Monday, December 17, 2012
Heart, Humor and Humanity of "The Phil Silvers Show"
One of my favorite TV shows is the classic "The Phil Silvers Show" that aired on CBS from 1955 to 1959. I caught up with it in the mid-1990s due to frequent airings of it on Comedy Central and TV Land. I wish more than one season of the show would be released on DVD, as I never tire of watching the antics of Phil Silvers as Master Sergeant Ernie Bilko and the many schemes he concocts at Fort Baxter in order to make life more enjoyable for himself and his men. One of the aspects of the show I enjoy the most is his adversarial relationship with his Commanding Officer, Colonel Hall (Paul Ford). The hapless Colonel Hall is always at wits end trying to put an end to Bilko's numerous schemes and activities. But what makes the episodes so funny is that there is no underlying hostility between Bilko and Hall. Beneath it all is some genuine caring and affection and no episode exemplifies this better than "The Colonel's Reunion" which aired February 17, 1958.
We open the episode with Colonel Hall initiating "Operation Moonbeam," an enterprise to end Bilko's gambling operations on Fort Baxter. Hall and his subordinate Captain Barker (Nick Saunders) successfully undermine Bilko's attempts to run a casino in his office, in a kitchen, in a gas chamber, and in a shower. Bilko is so flustered by the success of Hall's operation that he endeavors to get Colonel Hall away from Fort Baxter for the upcoming weekend so that he and his men can gamble on base unencumbered. When Bilko learns that a reunion of Colonel Hall's military academy regiment is occurring that weekend in Chicago, he coerces retired General Bertram Whitney (Howard St. John), head of Consolidated Industries and the host of the reunion, into inviting Colonel Hall and his wife to the reunion. Bilko sends a telegram, using Colonel Hall's name, to General Whitney indicating that the Colonel intends to visit him this coming weekend. The snooty General and Mrs. Whitney, who felt the Halls were beneath their social strata to ever consider having at the reunion, reluctantly send an invitation to the unsuspecting Halls. The Whitneys think so little of the Halls that they decide to house them in the tiny maid's room that does not even have a closet. Colonel Hall is touched at the notion that General Whitney might have remembered him well enough to invite him, and is excited at the prospect of seeing his former classmates (all of whom, except for Hall, have risen to the level of General) again. Colonel Hall, realizing that Bilko will take advantage of his absence and allow gambling at Fort Baxter, orders Bilko and Private Paparelli (Billy Sands) to accompany him and Mrs. Hall on the trip as their drivers.
After Bilko and Paparelli drop the Halls at General Whitney's residence, they overhear the General and his wife speaking derisively about Colonel Hall and his wife. Bilko becomes incensed at hearing the Whitneys mocking Colonel Hall's intellectual acumen and Mrs. Hall's simple wardrobe. Filled with contrition because he has created a situation that could lead to the Hall's humiliation, Bilko decides to trick the Whitney's into thinking that the Halls are much more prestigious than they have given them credit for being. Bilko returns to the residence later, dressed in a trenchcoat playing "Secret Agent X-43," to notify General Whitney that Colonel Hall is spearheading "Operation Moonbeam," a top-secret project to establish American supremacy in Outer Space. "Agent X-43" describes to General Whitney how Colonel Hall used to debate physics with Einstein at Princeton, which causes General Whitney to regret ever calling Colonel Hall by his old military academy nickname "Melonhead." He scolds General Whitney for ever thinking of Colonel Hall as stupid, "By George, if we had all listened to John Hall, we would've been on the moon two years ago!" All of this causes General Whitney to also regret putting the Halls in the maids room and he promises "Agent X-43" that he will move them to larger quarters immediately.
Later, Bilko returns disguised as the fictitious Parisian fashion editor "Pierre Boudoir" to speak with Mrs. Whitney. "Pierre Boudoir" asks for Mrs. Whitney's permission to use a photograph of her home on the cover of the French fashion magazine "Chic." He informs Mrs. Whitney that it was Mrs. Hall who suggested he put her home on his magazine, and that Mrs. Hall is known in Paris as a fashion trendsetter nicknamed "Frou-Frou." He extols the virtues of Mrs. Hall's fashion sense and tells Mrs. Whitney that "She will wear my gorgeous creations once and then Poof!...tomorrow she gives it away to a chambermaid or somebody...She is what you Americans call very generous." He extracts a promise from Mrs. Whitney that no one will copy the dress he has designed for Mrs. Hall to wear that evening, because it will not reach American shores for at least a year.
