The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: The Last Five Years

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Top Banana

February 19, 1954   United Artists   84 minutes
“There’ll always be a road company of Oklahoma,” says a lovestruck singer in Top Banana, but I sure couldn’t help thinking the reverse: there sure won’t be many tours for Top Banana. But in fact the unlikely film version is a road tour–the final stop on a 38–week, 19 city, national tour following a nine month Bway run. A quintessential “tired-businessman’s” show, it was a modest success, and certainly a personal one for Phil Silvers, but not exactly the stuff of legend. A few more years in stock and summer tents and then phffft—TopBa went the way of hoop skirts and handlebar moustaches. With no bites from the major studios, a B-movie producer, Alfred Zugsmith assembled the road company for a five day shoot at the Biltmore Theater in LA—where the show had recently closed. “What’s Television? Burlesque with an antenna,” says Silvers playing TV’s reigning king of comedy here called Jerry Biffle, but everyone knew this was simply a Milton Berlesque--as thinly veiled a caricature as Merman’s “Sally Adams” was of Perle Mesta. Berle was flattered, and thrilled for Silvers as long as he stayed off the airwaves. But five years later, as Uncle Miltie ran out of steam, Silvers found his own TV immortality as Sgt. Bilko.  In a fated bit of irony, Berle took Top Banana out for a spin once his TV career sputtered.

Television was still in its infancy then so it was fresh material for parody (the show predates even Lucy’s debut), but Top Banana was much less concerned with exploring this new medium than in reviving the old routines of burlesque comics—whose last refuge was now on TV. As a vehicle for Silvers—among the last of the breed—it delivered everything that could be hoped for, including a Tony Award, a film, and a landmark on his resume. But truth to tell, Jerry Biffle doesn’t have the real essence of Silvers’ personality. He’s too charmless, monomaniacal and demanding (i.e. Berle) and less conniving and wily than the best Silvers characters; like Bilko, or Floy in High Button Shoes. (Here’s another Bway personality first known to me from that comic cavalcade It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: Merman, Silvers, Berle, Durante, Sid Caesar, Edie Adams, Joe E. Brown-an introductory sampler to a slew of show-biz legends.) Even had MGM or Warners come calling, they wouldn’t have dared recast TopBa—not even with Berle. Silvers was the whole show, and we get that here, tho I’d have much preferred his other bespoke Bway vehicle saved on film:  Do Re Mi.  That was a real Silvers tour-de-force, with an added bonus in Nancy Walker matching wits each step of the way--with a truly great Styne, Comden & Green score, to boot.
Zugsmith intended to exhibit TopBa in 3D, giving everyone the illusion of having front center seats. But wouldn’t camera placement simply take care of that? Isn’t that what movies are all about? At any rate, despite the modesty of the enterprise (no sets to build, no new costumes to make), funds dried up, partners were brought in, and 3D—which had already peaked anyway—was dropped. That wasn’t all they dropped; a lot of the score was scuttled—in this case not such a crime, given that Johnny Mercer’s music & lyrics (one of those rare occasions when he wrote both) didn’t quite set the world on fire. But then this isn’t the sort of show where music matters. (Quick, hum something from Hellzapoppin’) Still, what we get here is a tab version of an already stripped-down road company. Tab (as in tabloid) shows being the stage equivalent of the New York Post—just the headlines, please. And in taking TopBa down to the bone, Silvers and the sketches remain; the Mercer score goes.

As on Bway, the show opens with the cast gathered on Jo Mielziner’s TV studio set to sing “The Man of the Year This Week,” which must be the worst opening number of any 50s musical that wasn’t an outright flop. Wisely, the song is cut short, signaling the end of a rehearsal (everything here seems to be a rehearsal.) After a lengthy exposition scene introducing Jerry and his  coterie we get a strange little number, wherein Jerry has his show’s baritone improvise a ballad on the phone to his barely-met girlfriend, “You’re So Beautiful That”—sparked by various ads in a magazine.  It’s a swinging little Mercer tune, quite catchy really, and might have had some later life weren’t it for the dated product references (Miss Rheingold, Four Roses, Toni, Dreen, Rayve). The earnest boy singer, played by Danny Scholl (not Bway’s Lindy Doherty, but a road company replacement) is a bit of a dreamboat—he sure looks an awful lot like Cheyenne Jackson. Unfortunately he was never heard from again. 

