DVD Review: Sgt. Bilko, The Phil Silvers Show (The Complete Series)

Whether you call the series You’ll Never Get Rich, The Phil Silvers Show, Sgt. Bilko or just Bilko, this army sitcom ranks among the elite. There’s no denying the genius that came from mixing creator Nat Hiken and actor Phil Silvers on a remote military base. Sgt. Bilko is the greatest hustler in TV history. He could always come up with a scam or devise a game chance from the most innocent of moments. He’d take wagers on how many angels can fit on the head of pin in the barracks. Bilko left its imprint on all military comedies including McHale’s Navy, Hogan’s Heroes, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. and M*A*S*H*. Hanna-Barbera ripped off the chief hustler and his crew attitude to create Top Cat. After teasing fans with a compilation collection in 2006 and season one set in 2010, Sgt. Bilko, The Phil Silvers Show: The Complete Series reports to duty.

Sgt. Bilko runs the motorpool at Fort Baxter in Kansas. But he’s also the king of every scam in the state. He seems to rationalize that he’s entitled to all the cash on base since military men don’t need to get paid. They don’t have to pay for their food, uniforms or bunks. All money can do is get them in trouble. He’s not emptying their bank accounts. He’s freeing them for the wicked temptations that lures servicemen into losing their paychecks and getting busted by the Military Police. Bilko didn’t pull off his swindles alone. Being the military, he had his two best corporals acting as his support structure. Cpl. Rocco Barbella was Harvey Lembeck, beloved as Eric Von Zipper in the Beach Party films. Cpt. Steve Henshaw was Allan Melvin, worshiped as Sam the Butcher on The Brady Bunch. Melvin was promoted to Staff Sergeant on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. They made a formidable pair as they backed up Bilko in crooked Poker games and other shenanigans. They spent a lot of time helping Bilko run interference around base commander Col. Hall (Paul Ford). While men in Bilko’s unit rotate out, there’s quite a few regular faces in the bunks including Billy Sands (McHale’s Navy) and the messy Maurice Gosfield as Pvt. Doberman.

“New Recruits” introduces the scheming nature of Bilko as he does his best to get the new guys to give him their cash. He wants to keep it safe. And the safest place is in the pot of his next Poker game. “The Empty Store” is a perfect con game when Bilko rents a space, but refuses to say what he wants to do in the space. “The Hoodlum” shows that Bilko can do good when being selfish. He wants to win an award, but needs to reform a troubled private to have a chance. “The Eating Contest” introduced Fred Gwynne (The Munsters) to America as a speed eater. Tige Andrews (Mod Squad) has a bit part. “Bivouac” has Bilko doing his best to fake being ill so he doesn’t have to go out on maneuvers with the troops. “The Twitch” has Bilko turn a fine arts lecture into a gambling operation. At the heart of this scheme is an unwitting Charlotte Rae (The Facts of Life).

The second season opens with “Platoon In the Movies.” Bilko’s unit gets picked to star in an educational film about upkeep on vehicles. Bilko wants to rewrite the script to give it a sense of drama. “It’s For the Birds” brings back Fred Gywnne as a bird expert that’s going to score big on the $64,000 question. Bilko has a scheme for him except there’s a memory issue. “The Face on the Recruiting Poster” ends up with the most notorious mug getting the prime slot. It’s during this time that Eric Fleming would be part of the unit. He’d eventually ride off onto Rawhide. During the second season Joe E. Ross would appear as the Sarge in charge of the mess hall. Ross and Gwynne would buddy up for Nat Hiken’s Car 54, Where Are You?

