Tuesday, May 09, 2006


I've recently decided to add some vague sense of format to this site. While my postings most days will continue to be about whatever pops into my head, Tuesdays will be New Release Day, in which I'll drone on about whatever new DVDs are worth your time.

(Okay, I sort of started this two weeks ago when I celebrated the release of It's Always fair Weather on DVD. But hey, at that time I hadn't decided this would become a regular thing. Now I have. It's a new feature, dammit.)

Anyway, today I have two recomendations, both TV related. First up, one of the best comedies in TV history. The other...well, it's not good, exactly, but...I'll explain later.

The big news for me is the new three-disc Sgt. Bilko box set. This show can make me laugh out loud as much as any sitcom in TV history (The Simpsons might have a slight edge), and it's an interesting relic of a time and place, too.

The time, of course, is the fifties, when the series was made. The place...well, although it's set in an army base in Kansas, this show is pure New York, where it was taped before a live audience. As a result, Bilko tends to have the flavor of a good stage farce, in which the performances (by such wonderful comedic actors as Harvey Lembeck and Paul Ford) are pitched ever-so-slightly over the top.

The writing is excellent, too, despite the fact that every episode is basically a variation of the same plot. (Bilko screws some poor shnook over. Occasionally, Bilko gets his own comeuppance...but not too often.) There's a really cynical edge to all this, a feeling that the world is basically divided into cheaters and chumps, that other people basically exist to be taken. Setting this corrosive worldview in the army--suggesting that the military represents the biggest con job of all--could almost be taken as subversive, at least by the standards of fifties TV.

All of this is well and good, but the main attraction in Sgt. Bilko is Bilko himself, the late, great Phil Silvers. The character was tailored to his already-established comic persona, a fast-talking wise guy. But Bilko was such a pure creation, it felt brand new. Words are inadequate to describe the genius of Silvers at work. His needling voice, the perfect rhythms of his delivery, his queasy, insincere attitude, his wonderfully expressive body language...Nope, words can't describe it. You have to see it for yourself. And you can, eighteen episodes of comedy heaven.

Another mainstay of TV comedy figures in my second recomendation this week. As a kid, I always enjoyed I Love Lucy, but as I got older it began to seem dated, its sexual politics something out of the dark ages, its farce strenuously frenetic. And I began to have less affection for its stars, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Her mugging seems strained and mechanical, while he seems cold and aloof.

So it may seem odd that I find The Long, Long Trailer, a 1954 attempt to transfer their TV fame to the big screen, well worth seeing. But it is. Just not in the way it was presumably intended.

Ball and Arnaz play newlyweds who have, um, a long, long trailer, an RV that they'll drive cross country and will be a source of numerous wacky mishaps. That's the premise, but the movie spins it in a memorably odd way: The whole thing is related by Arnaz in flashback, as he's headed for a reconcialtion with Ball. Yes, it begins with America's favorite couple on the outs, and the main body of the film will, in essence, chart the failure of their marriage. Yeah, they get back together at the end, but considering the mutual misery they inflict on each other, how can we expect it to last?

The performances by Ball and Arnaz are pitched pretty much at the TV level, and the movie's gags are mild and, at times, more irritating than funny. Still, if you're a hardcore fan of director Vincente Minnelli (and I am), there's much to admire here, aesthetically-speaking. Generally admired for his sense of color and design, Minnelli has always been underrated for his sheer mastery of stagecraft. He stages the gags with great elan--he can't actually make them funny, but at least he's trying. Many of his visuals, all overripe color and tawdry settings, recall his great melodramas Some Came Running and Home From The Hill. It's a comedy that wants to go to darker, more interesting places. It never quite gets there, but the journey is far more interesting than you might expect.