Top Banana (1954) Poster


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Chopped bananas can still be good
tonypapaleo15 March 2002
As a record of a type of Broadway entertainment we see very little of nowadays, plus a documentation of classic Vaudeville material presented by the people who actually performed it, this movie should be a little gem.

Should be, but it ain't. The version foisted on us by MGM/UA Home Video is a total travesty and completely unrepresentative of the original film. "Top Banana" as released in 1953, had at least 2 more musical numbers, a number of Vaudeville acts (hello, Hogan the Talking Dog), and 3-D sequences(!).

There's got to be a complete print of this film out there for us to appreciate the genius of Phil Silvers. The version of this movie put out on VHS is an abomination.

To understand why, you have to realize the what was going on at the time of the creation of "Top Banana:" This was a low-budget exploitation flick capitalizing on Phil Silvers' surge in popularity on TV following his winning a Tony award for the original Broadway version of Top Banana. 1950's Hollywood, in it's paranoid fear of television, loves another chance to sneer at cheesy variety programs that seem to be recycling Vaudeville material ad nauseum.

OK, it looks like virtually no money is spent on production values: they apparently transported the play, sets, costumes, and all to an L.A. theater and set up a couple of cameras. Sound recording of dialogue is done with little or no technical enhancement, unless we are hearing playback of songs. And yes, the director apparently never heard of a closeup, let alone anything but straight-ahead shots of the cast moving right to left across the screen.

But look at what it purports to be: Basically a filmed record of a Broadway musical comedy. Jeez, PBS does it and everyone thinks it's brilliant. Somebody at the studio apparently tried to dress it up by inserting shots of a live audience..."Hey, I get it, Mabel! We are watching a PLAY!"

But within the little universe of the movie, it makes no sense, since the audience does not make one peep during the most of the show. Actually with the butchered print, it's hard to follow what was going on. The long takes where Silvers and cast perform straight-ahead old-time comedy are interesting, and make you wish the whole movie was intact.
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Broadway in your living room...
marcslope2 February 2000
In 1951, Phil Silvers starred in a Broadway musical comedy satirizing the then-champ of TV, Milton Berle -- his ego, his drive, his anything-for-a-laugh desperation. It ran a year but lost money. That didn't stop producer Albert Zugsmith from filming the show, and I mean filming the show -- at a Los Angeles theater, with audience-reaction shots and no attempt at movie production values. It was filmed in cheap color and 3-D (no 3-D prints survive) and given a limited release.

The current print has a vastly reduced running time, with several musical numbers missing. As a movie, it isn't much. But as a curio of a certain kind of stage musical at a certain time in theater history, it's invaluable. The music is loud and brassy, the staging unsubtle, the pace fast. And while Silvers disparages the movie in his autobio, it's a fine documenting of his comic style and energy. The general tackiness of the enterprise (perfunctory song cues, boilerplate romantic subplot, cheesy sets, non-PC attitudes toward women by today's standards) actually add to its period charm. It's also fun seeing a pre-Dick Van Dyke Rose Marie, playing a very similar part.
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A marvelous record of an overpowering low-comedy performance by Phil Silvers as Milton Berl...I mean, Jerry Biffle
Terrell-415 March 2008
Warning: Spoilers
There are two excellent reasons for watching this filmed Broadway stage show 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 VHS tape. It's 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. Basically, cameras were stationed in front of the stage sets and the players did their stuff. However, great chunks were edited out, including almost all of Rose Marie's part (she is second billed) including nearly all of her songs. In fact, of the 14 songs in the score, only seven survived. The two production numbers that made the cut, unfortunately, are pretty 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, slightly 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. He was a classic low comedian who could be overpowering. Yet unlike some, he also managed to show some believable vulnerability that made him genuinely 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 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'll want this.
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TCM Purees It Too!
schwei28 October 2002
Turner Classic Movies just aired it this past weekend. I was aware of the show because the cast album is (I think) in release on CD, and was pleasantly suprised to learn of this "rendering" of the property. A joyfully disappointing "non-adaptation".

There are two or three redeeming features of the film. The vaudeville-derived visual-physical comedy is vintage. The "long takes" are engrossing and reminiscent, strangely, of live TV. The polished performances of Silvers and his entourage as they command the stage are as thrilling to watch as vintage Marx Brothers. The portions of the play not ruined by cuts are a great demonstration of the way musicals were engineered for continuous flow, as first pioneered by R & H's "South Pacific" a few years earlier.

