Phil Silvers plays Ernie Bilko, a motor pool sgt in the US army. He is based at Fort Baxter, a small camp hidden away near a town called Roseville, in the wilds of Kansas. The camp is supposedly run by Colonel Hall, but it's Bilko that calls the shots. Whether it's poker games, betting on the horses, or when ever he was short of money, which was just about all the time, getting his platoon to cough up. Along with the other Sgt's from the Mess Hall, Signals, and Supply, Bilko is continually at war with Colonel Hall, who is desperately trying to put a stop to the gambling once and for all.
"Goldbricker." Now there's a term you don't hear much anymore. But that's what Ed Sullivan called Sgt. Ernest G. Bilko back in the 1950s, and it's as apt a term as any for Phil Silvers' immortal comic creation. Hustler, gambler, scam artist, and con man also apply, but anyway you slice it, Bilko is inarguably one of the greatest characters to emerge in television's so-called Golden Age, and this three-disc 50th Anniversary Edition
, cherry picking episodes from all four seasons (it ran from '55-'59), is a beautiful thing. Created by Nat Hiken and originally called "You'll Never Get Rich," The Phil Silvers Show
is classic situation comedy. There's no character arc, no lessons learned, no sentimental denouement; just laughs, and plenty of 'em. The typical episode finds Bilko on the make--usually, though not exclusively, for money--and generally ends with him holding the short end of his own shtick
. (They don't all follow the formula; a hilarious exception is "The Court Martial," in which Bilko is ordered to defend a chimpanzee that the Army has somehow managed to enlist and is now trying to expel.) Silvers, a master at both verbal and physical comedy, is the focal point, of course. But the ensemble work, featuring Bilko's usual stooges from the Fort Baxter motor pool (Barbella, Doberman, Paparelli), his favorite victims (cf. Col. Hall), and occasional guest stars (episodes with Fred Gwynne, Alan Alda, and Dick Van Dyke are included in this set), is uniformly brilliant, the acting is seemingly effortless, and the pleasure they take in their work is palpable. Bottom line: these shows may have been produced 50 years ago, but the jillions of TV comedies that followed have never improved on them. Among the many quality bonus features are a full-length "lost audition show" (recorded on kinescope), appearances by Silvers on Ed Sullivan and Dick Cavett's programs, audio commentary on some episodes, and more. Some fans will undoubtedly quibble with the episode selection; with only 18 of the more than 140 produced shows included here, it's inevitable that a few favorites didn't make the cut. Still, until (or unless) Paramount gets around to releasing each individual season, this set is a must-have. --Sam Graham