A marvelous record of an overpowering, low-comedy performance by Phil Silvers as Milton Biffle
Jan 22, 2012
There are two excellent reasons for watching Top Banana, a bare-bones filming of a Broadway stage show from the Fifties that stars Phil Silvers as Jerry Biffle, the headliner of a popular television comedy show (and patterned after Milton Berle).
First, there's the rare chance to see Phil Silvers in prime, ego-driven form. Jerry Biffle is a great comedian. He also has an ego as big as a brachiosaurus. He's a whistle-blowing, finger-snapping terror who runs every aspect of his show and tries to run every aspect of the people who work for him. He needs jokes like a starving man needs manna. He can punch home a one liner as hard as Rocky Marciano. He's loud, aggressive and funny.
The second reason is to watch Silvers work with a collection of second bananas who, like Silvers, cut their low-comedy teeth working years in burlesque. There's Jack Albertson as Biffle's head writer, Joey Faye as a gofer and Herbie Faye as a barber. The extended routine the four of them do to demonstrate what it takes to get to be a top banana is worth the price of the poor-quality DVD. Their routine is done to Johnny Mercer's "Top Banana" song and features prat falls, double and triple takes, corny jokes, wheezing routines and seltzer water down the pants, all done fast, loud and with split-second timing.
The story is just a hook to hang Silvers' performance on. Jerry Biffle's show is starting to slide in the ratings. The pressure is on, so two young singers, Sally Peters (Judy Lynn) and Cliff Lane (Danny Scholl) are added for love interest. They fall for each other but Biffle falls for Sally, too. Then there's Sally's roommate, the wise-cracking and earnest Betty Dillon (Rose Marie). She falls for Jerry. It all works out with minimum interruption to Silvers' performance. By the end of the show we've almost forgotten there was any romance to begin with. Johnny Mercer wrote the songs, music as well as lyrics. The comedy numbers are great, the swinging numbers are fine. The couple of serious romantic numbers are just so-so.
Sure, the movie is static. Cameras were stationed in front of the stage sets and the players did their stuff without an audience. Great chunks of the Broadway show were edited out, including almost all of Rose Marie's part (she is second billed) including nearly all of her songs. Of the 14 songs in the score, only seven survived. The two production numbers that made the cut, unfortunately, are awful. The full Broadway score is still available on CD. On it you'll hear two cut numbers that I wish had survived: "I Fought Every Inch of the Way," a clever, sardonic song about love sung by Rose Marie, and "Word a Day," a jauntily literate song about improving a person's vocabulary, sung by Rose Marie and Silvers.
The show is all about Jerry Biffle and depends entirely on Phil Silvers' roaring, inflated and even touching performance. For those who only remember Silvers in his Sergeant Bilko role or as the comic relief in such films as Cover Girl and Summer Stock, his performance here might cause a re-evaluation.
Silvers was a classic low comedian who could be overpowering. Yet unlike some, he also managed to show some believable vulnerability that made him likable. What he was able to do could only have been achieved by big talent and years of honing his craft in burlesque. Watch him in the second great low-comedy set piece. He and a flunky have gone to Sally Peters' rooming house to help her elope. They realize a small man (Johnny Trama) with a pork-pie hat and a dead-pan face is observing them. Before long they're deep into a classic burlesque routine where the small man's hands stick to everything he touches, including the other men's hands and various parts of Silvers' anatomy. First two and then the three of them are twisting, contorting, turning and stepping over and under trying to get loose of each other. It's a great old routine that requires the three to know exactly what they're doing. Trama makes the routine work but Silvers makes it funny.
For fans of Phil Silvers and low comedy routines from burlesque, you may want this despite the quality of the transcription.
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About the reviewer
C. O. DeRiemer (Charley2)
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more