[15 September 2010]
Camp Baxter is a sleepy, non-existent army base outside the town of Roseville, Kansas, also non-existent. There in Company B, Third Platoon, is the Motor Pool Detail under Sgt. Ernest Bilko. He runs a tight motor pool, but that’s not the only thing he runs. Less as a sideline than a mainline, he runs poker games, crap games, and horse races. He promotes dances, contests, and anything else with an entry fee. He keeps the camp in a more or less constant state of gambling fever in between various get-rich-quick schemes and other underhanded shenanigans.
From 1955 to 1959, CBS broadcast one of the era’s classic sitcoms, Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show. Its first three seasons won consecutive Emmys for Best Comedy Writing and Best Comedy (or Half-Hour) Series. It actually never finished a season in the top 20, but it was loved by critics and audiences and its reruns were syndicated forever, or so it seemed. It’s been much harder to find in the last few decades. In 2006, 18 episodes were selected for a 50th Anniversary DVD, but the full first season only now appears on disc at long last. If only we could be sure what the show is called!
One reference book, Alex McNeil’s Total Television, lists it under its original title, You’ll Never Get Rich. Brooks & Marsh’s standard Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows lists it as The Phil Silvers Show, saying it adopted that title early in its first season. Both agree it was syndicated as Sgt. Bilko, which is how most people know it. The episodes on DVD all open with an animated sequence proclaiming it The Phil Silvers Show. A bonus clip showing the original network opening has THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW followed immediately by “You’ll Never Get Rich” in quotation marks, as though the latter is the real title and the former is a generic label introducing it. CBS/Paramount has titled this collection Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show: The First Season. Nobody can make up their minds.
Oh well, Bilko can bamboozle anybody. He was a master of ambiguity, not to say ingenuity and disingenuity. Among its excesses, this is one of the loudest shows in history. Nobody delivers a line when they can bellow it, and the screaming is probably necessary to get a word in. As Bilko, Phil Silvers basically yammers nonstop for 30-minutes, so that watching this show is to surrender yourself to the force of nature that is Silvers. You spend most of your time gazing at him as he waggles his balding pate, jiggles his eyebrows above horn-rimmed glasses, points his fingers and his nose toward opposite corners of sky, and drones incessantly amid barks and gasps. “Look alive, you heroes! Oh, fun-ny, fun-neee....” If he were singing, he’d be a staccato coloratura.
These half-hour scripts are the work of creator/producer Nat Hiken, who functioned as head writer and stage-directed the live performances before an audience. (Director Al DeCaprio was in charge of filming the performance.) As in I Love Lucy, the plot is structured as a series of reversals so that it becomes impossible to predict where it comes out or how Bilko will fare in his various schemes. When he succeeds, it’s usually because he’s doing it for someone else or is otherwise motivated by a sense of justice, and these plans are often tossed off at a moment’s notice and seemingly without conscious effort. When he’s motivated by personal gain, either things don’t work out quite as planned or he suffers an attack of ethics that prevents him from exploiting the innocent.
As the first season progresses, Hiken toys with form. “The Revolutionary War” finds Bilko reading the diary of Captain Joshua Bilko (played by Silvers in flashbacks), an ancestor who served George Washington at Valley Forge. “The Army Memoir”, instead of telling its story straightforwardly, couches it in flashback as an editor reads about the event in a manuscript. In both episodes, the flow of events is interrupted by interludes of the characters discussing what they read. “Miss America” suddenly indulges in a dream-ballet in the manner of Oklahoma.
Bilko’s corporals are beanpole Steve Henshaw (Allan Melvin) and smaller, rounder Rocco Barbella (Harvey Lembeck). The camp commander is Col. John T. Hall (Paul Ford), a befuddled bulldog whose entire role consists of standing around barking “Bilko!” As actor George Kennedy (an assistant early in his career) states in his commentary on one episode, Ford almost steals scenes from the hyperactive Silvers simply by standing there like a monument, staring into space.
As a genre, military comedy is based on the tension between the institution and the individual. A variety of hardy comic types are presented who clash with the institution. One is the wheeler-dealer who works the system. This is Bilko, a variant of the flim-flam man, the con artist, the Yankee peddler, the fast-talking schemer. Along with Professor Harold Hill (The Music Man) or Mark Twain’s Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, he is the specifically American version of the archetypal trickster who wins some and loses some. A specifically military variant is the loafer who works hard at not working. Beetle Bailey is another example, although without the gift of gab.