The fourth season would feature a base transfer for Bilko and his key men. They’d move from Kansas to Camp Fremont in California. “Gold Fever” sets the shift as part of Bilko’s scheme to tap into an abandoned gold mine. What really gets mined is the ability to have plenty of Hollywood stars drop by the base as part of their USO work. “Bilko Presents the McGuire Sisters” also features a brief appearance from Mickey Rooney. “Bilko’s Secret Mission” includes a top secret appearance from a Rat Pack agent. Not all the plots were showbiz oriented. “Bilko, the Potato Sack King” has him plot to change the material in uniforms. “Bilko Joins the Navy” has him end up at sea. Later this concept would be retitled McHale’s Navy. Larry Storch (F Troop) plays a role in this watery entrapment. “Bilko’s Godson” features a young Dick Cavett. This is the episode that gets referenced in Dick’s bonus feature moment. “The Weekend Colonel” ends the series with an episode that brings the antics to a proper stopping point. Bilko finds a dead ringer for Col. Hall. He nearly gets away with the switcheroo. The final scene sums up the glory of a show that shouldn’t have wrapped up so soon.

Why did Bilko leave the air after 4 seasons? The show had won the Emmy for Best Sitcom three times so it was beloved. But CBS executives didn’t seem to care about legacy and quality. The good news was that in those scant 4 seasons, Hiken was able to produce 142 episodes. The series didn’t become stale as it lugged its way to a dozen season. Bilko became an immediate smash in syndication. It’s still on Me-TV. Hiken moved on with Car 54, Where Are You?. Phil Silvers would get numerous small parts on shows and movies, but little could compete with the genius of him being Bilko. Anyone who claims they love classic TV comedies, needs to have Sgt. Bilko, The Phil Silvers Show: The Complete Series standing proud in their DVD collection.

The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The transfers bring out the black and white sheen. You can see the details in Phil Silvers’ face when Bilko hatches his latest scheme. The audio is Dolby Digital mono. You can clearly hear Bilko’s nonsense calls. The episodes are subtitled.

Audio Commentaries feature George Kennedy on “The Court Martial”, Allan Melvin on “New Recruits,” Larry Storch & Mickey Freeman on “Doberman’s Sister” and “Bilko Joins the Navy” Dick Van Dyke on “Hillbilly Whiz,”

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.

The Cast of Phil Silvers On Broadway (7:15) is Bilko and his crew on stage. He tries to find some talent amongst the troops. He gets slap happy with the men.

Phil Silvers and Jack Benny on The Dick Cavett Show (5:03) lets the two men enjoy being around each other. Silvers talks about how Bilko came together.

Interview with Cathy Silvers (8:44) brings up her memories of her dad. Her “good luck” story is brilliant.

Interview with Nancey Silvers and Tracey Silvers (27:16) lets the daughters give the history of their father. They talk about dad being best friends with Orson Welles. There’s even a story about how Phil was palling around with Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys.

The Paul Ryan Show (25:28) is not the guy who ran for Vice President. Phil is quick to clear up any mix ups in his introduction. Paul gets Phil to tell plenty of stories. This was recorded in 1980.

Footage From “Keep In Step” (20:59) is incomplete. This was a special that aired as part of “The Pontiac Star Parade.” This is a live episode of Sgt. Bilko.

The New Phil Silvers Show Promo (3:20) is his segment from the CBS preview show. He shows off the mail ordering system.

The New Phil Silvers Show (25:34) is the episode “Harry the Good Neighbor.” Phil’s character attempts to fix a young couple’s marriage. Things don’t go right. The sample episode hints why the series didn’t last.

Phil’s Final TV Interview with Sonny Fox (5:06) has Phil mention that the show’s ratings went up when they called it The Phil Silvers Show instead of You’ll Never Get Rich.

Sgt. Bilko, The Phil Silvers Show: The Complete Series is what devoted fans have been waiting for since they were teased back in 2006. The episodes are here. The bonus features give a sense of Bilko-mania and Phil Silvers as a person. Don’t be scammed by other shows.

Shout! Factory presents Sgt. Bilko, The Phil Silvers Show: The Complete Series. Starring: Phil Silvers, Allan Melvin, Harvey Lembeck and Paul Ford. Boxset Contents: 142 episodes on 20 DVDs. Rated: Unrated. Released: November 4, 2014.

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