The scene shifts to a department store where Jerry goes to promote his ghost-written book “Bifflesticks.” His new girlfriend, Sally, also works there as a model—apparently an inside reference to Jack Benny’s wife having been a May Co. employee. The store (MacCracken’s) has female models prowl the floor like human mannequins. Was this an actual practice that became obsolete before my time? Hy Kraft’s script seems to invent sequences and details irrelevant and unnecessary to the core of the show. Here, uniformed store employees, armed with Hugh Martin’s signature vocal arrangements, sing “The Elevator Song”:

               Going up—
               Step to the rear of the car, please…       
               First floor—
               Tea togs for tiny pets,
               Bathrobes, baseballs and bassinets
               Old prints, onyx, and oysterettes
               Windows for two-dollar bets
               Second floor—
               Rat traps and radios,
               Cheesecloth, cupcakes and cameos,
               Pie plates, peanuts and piccolos
               Leftover ushers from Loew’s
Tho tangential and completely irrelevant to the plot, Mercer’s pleasure in such nonsense is evident; he wrote many an unused extra verse:
               Sixth floor—
               Quilts that are fit for queens,
               Towels, thumbtacks and tambourines
               Silk screens painted with sexy scenes
               And from our Boston branch--beans!

Glaringly apparent is how much the TV business has changed, tho even by the tropes of the day the plot doesn’t make sense. Yes, most early shows were sponsored by a single commercial producer (sort of like a David Merrick instead of the 50 names taking credit on Bway shows these days), but do you think Blendo detergent would hold such sway over the show, or go so far as to fire Biffle when he delivers more audience than anyone else in America? And why on earth would Biffle be so desperate for publicity (he’s already #1) as to concoct a staged elopement to play cupid for the press?—an old-time sketch sequence that lands with a thud. TV was also the last refuge of the Bway revue--which morphed into the variety hour, and had quite some good, even “golden,” years ahead. But by 1980 these, too, went the way of vaudeville. Starting at MacCracken’s the film makes liberal cuts from the show, eliminating the next 5 songs; coming in mid-way thru the first act finale, a generic throwaway, “Meet Miss Blendo.” The second act is stripped even further, in one case—where Jerry duets with a howling dog—mercifully so. (This was actually included in the release print--the dog is in the credits.) But Cliff (the strapping baritone) loses his first duet with Sally, “Only If You’re in Love.” Their 2nd act ballad, “That’s for Sure” had already been replaced by a new song “Be My Guest” on national tour—which managed to make the final film cut.  I can’t say it’s much of an improvement.