Another type is the innocent or the naif who has somehow gotten into the army, as seen in the book, play and movie of No Time for Sergeants, the TV series Gomer Pyle, and in the ‘80s, Private Benjamin. This character can be used for satiric purposes to expose the system, as in Jaroslav Hacek’s good soldier Schweik, but more often he’s just a hapless fool like the comic book Sad Sack. If the tension ever resolves, the plot ends. When Private Benjamin becomes a crack soldier, the triumph of the army is equated with her personal triumph and the movie’s over. She has become integrated into the system. Comedy only functions as long as the character is somehow maintained in the system while being at odds with it.
None of this makes automatically for satire. Most military comedies are essentially reassuring tales about a system that’s capable of allowing for such freakish individuals instead of stamping them out. Satire hardly enters the field until Catch-22 or Robert Altman’s film of M*A*S*H, which performed the trick of taking just such a benignly comedic novel and turning it into something cruel. Altman said that he despised the TV series made from his movie, perhaps because its tone altered until it presented a vision of humane experts heroically doing their jobs in a hostile environment. The cruelty and madness of war became an outside thing imposed on its participants rather than something arising from within them. Comedy becomes satire when it touches on cruel realities rather than avoiding them. When satire avoids harshness, it goes back to being mere comedy.
Query: Is there always something subversive about comedy? Perhaps only when it’s funny.
Most military comedies don’t mention any war that might be going on at the time, unless it’s safely over and won already. It’s a drag if the characters might be sent into combat. Fortunately for Bilko, the peacetime army could be standing in for any job. It’s really an office comedy, with our hero as the man who negotiates between the lowest level (the enlisted men, the wage-slaves) and the privileged officer/executive classes represented by the aging, overweight blowhards who somehow have power. In this hierarchy, it’s revealed that power always comes from the bottom, and that a secretary or office boy can bring an institution to its knees. Perhaps this is a consoling fantasy, although the heck of it is, it might be true.
One curious point is that the characters in the show, being regular army guys of middle age, all saw action in World War II. They occasionally refer to this in the dialogue as a distant memory. In one episode, Bilko attends a reunion of his old platoon and discovers they’ve all become rich in civilian life. He’d imagined himself far outdistancing them with his master sergeant stripes. When he gets a taste of civilian work, however, he realizes he’s content with the trivial crises of the motor pool. It’s one of the show’s moments of self-awareness for Bilko, and it’s skated across lightly.
Another epiphanic entry is “The Transfer”, in which Bilko goes to a camp that welcomes his personality, while his eager-beaver replacement whips the motor pool into shape. Both Bilko and the Colonel are theoretically getting what they want, yet they’re not satisfied. At the simplest level, this reinforces the inertia on which sitcoms depend; the situation can’t be allowed to change dramatically. More tellingly, it does so through character. The characters carry the situation inside them and create it. They aren’t shaped by it. This episode demonstrates not that the situation mustn’t change, but that it simply can’t unless characters change first.
The notion that we create our destiny is touched on in “Dinner at Sowici’s,” which presents a hilariously bitter portrait of a miserable family life. Then, absurdly, the bickering family turns itself around when they are made self-conscious by Bilko’s interest in them. This serves a mechanical plot point, but the character insight takes over the episode.
Some of us (meaning me) divide sitcoms into a taxonomy of order or chaos. Some sitcoms, especially gentle family shows, exist in a world where order and harmony are the norm. The plot contrives to threaten this order momentarily, but then order is restored and the plot ends in its normal harmonious state. We watch the Nelsons, the Andersons, the Cleavers, the Huxtables in order to be reassured that problems can be resolved with intelligence and tact. For the shows of order, problems impinge on the family’s harmony from the outside or else arise from good-natured misunderstandings.
By contrast, Bilko exists in a norm of chaos. It begins and ends in a state of noise, tension and disorder, and the plot involves a failed attempt to find order (i.e., to get rich) or else narrowly averting (or failing to avert) some disaster in order to return to the status quo of relatively benign disorder. In fact, the chaos itself often solves its own problem, since disorder is the status quo, anyway.
Even when the week’s problem is resolved, the punchline or coda is often a fresh outbreak of disorder from a new quarter. Consider the episode “The Con Men”, in which Bilko brilliantly turns the tables on some sharpies who fleeced one of his men, only to find that the same soldier has fallen for a fresh scam as they were rescuing him from the first one.