Only worth it for aficionados of Silvers, 50s Broadway, and rabid film buffs. Not recommended for general family entertainment; go rent "The Music Man" instead.
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Appreciating The Movie
filmkr26 February 2003
I believe the only current way to truely appreciate this movie is to get the soundtrack of the stage play on disc or CD and listen to it. It will certainly fill in a lot of the gaps and lessen the confusion when the VHS video is viewed. Somewhere I read that "A Word A Day" was never filmed; too bad, as it's a great number. Based on the soundtrack, which has surprisingly good fidelity (especially after listening to the video), one can envision the play, and possibly uncut movie, as having been very enjoyable. So after watching the video, close your eyes and listen to all the outstanding musical numbers on the soundtrack and envision the stage play as it was and movie as it should have been. Let's hope an full length print someday surfaces.
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To Eschew Reality
bkoganbing17 May 2013
I imagine that Top Banana was a Broadway show that was difficult to adapt to the big screen. The producers decided to eschew reality and settle for a photographed stage play. Not unlike the early musicals made when the talkies arrived. Guys And Dolls did that also, but it was a much better show.

Fans who liked old time burlesque flocked to see Top Banana on Broadway which ran for 350 performances. Phil Silvers, Rose Marie, Jack Albertson and a whole bunch of the cast repeated their roles. For all the other talent Top Banana is essentially a showcase for Phil Silvers. You'd better be a big fan of his otherwise you will not enjoy this film.

Silvers was a guy who scored his biggest success on the small screen as Sergeant Ernie Bilko. For me he's fine in small doses, but I've often wondered what he was like in private life, was he always 'on' as he is here.

The plot such as it is has Silvers unwittingly playing cupid for the singer in his show Danny Scholl with Judy Lynn whom he likes. In the meantime Rose Marie likes Silvers, but he can't see her. Do I need to go any further.

Johnny Mercer one of the most talented men of music ever, mostly wrote lyrics to other's melodies, but occasionally did music as well. Here he wrote the music and lyrics for the whole score, but you'll find nothing here that especially stands out.

For fans of Phil Silvers and others curious to see what his comedy style was about this film is recommended.
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Ripshin13 September 2004
Previous users have done a great job of commenting on this "film." It's definitely B-grade - a poorly filmed Broadway production. Actually, quite a bit of early-50s television is BETTER than this Vaudeville rehash. TCM plays this every once in a while, and I happened to tape it this afternoon. Although I rarely fast-forward through a film, I couldn't resist it with this bomb. Sure, it is great to see Rose Marie as an early version of "Sally" from "The Dick Van Dyke Show," but that's about all it has going for it.....well, that, and the Johnny Mercer score. I'm really surprised at how low-tech this film appears, in production value, as well as color quality.
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"Let's run a contest. I'll be the prize."
classicsoncall30 August 2015
Warning: Spoilers
I've seen Phil Silvers in movies before, primarily in bit parts. My best recollection of him is from the hit TV series "The Phil Silvers Show", better known as 'Sgt. Bilko'. Great name Bilko, because it described his con-man character to a T. Reading a bit about this picture from other reviewers helps set the stage (no pun intended) for what it was all about. The movie for the most part looks like it was a filmed stage play, but with stuff occurring 'off stage' between Jerry Biffle (Silvers) and his coterie of friends and business acquaintances. The transitions aren't very smooth, so it's difficult at times to know if what you're watching is a play, or the troupe getting ready for a play. Biffle barks orders and demands one-liners from his writer Vic Davis (Jack Albertson), and when delivered, many of them fall flat, unintentionally or otherwise. A semblance of a romantic sub-plot is offered between singer Cliff Lane (Danny Scholl) and would be actress Sally Peters (Judy Lynn) who also catches Jerry's eye, but it's a mish-mash that's nuked by Silvers' rapid fire delivery and undiscerning attitude toward those around him. Second billed Rose Marie doesn't appear until well into the story, and when a moment of triumph seemed to present itself with Jerry, the let down was palpably embarrassing. By the time the second half rolled around, the whole thing got rather tedious for this viewer, but I stuck it out for the colorful production numbers which if anything, showed that they put in some significant rehearsal time to pull them off. Die hard Phil Silvers fans would probably make this a must see; for all others, tune in for as long as you can take it.
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