Worst served, both personally and for the sake of the film, was Rose Marie. Famous in the next decade as the wise-cracking writer Sally Rogers on the classic Dick Van Dyke sitcom, here she is at age 30 already the character side-kick. Jerry treats her like dirt. She’s beyond any consideration for romance. Baby Rose Marie was a famous basso-voiced 6 year old on radio (and apparently had to endure a year-long publicity junket to prove to a skeptical American public she wasn’t a middle-aged midget) but TopBa was her portal to adult “stardom.” Her 3 numbers are arguably among the best Mercer wrote for the show. “I Fought Every Step of the Way,” is a comic apologia for lost virginity. It’s hard to see why her duet with Jerry, “A Word a Day” (wherein they mangle definitions to words like posterity: “what you’re sittin’ on wherever you are;” paradox: “a couple of geese” and dinosaur: “that singer on the air and TV”; OK one more: equivocate: “title of a Cole Porter show”) was dropped: it’s an obvious crowd pleaser—a real old style vaudeville duet. She was allowed her big production number, “Sans Souci,” but cut from all but the final moments, where she’s not even heard above the chorus. On album the song has a sultry Mercer swing before turning into an absurd Latin American tribal dance—which is where it begins on film.  Dressed in faux native costumes (the men bare-chested in organ-grinder’s monkey suits), the corps stomp thru Ron Fletcher’s god-awful choreography, which bizarrely evolves into a chorus of evening gowned ladies (including, almost incidentally, Rose Marie) for its big finish. Not only does the song make no sense, it makes no sense why suddenly Rose Marie is given a shot on Jerry’s TV program—and as a singer, with no previous reference to being one!—when he’s done nothing but disparage her. Oh, and yes, it’s another rehearsal! As a number for Silvers “You’re OK for TV,” would seem a cinch to be included. Perhaps it’s among the 16 known minutes missing from the film. Whether from careless editing by TV stations or from other factors, the film survives in butchered form; scenes—even songs—starting in midpoint, or ending abruptly, like reels from abandoned home movies artlessly spliced together. The film was directed by a 65 year-old Alfred E. Green, who had credits back to 1917, and was so riddled by arthritis he was confined to his chair—this was his final film. It feels old.

But the single most disastrous decision was to frame the show as one performed before a “live” audience—even show us that audience—but then suppress their reactions entirely! They even look like waxworks filling the seats. (All the weirder then when suddenly there are 2—count ‘em—2 shots mid-way, when suddenly they come to life with applause and laughter once at a scene’s end; and again at the end of “Miss Blendo.” But that is all. Otherwise the comic sketches, many of which feel as old as vaudeville itself, come across with a thud—a genuine audience reaction (wasn’t that what live TV was about?) was so obviously necessary—how could they miss it? Ultimately, the movie feels like a final dress rehearsal where all present have seen the show too many times to be remotely amused. And it’s absolutely deadly. What were they thinking?

I hadn’t seen this movie for decades until its release on VHS in 2002 (it’s not yet on DVD), but it was memorable for reasons that had little to do with the film itself. Back in the day when the TV universe was a handful of channels, before we could even imagine video recording, the only  way to  see  an  old  film was to chance upon it in the TV guide listings—often at an inconvenient hour, such as the middle of the night. My parents, being the hard-working, cheerless sort were always in bed by 11 o’clock. As an adolescent I would lie in wait, listening for the steady breath of their sleep. Then slipping out of bed, I’d slink down the hall, step by step, careful not to make a peep, or squeak in the floorboards, until I’d reach the den--a good five minute procedure. Then, after another painstakingly slow process of shutting the door, I’d switch on the old B&W TV, keeping the volume so low I could scarcely hear it myself and watch Johnny Carson or some old film—interrupted by frequent used car commercials. Thus, past some long ago midnight I first caught this film, which under the circumstances seemed as outworn as an old shoe. Being of a certain age, and partly out of boredom, my hand would naturally slip beneath my pajamas bottoms where lately I’d been experiencing an intense sensation of pleasure. But on this night something new occurred: ejaculate. How fitting that the onset of my puberty was during a movie called Top Banana.

Next Up: New Faces

Report Card:    Top Banana
Overall Film:    D
Bway Fidelity:  B- (only for cuts)
Songs from Bway:  7
Songs Cut from Bway:  8
               (some may have been in original cast)
New Songs:  1: “Be My Guest” (added on road)
Standout Number: “You’re So Beautiful That-“
Worst Omissions: “You’re OK for TV”
                              “A Word a Day”
Casting:        From the road company
Cast from Bway:  Virtually all
Standout Cast: Phil Silvers
Direction:          Arthritic
Choreography:   Truly terrible
Ballet:                 Almost one: “Sans Souci”
Scenic Design: Jo Mielziner’s stage sets
Costumes:          Good in baggy pants
Standout Set:    None
Titles:                  Generic, cartoonish
Oscar Nominations: Are you kidding?
Weird Hall of Fame: “Sans Souci”
                              “The Elevator Song”

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