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The greatest sitcom of them all - but even Bilko might have something to say about the DVD,
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This review is from: Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show - Season 1 [DVD]  (DVD)
Ten-HUT!!! It's taken them four long years to get around to it after releasing the 50th anniversary compilation, but Paramount and CBS have finally got around to releasing the complete first season of Sergeant Bilko aka The Phil Silvers Show from 1955-6. It may not be as extras-packed as the compilation - a couple of audio commentaries with Allan Melvin (on first episode New Recruits) and technical advisor George Kennedy (on The Court Martial) carried over from the earlier set, the original title sequence, a couple of cast commercials for Camel cigarettes and Pontiac cars, the unbroadcast pilot from when the show was still going to be called You'll Never Get Rich and a 1966 episode of The Lucy Show with Phil Silvers guest starring - but the show is what matters here, and season one comes filled with plenty of classic episodes from the most consistently funny and ingenious American sitcom of them all.
Among the first 34 episodes you'll find The Empty Store, with Bilko pulling one of the greatest cons of all time; The Eating Contest, where Bilko's secret weapon in a eating contest, Ed `The Stomach' Honergan (The Munsters' Fred Gwynne) turns out only to be able to eat when depressed; The Rest Cure, where Bilko tries to con his way out of the heat wave at Fort Baxter and into a free holiday at the army's expense by pretending the Motor Pool are going insane with overwork (listing a Private Marilyn Monroe and naming human sacrifice among their group hobbies on an army questionnaire); The Twitch, where Bilko manages to turn a lecture on Beethoven into an international betting sensation by running a book on how many times the lecturer brought in to stop the men from gambling will involuntarily twitch; The Court Martial, where a chimp on rollerskates is inducted into the army as Private Harry Speakup, coming third in the intelligence test in the process!; Hollywood, where Bilko is sent as a technical advisor on a film the Pentagon doesn't want made and unwittingly drives the studio mad with his creative demands (Three Coins in the Fountain songwriter Jule Styne cameos as himself in this one); and Bilko and the Beast, where Ernie nearly meets his match in the belligerent drill Sergeant Quentin Q. Benton. But even in the lesser episodes, the standard is remarkably high, with plenty of laughs, superb writing and some great moments of ad-libbing, particularly when the odd horse or chimpanzee misses their mark or when Paul Ford stumbles over a line or strays off script.
Bilko himself is one of the great comic creations, the finagling regular army sergeant out to wring every cent he can from every man on the post, who knows all the angles and who can wrap the post's nominal commander, Paul Ford's wonderful Colonel John T. `Melonhead' Hall, around his finger, yet who can still come out the other side likeable for all his duplicity. And, like Dad's Army's blustering Captain Mainwaring, when the chips are down, he genuinely cares about his men - when the slobbish Private Doberman is insulted in Mardi Gras, he takes it as a personal insult to be avenged as a matter of honor. And, of course, there's that great supporting cast: his loyal sidekicks Henshaw (Allan Melvin) and Barbella (Beach Blanket movie regular Harvey Lembeck), his constant rivals Grover (Jimmy Little), Pendleton (Ned Glass) and Mess Sergeant Sowici (Harry Clark) and his motor pool platoon, one of the most amazing collection of geeks, gimps and oddballs ever assembled. In fact, throughout its run the show had a surprisingly huge ensemble of supporting players, the expense of which would ultimately be a factor in its cancellation after four seasons.
The pilot episode, surviving as a scratched 16mm Kinescope copy that was also included on the earlier 50th Anniversary set, is particularly revealing. Somewhat overwritten (it runs 33 minutes versus the regular episodes' 25), the script benefits from some heavy editing when it was reshot as the opening episode, New Recruits, the pilot's dress rehearsal feeling replaced by a much more smoothly-oiled machine that delivers the laughs with much more pace and panache. Some of the casting is different, too. Henshaw is played by Jack Warden with a harder edge than Allan Melvin: a more believable corporal but a less effective stooge, he seems to have come in from a different show. John Gibson's padre is played here by Jimmy Little, who would play a far more convincing Sergeant Grover in the series, while `Melonhead' Hall is played as a bland and unmemorable cipher by an unidentified actor. Other changes are slightly more cosmetic, with Maurice Gosfield appearing in the cast but as Mulrooney rather than the legendary Doberman (who is played by Maurice Brenner, who would be recast as Private Fleischman). It's still a good episode, but it falls just short of the greatness of the series proper.
It's not all good news, however. While they're comparable to the TV prints (though some of the copies that play on the BBC are a bit better), the episodes haven't undergone any remastering, leaving some minor niggles - some episodes are a bit grainy or too bright and there's some slight overcropping of the image in places as well. But worse is that The Horse (and, to a much lesser extent, Mardi Gras) is a curiously re-edited version that loses the odd line here and there by cutting out the original fade-outs and fade-ins and replacing them with abrupt lap-dissolves to remove all trace of commercial breaks. Nothing important is lost, but it seems pointless releasing an inferior version when good prints of the uncut version are still in circulation. And, a more minor niggle, not having a `play all' option but having to return to the menu after each episode is a bit of a pain. It would be nice to think that CBS/Paramount might take a bit more care with the next three seasons, but having waited this long for them to get around to releasing this set, it might just be optimism to assume that they'll be any quicker off the mark releasing them.
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Initial post: 20 Nov 2010 03:36:33 GMT
Edit Watch says:
You're absolutely right about the quality of the episodes. My heart sank when I started watching the first disc, and I'd happily exchange the DVD set for bitstream recordings from BBC2. If CBS/Paramount could borrow the BBC's copies for any future releases, we'd all be better off.
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