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4-STAR FEATURE

April 28, 2014

BROADWAY AT THE MOVIES

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Word on the street was that the 'Jerry Biffle' character played by Phil Silvers (in cap) was more than a little based on 1950's TV superstar Milton Berle. (c) United Artists

Word on the street was that the ‘Jerry Biffle’ character played by Phil Silvers (in cap) was more than a little based on 1950’s TV superstar Milton Berle. (c) United Artists

 

I’ve just viewed two of the oddest movies I’ve seen in quite a while.

What makes them so strange is that they are both filmed versions of Broadway shows. I mean that literally. They are two theatrical productions that have been translated to the cinema veritably intact on the stage.

The first I screened was NEW FACES. This 1954 film was released theatrically by 20th Century-Fox in their popular Cinemascope wide-screen process.

 

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‘New Faces’ was a review that debuted on Broadway in 1952. Living up to it’s title, it featured a passel of unknown performers in a series of comedy sketches and songs, This was  all wrapped in a paper-thin plot about the actors putting on the show to raise money to continue.

It’s fun to see ‘new faces’ Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostley, Eartha Kitt, Ronny Graham and Robert Clary before they became more famous, mostly due to their sitcom work in the 1960s.

Writing chores are credited primarily to Graham and a certain Mel(vin) Brooks. Graham went on to write for Brooks when he started making his popular theatrical comedies.

The production looks ultra-cheap and photographed badly. The cinematographer is Lucien Ballard. Taking a look at his filmography, Mr. Ballard worked on everything from Marlene Dietrich epics, Three Stooges shorts, to episodic television. Quite an eclectic mix! This was clearly not one of his proudest moments.

As many drawbacks as there are, the cast is tremendously energetic and talented. This more than makes the movie worth sticking through, despite its dated content.

Ms. Ghostley provides a great comic number with ‘Boston Beguine’. And the fetching Ms. Kitt introduces her signature song, ‘Santa Baby.’ Paul Lynde demonstrates the precise comic timing that made him a favorite for years. The performer who comes off the best is Robert Clary. He comes across totally charming, and it’s a shame he’ll primarily be remembered for being one of ‘Hogan’s Heroes’.

I can’t hate on ‘New Faces’ too much. It was clearly a popular Broadway show and its still good to have it on film. Actually the technical glitches (mikes fading out), overracting, and cheap sets makes a moviegoer experience what seeing this production in an actual theater must have been like.

Faring much better is the cinematic version of the Broadway hit, TOP BANANA. The show starred the great comedian, Phil Silvers in the title role of an egotistical television star who’s personal life is a hot mess.

 

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If you do not like Phil Silvers, you will not like ‘Top Banana.’ If you love Phil Silvers you will love this film.  Count me in the latter camp. I find Mr. Silvers hilarious, and his turn as television’s ‘Sgt. Bilko’ is a classic TV character.

Like ‘New Faces’, ‘Top Banana’ is entirely a filmed stage show. You see all the cheap sets, actors playing to the audience and other theatrical contrivances. Sometimes you even see the audience enjoying the show in their seats!

Besides Silvers, the film utilizes the original Broadway cast. You’l l recognize people like Rose Marie, Jack Albertson and Herbie Faye among the performers.

Music is top-notch, by the old maestro Johnny Mercer.  Mr. Mercer penned a slew of top songs for stars like Bing Crosby during his illustrious career.

The film is co-directed and produced by Albert Zugsmith. Who is he? Most know him as the purveyor of sleazy sex-comedies in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Zugsmith is the auteur behind such gems as ‘Sex Kittens Go to College,’ ‘The Private Lives of Adam and Eve,’ and ‘College Confidential.’

Paradoxically, he was also responsible for what some consider Orson Welles’ most popular film (next to ‘Citizen Kane’): ‘Touch of Evil.’ Before turning to movie-making, Zugsmith was a high-powered attorney. A pair of his celebrity clients were Jerry Siegel and Jerome Schuster, whom he represented in a legal battle to recover their ‘Superman’ character from DC Comics.

My copy of ‘Top Banana’ suffered from some annoying edits that jumped from scene to scene, omitting some necessary bridging. Otherwise, it is way technically superior to the lensing of ‘NewFaces.’

Neither film is bad. Neither film is good. Just enjoy them as a time capsule of what it must have been like attending a Broadway musical in the 1950s.

 

 

 

 






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