These comedies often focus on powerful yet thwarted personalities who have the ability to create chaos out of order, and the fun is watching expectantly for this chaos that we wish to happen. Examples are Bilko, Lucy Ricardo, Ralph Kramden, Jeannie, Archie Bunker, and Samantha Stevens. We don’t watch to see how they solve problems but how they create them. And if they didn’t go around creating them, there’d be no show. These shows can be read for clues to tensions or fissures in the social fabric, such as Bilko’s reversals of power and the powerless in a system. And this, it need hardly be added, is why they can make us laugh.
This series becomes satire most clearly when Bilko is literally off-base. In “Bilko on Wall Street”, he poses as a bigshot to manipulate two firms into bidding for his buddy’s services, and it’s a pleasure to watch him make fools of everyone. It’s always a pleasure when Bilko “acts”, as when he plays the rube in “The Con Men”. We enjoy his transparency while the characters in the story are utterly taken in.
Another highlight is “Hollywood”, in which bigshot producer Cecil D. Chadwick (Howard Smith, also entering the blowhard sweepstakes), creator of such war epics as “Iwo Jima Baby”, is currently making “Love in a Foxhole”. (He changed it from “Guns, Guts and Gals” because the word “gals” in the title is crude.) The tagline: “Their battle flag was a torn sarong but they blasted their way into Tokyo.” He expressly doesn’t want any soldiers around when he’s making a war picture, but Bilko is dispatched as a technical advisor because he served in the battle being scripted. As Bilko hastens to point out, however, the court of inquiry proved the girl was lying—he did pay for the laundry. The cadre of movie types, including composer Jule Styne as himself, are alarmed to discover that Bilko is more than ready to go Hollywood with jodhpurs and megaphone, and the irony within the show’s irony is that the “truth” provided by the real-life veteran will be as fantastic as the Hollywood version.
One of the best episodes is certifiably a military satire, a frantic epic called “The Court Martial”. The central idea is that a chimpanzee is processed into the army. One could catalogue the glorious absurdities, but that’s nothing like seeing them. While I normally dislike simian humor, this is flat-out funny. The monkey and humans have marvelous timing and even play off each other’s ad-libs.
It’s difficult to keep track of the characters because they usually aren’t credited and sometimes seem to have different names on different episodes, and this isn’t helped by the fact that even the regulars do double duty as guest characters as the need arises. In Season One, Bilko’s platoon consists of 10 regular soldiers: Herby or Herbie Faye as Cpl. Sam Fender, Maurice Gosfield as Pvt. Duane Doberman (naive slob), Walter Cartier as Pvt. Claude Dillingham (big palooka), Mickey Freeman as Pvt. Herman Zimmerman (little bantam), Bernie Fein as Pvt. Gomez, Karl Lucas as Pvt. Kadowski, Maurice Brenner as Pvt. Fleischman, Jack Healey as Pvt. Mullen, Billy Sands as Pvt. Dino Paparelli, and P.J. or P. Jaye Sidney as Pvt. Palmer. Occasionally Tiger Andrews shows up as Pvt. Gander.
By the way, Pvt. Palmer is African-American, and so is Billie (Billie Allen), one of the WACs in the Colonel’s secretarial pool. There’s usually a black face in every crowd. That’s unremarkable today, but it wasn’t the norm on American TV in the ‘50s. It happened only because Hiken made a point of racial integration in his shows. (Nipsey Russell played a cop in Hiken’s next series, Car 54.) If it seems a minor detail, consider that the most prominent black images on ‘50s sitcoms were the bumbling maid Beulah and the uneducated southerners on Amos ‘n’ Andy. The latter is an especially interesting show, but it imagined a “separate but equal” world of segregated sitcom buffoonery while the black characters in Hiken’s shows were integrated without comment into a white-majority world. Each carried its own messages and implications.
Other regulars this season include Harry Clark as Mess Sgt. Stanley Sowici; Ned Glass as Supply Sgt. Andy Pendleton; Jimmy Little as Signal Corps Sgt. Steve or Jim Grover (although the actor plays a general at one point); Hope Sansberry as Nell Hall, the Colonel’s wife; and Jim Perry as Lt. Anderson. Seen several times are John Gibson as Tom, the chaplain; Elisabeth Fraser as Sgt. Joan Hogan, Bilko’s girlfriend; Nicholas Saunders as Captain Barker; Barbara Barrie as Edna, another secretarial WAC; Jane Dulo as Mildred the Barracuda, a barfly; and Dody Goodman as Marcella, the squeaky waitress at the Paradise Bar & Grill, known informally as the Snake Pit.
