a million dollar inheritance, but wanting to be a sculptor he’s about to throw it away to live as a starving artist in a garret. Not when Bilko has had the scent of big money…

Bilko Joins The Navy
Bilko, Paparelli and Zimmerman are on a weekend pass in San Diego when they get wind of a major crap game in town. As it’s strictly for Navy personnel only, they borrow a few uniforms, but inevitably get into more trouble than they bargained for – a six month tour of duty on the SS Saratoga heading for Alaska.

Weekend Colonel
Colonel Hall has had cameras installed on the camp in order to keep an eye on Bilko’s activities. However when Bilko discovers the Colonel’s double working in a diner, he sees an opportunity to have a few orders rescinded while Col. Hall is off-base. Inevitably, the real Colonel returns to disastrous and hilarious effect. The last ever Bilko show gives the wonderful Paul Ford a chance to shine in the dual role of the womanising slob of diner cook Charlie.

Dating back to the 1950s, these are very old television shows, but the video quality is nonetheless exceptionally good. There doesn’t however appear to be any major restoration work done on the prints, but none is really required – the shows looking as good as they did the last time I saw them broadcast on television. There’s a minor amount of grain, a few specks of dust here and there, but the image is crisp and clear. The black and white image tends towards greyness, but there is reasonable variety and definition of tones.

Presented as Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, here is a little harshness in the audio track that would undoubtedly be down to the age and condition of the original source materials. Generally though the dialogue is quite clear and audible, with reasonable depth of tone and no background noise or distortion.

Regular English subtitles and English subtitles for the hearing impaired are provided in a clear, white font. Commentary tracks and extra features are all also subtitled in English.

Disc 1
Disc 1 contains an interesting variety of archive and new material to present a wide view of the series. There is a Commentary by Allan Melvin for the very first Bilko episode – “New Recruits”, which is quite amiable, Melvin talking about how the show was rehearsed and filmed on a weekly basis, crediting Phil Silver’s comic timing and ability to improvise, and providing a few stories about how things operated at the studio where it was made. Melvin also provides brief audio introductions to each episode. Lost Audition Show (33:05) is a little treasure, a 16mm print of an early test recording of the first episode. It’s a little bit scratchy and the performances are not as polished as the actual show, but all the character traits are already clearly defined and there are a few extra jokes and lines that were cut from the tightened final show. The Ed Sullivan Show Clip (8:39) recreates part of the “Bivouac” episode and is introduced by Ed Sullivan. It was this performance on Ed Sullivan that launched the show into success. In Phil Silvers and Jack Benny on “The Dick Cavett Show” (6:20), an older Phil Silvers looks back on the shows success for a TV chat show. It’s not a substantial interview. ‘Nick at Nite’ (3:03) is an brief interview with Steve Martin, Dan Ackroyd and Phil Hartman, talking about being fans of the original show and their wrong-headed idea of reworking it for modern audiences.

Disc 2
Slightly less substantial, there are nevertheless a few intriguing pieces of archive material among the extras for Disc 2. George Kennedy, who started out working behind the scenes on the Bilko show, delivers an interesting Commentary for ‘The Court Martial’, with a lot of information on the key players in the show’s success and how much he owed to the education he received working and eventually getting his first acting role on the show. There is another Commentary on ‘Doberman’s Sister by Mickey Freeman (Zimmerman) and Larry Storch, which provides good reminiscences on Phil Silvers and Nat Hiken. It’s not really a commentary on the episode, but a few more interviews along these lines would have been welcomed on the set. The Original Network Opening (0:23) and Original Commercials (1:51) show the cast on set advertising and extolling the virtues of smoking Camel cigarettes. A Gag Still Photo, one clearly not used for publicity, has a brief commentary by Allan Melvin (0:11). Tony Randall and Jack Klugman (0:26), TV’s ‘Odd Couple’, give tribute to the Bilko show on a TV show.

Disc 3
There are two further commentaries on the third disc. Dick Van Dyke’s Commentary on the show ‘Hillbilly Whiz’, recalls how this first TV comedy role changed his career and his life, as well as being an education working with a comedian like Phil Silvers. There is another Commentary by Mickey Freeman and Larry Storch on ‘Bilko Joins The Navy’, with a few gaps as Storch watches a performance he hasn’t seen in almost 50 years. Again though they provide some nice reminiscences and anecdotes about working on the show. Phil Silvers presents an award at the 1957 Emmy Awards (2:28) to the writing team on the Bilko show for the ‘Best Comedy Writing – Variety or Situation Comedy’. Phil Silvers on Broadway (7:15) sees a slightly older Phil Silvers with some of the old cast performing a Bilko skit on the Broadway stage. There’s another TV endorsement here for a 1959 Pontiac Commercial (0:42). As factory foreman Harry Grafton, Phil Silvers does a routine presenting the CBS 1963 Fall Preview (3:21), as a promo of his New Phil Silvers Show. In his Final TV Interview with Sonny Fox (5:07) in 1985, Phil Silvers looks noticeably frail but lucidly and fondly reminisces on the Bilko show and some members of the cast. The Bilko Growl (3:15) is a rather cheesy song written and recorded by Silvers’ son-in-law, featuring his “Bilko Growl”. A Photo Gallery includes 24 promo on-set and behind-the-scenes stills.

I have no hesitation in giving The Phil Silvers Show – Sgt. Bilko the highest possible rating and recommendation. A comedy classic, the show’s constantly inventive scripts were always sharp and witty, brilliantly delivered and performed with deceptive ease by the gifted Phil Silvers and a strong supporting cast of character actors. Such is the level of the writing and professionalism in its creation that, 50 years after it was made, the series has not dated in the slightest. This is as funny today as it ever was, and remains an inspiration to many comedians. Paramount have done a fine job of presenting a selection of some outstanding episodes from the series in fine print condition, packaging them with some exceptionally rare archive footage and tributes, but there are many other classics shows missing. A complete release of such classic television is surely merited. A release of Nat Hiken and Al De Caprio’s brilliant Car 54, Where Are You? on DVD wouldn’t go amiss either.

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