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Sunday, August 4, 2013

TOP BANANA (1954)

That great baggy-pants comedian Phil Silvers won the 1953 Tony Award starring on B’way in this decidedly old-fashioned Musical Comedy about a great baggy-pants comedian who’s trying to keep his tv variety show on the air. It manages to be groan-worthy and irresistibly funny at one and the same time. But what makes the film version so fascinating is that it’s hardly a film at all, but a meticulous restaging of the highly stylized show (as seen during the L.A. tour?), produced with no concession to film technique, played full-out just as it had been on stage. Originally shot in 3D, in a rather astringent color process (Color Corporation of America), what survives is in decent physical shape, but only in 2D and missing almost two reels of material. Half the songs are gone, even some elisions in the middle of scenes, so, you need to watch creatively. Not hard for anyone who loves low comics as good as Silvers. Old time vet megger Alfred Green, presumably going for a you-are-there 3D effect, shot most of the film from two camera angles: Row H-Center and Row N-Center; a style Georges Méliès might have found static. The first act ends with a travesty of RIGOLETTO (another jester tale) with Silvers losing his glasses so he can blindly assist in an abduction of his own g’friend. The second act is all but plotless, relying on a big Back-To-Burlesque ‘Numbo’ for the great man, in Bert Lahr mode, culminating in a pricelessly vulgar sight gag involving a stripper’s windmill pasties. A divine moment. What remains of the Johnny Mercer score is tuneful enough, but poor Rosemarie, second-lead in the show, loses all her songs. (You can get a pretty good sense of the show, including a missing, hilarious Singing Dog routine, by streaming the Original Cast Album in stages as you watch the DVD. Check SPOTIFY.) No doubt, many will find the old gags wheezy, and the presentation antediluvian. But you never know. You just might laugh yourself silly.

DOUBLE-BILL: Richard Benjamin’s MY FAVORITE YEAR/’82 is all about a tv variety show like this and is great good fun, especially Peter O’Toole as the tippling guest star.

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