A look at episodes about new recruits will provide a sense of how marathon viewings become a sea of dèja vu. The first two episodes are about a new batch of fresh-faced recruits temporarily assigned to Bilko’s platoon under eager-beaver Pvt. Higgins (Michael Dreyfuss). Later, there’s another batch of recruits in “The Recruiting Officer”, and another in “War Games” under Pvt. Wilkins (Eddie Bruce). All three batches include exactly the same unknown square-jawed young black actor in horn-rimmed glasses and a crewcut. Two batches have the same blonde bug-eyed kid, and in between he’s also Private Carter (Bob Shawley), the equine expert in “The Horse”. By a quirk of casting, he bears an uncanny resemblance to both Higgins and Wilkins, and indeed he assumes the eager-beaver role himself in “The Recruiting Officer”.
Also in the first batch is Paul Porter Jr., promptly recycled as surly punk Chick Parker in “The Hoodlum”. The same skinny white kid with glasses seems to be recruited in those first episodes plus “The Recruiting Officer” and “The Court Martial”. There’s a bald, dumpy private named Tony Van Dyke in the first episode, and this actor becomes the drugstore clerk in “War Games”. Let’s not even mention the toothy character actress who plays the mayor’s secretary, an art lecturer, and an assistant editor; we can’t mention her because we don’t know who she is.
It’s important to note someone who doesn’t appear this season: Joe E. Ross as Sgt. Ritzik. This character was introduced later, and the actor was popular enough to be recruited into Hiken’s next series, Car 54, Where Are You?. However, two other stars of that series, Fred Gwynne and Charlotte Rae, make guest appearances in the first season of Bilko. Gwynne plays a character nicknamed “the Stomach” while Rae is “the Twitch”. Special kudos to Toni Roamer’s guest role as the shrill Agnes Sowici in “Dinner at Sowici’s”. The Sowicis were a dry run for the Ritziks.
In 1958, the series made a transition from being filmed before an audience in a New York studio to being shot like a movie and played back before an audience to record their reactions. By the final season, Hiken had left and the show was being shot in Hollywood. That was when it was explained that the entire platoon had been transferred to California. A burned-out Silvers finally quit, according to Kennedy’s commentary. Other sources say CBS pulled the plug because the ratings were falling and the show was getting too expensive with its large cast. Whatever the reason, there were only four seasons, but seasons were long in those days. Season One has 34 episodes and they’re very sharp here, visually and otherwise. We look forward to the rest of them.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but this was one of the first sitcoms, perhaps the first, to sign off with a proper finalé. In a special one-hour show co-scripted by Neil Simon with a postmodern twist, the Colonel installs closed-circuit cameras all over the base to catch Bilko red-handed. According to IMDB, the episode ends with Bilko and his corporals in the brig, being watched on the Colonel’s monitor. Bilko looks into the camera and says “Th-th-that’s all folks!” Yes, 40 years before Seinfeld, a sitcom ended with its heroes in jail. Chaos out of order.
Extras include a few commercials with the characters smoking the sponsor’s cigarettes, and a latter-day episode of The Lucy Show (post-Vivian Vance) with Silvers as guest. Perhaps the intention is to contrast Silvers in a funny, well-written show vs. another kind of specimen entirely, for this isn’t one of the best examples of Lucy’s second series. The putative highlight is an homage (that’s French for rip-off) to Lucy’s brilliant, all-time classic assembly-line routine, but there’s a reason why this one hasn’t been burned into the public’s collective memory. (This series’ first two seasons, which many fans consider the best, are on DVD.)
A true character actor, Silvers essentially always played variants of Bilko. His one-season follow-up, The New Phil Silvers Show (1963-64), failed to register despite being produced by Rod Amateu, a major sitcom figure whose resumé as producer, director and/or writer included The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Bob Cummings Show and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. That ain’t hay. (And where are those DVD’s, while we’re on the subject?) Mind you, Amateau moved on from Silvers to the infamous My Mother the Car, but that only makes me want to take a look at that one, too.
For now, we’ve got Season One of this classic. We’ll have to start lobbying for the rest of our overlooked TV history to emerge into the digital light. If only we could send Bilko into the studio vaults to snap his fingers and shout “C’mon, everybody, look alive, look alive, click click click, chop chop chop!” Since he’d be doing it for our benefit, he’d succeed in no time.
Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.