Bilko's scheming works and Colonel and Mrs. Hall become the hit of the party. They arrive at the reunion with the status-conscious Whitneys leading the other guests in a performance of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." The other Army Generals try to extract information from Colonel Hall about "Operation Moonbeam" to which the unsuspecting Colonel Hall says "Well, it was nothing, really. I just don't like gambling!" One of the Generals responds "And you're so right...it's suicide gambling with our National Security!" Meanwhile, the smooty, fancy women at the party fawn over Mrs. Hall's low-key dress to such a degree that she promises to send Mrs. Whitney one just like it once she returns to Fort Baxter. Mrs. Whitney boasts to the other women "I'm lucky!...Usually the chambermaid gets it!" Bilko's scheme works almost too well when he later learns that General Whitney offered Colonel Hall a high paying (for 1958-- $25,000 a year!) executive position with Consolidated Industries. Bilko, realizing that Colonel Hall does not have the business acumen to make a success of the offer (nor does he want to take the time to "break in" another Commanding Officer that he can easily manipulate), talks loudly to Paparelli about his plans to turn Fort Baxter into a full-time gambling casino for Colonel Hall to overhear. Hall decides not to take the job offer, "Bilko, I'm not going to stand by and let a camp belonging to the United States Army be taken over by a mafia in khaki!...The (job) opportunity can wait. Fort Baxter is more important to me at the moment. It isn't much, Bilko, but I love that camp! And I'm not going to let you turn it into a carnival ground!" And so ends another brilliant episode of "The Phil Silvers Show."
The episode is notable because Bilko uses his manipulative ways to help, rather than hinder, Colonel Hall. When Bilko learns that General Whitney did not initially invite Colonel Hall to the regiment reunion, he becomes indignant, not merely because it interrupts his gambling operations, but also because he disdains the snobbery the Whitneys have for the Halls. Bilko might take advantage of Colonel Hall's dim-witted nature to his own advantage, but he actually seems to like the Colonel and his wife and would never intentionally degrade, humiliate or condescend to them. They might be adversaries for control of Fort Baxter, but Bilko's actions in this episode indicate that he ultimately respects Colonel Hall, if not necessarily as his Commanding Officer, then at least as a fellow human being. I believe the inherent decency in Bilko is what endears him to audiences. His scheming never becomes annoying or off-putting because it is all done in good fun. His rebellion against Colonel Hall is not a rebellion against the United States or the Army, but merely against boredom and complacency at Fort Baxter. I think Bilko is a character who still takes a lot of pride in serving his country and, in the end, I also believe he grudgingly respects Colonel Hall, and the authority he represents as his Commanding Officer, even if he doesn't necessarily always abide by it. Phil Silvers is smart enough to realize that Bilko's schemes remain endearing because he never forgets to instill heart, as well as humor, to this character. So that's why it's particularly satisfying in "The Colonel's Reunion" episode to see Bilko use his talents for the force of "good," so to speak, when he fools the pompous Whitneys into believing that the Halls are more prestigious than they are. Phil Silvers is absolutely brilliant in this episode when he plays "Agent X-43" and "Pierre Boudoir." You find yourself rooting for him as he lays the groundwork for the comeuppance of the Whitneys and the validation of the Halls.
But the scheme wouldn't be as satisfying if Paul Ford and Hope Sansberry were not so sympathetic as the Colonel and his wife. What makes the Halls so likeable is the fact that Ford and Sansberry never come across as overly stuffy authority figures on "The Phil Silvers Show." Ford has a good natured warmth about himself as Colonel Hall that you always feel for him whenever Bilko outwits him. And Sansberry never allows Mrs. Hall to come across as cold or uptight. She is always endearing and sweet. The two of them are wonderful together, especially in the scene where they are nervous right before they make their entrance at the reunion. Colonel Hall feels intimidated because his former classmates have all exceeded him professionally, and Mrs. Hall is intimidated because of the simple dress she is wearing. They needn't worry, because it's clear that they have more substance as human beings than the prestigious "posers" waiting in the other room. I find the scene that follows where Whitney and the other Generals pump Colonel Hall for information on "Operation Moonbeam," while all the fancy women in attendance fawn over Mrs. Hall and her low-key dress, wonderfully gratifying and endearing. It is a rare moment for Colonel Hall and his wife to triumph and, what's admirable is that they don't allow this sudden popularity to go to their heads. Even though they are excited and overwhelmed by the attention, they remain as humble as ever. They were worthy of Bilko watching out for them. I am also always touched by the earlier scene in this episode where Colonel Hall reacts excitedly like a kid at Christmas at receiving his invitation to the reunion. Colonel Hall says to his wife, "I still can't believe it! Nell, I didn't think General Whitney even remembered me!" Mrs. Hall says supportively, "That's your whole trouble dear, you're always underestimating yourself. Why shouldn't he remember you?" Colonel Hall follows up with the heartbreaking "Nell, it'll be fun seeing the old gang again!" You can tell that it means a lot to him to believe that General Whitney thought enough to invite him, and you do not look forward to the potential hurt and humiliation he will have to endure if he ever realizes the truth. Thankfully, because of the heart and humanity of his greatest adversary, Master Sergeant Ernie Bilko, Colonel Hall doesn't have to.