Phil Silvers deserved his place on last year’s stamps celebrating TV Early memories. He’s as much an icon of ‘50s TV as Lucille Ball, Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason. He brought to life one of the greatest military characters in Sgt. Ernie Bilko. He wasn’t a heroic warrior like Sgt. York or a tactical genius like General Patton. Sgt. Bilko understood what it took to separate a fool from his money. He ran every racket on Fort Baxter in Kansas. If America was ever attacked by a wad of twenty dollar bills, Bilko would lead us to victory with his marked deck of cards. Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show – The First Season has 34 genius schemes from the most delightfully devious NCO.
“New Recruits” has the base commander attempt to soften Bilko by sticking him with the latest inductees. The base chaplain lays the heavy guilt trip on him to keep him from swindling the greenhorns. They are way too trusting of their new sergeant. During this time, Ernie discovers how he was ripped off in a Poker game and needs the newbie’s cash to stake his revenge. Can he fight it? His two henchmen, Corporal Steve Henshaw (Brady Bunch‘s Allan Melvin) and Corporal Rocco Barbella (Beach Party‘s Harvey Lembeck) can’t believe their leader will resist temptation. “Empty Store” is complicated con game with Bilko renting a building. Everyone is way too curious about what he’s doing. They all want in on the action. “The WAC” gets Bilko jealous when a female sergeant nabs a position that includes a dedicated jeep. He wants his ride. “The Horse” illustrates the dangers of playing the ponies. He nurses a sick horse back to the health. He has to hide it from the brass.
“The Boxer” lands a golden gloves champ in Bilko’s unit. He’s ready to make bank on the pugilist during the base boxing tournament except the guy doesn’t want to fight that way anymore. Can Bilko bring out the tiger in the man? Restraining the beast is necessary when “Hoodlum” places a troubled guy in the barracks. If Bilko can’t fix the kid, he’ll lose his shot at soldier of the year. “The Eating Contest” inducts Fred Gwynne (The Munsters) into the unit. Bilko thinks they’ll rake up at a base eating contest with the man nicknamed “The Stomach.” Trouble is the guy only eats when he’s depressed. It’s up to Bilko to bring on the gloom. “The Centennial” has a new officer show up with the hopes of finding wholesome activities for the troops that don’t allow Bilko to cheat them out of their paychecks. In order to get the guy off the base, Bilko offers to stage a play celebrating the 100th anniversary of Fort Baxter. Trouble is most of the former base commanders were traitors and scoundrels.
“Bivouac” makes sure that Bilko doesn’t have to go into the woods with his troops. Every year he catches a mystery illness that lays him up in the hospital. Colonel Hall (Paul Ford) has a new doctor that will prevent this scam. “Furlough in New York” has him take a trip to the Big Apple. He’s ready to take the town by storm, but things aren’t clicking with his old contacts. He keeps missing Sgt. Joan Hogan (Elisabeth Fraser) around the city. “The Court Martial” inducts an escaped ape. The best way to cover up this mistake is to court martial the ape and they appoint Bilko as the defense to insure a legal victory. Bilko does have a heart as seen in “Bilko on Wall Street.” A old pal lies to Bilko that he’s a big shot in the stock market. Turns out the guy is merely a clerk. Bilko uses his diabolical mind to elevate his pal’s job.
Whether you call this series The Phil Silvers Show, Sgt. Bilko or You’ll Never Get Rich, the 34 episodes are the gold standard of both military and con man comedy. Four years ago the studio released Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show 50th Anniversary Collection. The compilation picked out 18 episodes from the show’s four year run. This made a lot of people hungry for more. Now it’s time to chow down at the mess hall. Report to you favorite retailer to enlist Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show – The First Season into your DVD army.
“New Recruits,” “Empty Store,” “The WAC,” “The Horse,” “AWOL,” “The Boxer,” “The Hoodlum,” “Mardi Gras,” “The Eating Contest,” “The Centennial,” “Bivouac,” “The Singing Contest,” “The Twitch,” “The Reunion,” “The Rich Kid,” “Hollywood,” “The Investigation,” “Kids in the Trailer,” “The Revolutionary War,” “The Transfer,” “The Rest Cure,” “Dinner at Sowici’s,” “Army Memoirs,” “Miss America,” “The Court Martial,” “Furlough in New York,” “The Big Uranium Strike,” “Bilko and the Beast,” “The Physical Check Up,” “The Recruiting Sergeant,” “Hair,” “The Con Men,” “War Games” and “Bilko on Wall Street.”
The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The black and white transfers do have rough patches, but nothing too disruptive. The audio is Dolby Digital mono. The mix is good enough to follow along with the marching orders. The episodes have English subtitles.
Audio Commentaries feature George Kennedy on “The Court Martial” and Allan Melvin on “New Recruits.” Both have good memories of working with Phil Silvers.
The Lost Audition Show (33:05) is the original pilot. The story is the same as “New Recruits.” Jack Warden plays the role of Cpl. Henshaw that went to Allan Melvin. Warden’s just a little too intense to be one of Bilko’s henchmen. This was never aired on TV since the audition was shot with videocameras and captured on 16mm with a kinescope process. The camera work is rough and the print has scratches.
Original Network Openings (0:26) has the troops marching under the orders of Camel Cigarettes. Remember that smoking is bad for you.
Original Cast Commercials (2:38) has them pushing Camel cigarettes and the ’59 Pontiac. The guys at Pontiac gave Phil a horn that matches his personality.
Lucy and the Efficiency Expert (25:28) is from the fifth season of The Lucy Show. Mr. Mooney (Gale Gordon) hires an efficiency expert (Phil Silvers) to transform his bank’s workforce. Little does he suspect that Lucy will connect with Silvers.
Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show – The First Season has quite a few of the great comic moments of the ‘50s. Sgt. Bilko had a glorious way to turn the littlest things into an excuse to wager. The series rates with I Love Lucy and Honeymooners in the pantheon of great sitcoms. If your only memory of Sgt. Bilko is the pathetic Steve Martin film; get this set and enjoy the true genius of the army’s greatest hustler.
CBS DVD presents Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show – The First Season. Starring: Phil Silvers, Allan Melvin, Harvey Lembeck and Paul Ford. Boxset Contents: 34 episodes on 5 DVDs. Released on DVD: July 27, 2010.
Joe Corey is the writer and director of "Danger! Health Films" currently streaming on Night Flight and Amazon Prime. He's the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.