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DVD Review Top Banana DVD Review (1 Viewer)

Matt Hough

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By 1951, the American musical theater had reached a degree of art and sophistication that were the envy of the rest of the world. Through talents like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, and others, musical theater had never been so diverse. From serious musical plays like South Pacific and The King and I to musical comedies like Guys and Dolls and Kiss Me Kate, the great musicals ran for years to tremendous audience response. But those masterpieces weren’t the only musical shows running. There was still a place then for the star-driven comic show, and 1951’s Top Banana was one of the shows that fit that bill. Seen today in its 1954 film incarnation, the jokes are ancient and the production obvious, and everyone is pushing too hard to be funny and make an impression. Still, despite the “photographed theater” approach to the film, the movie does allow us to step into a time capsule and be transported back to Broadway in 1954 just to see what a typical early 1950s star show looked and felt like. It’s not always pretty, but for students of musical theater, the movie is sort of invaluable.





Top Banana (MGM MOD)
Directed by Alfred E. Green

Studio: MGM/UA
Year: 1954
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 84 minutes
Rating: NR
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 mono English
Subtitles: none

MSRP: $ 19.98


Release Date: available now

Review Date: October 22, 2011 



The Film

2.5/5


Jerry Biffle (Phil Silvers) is the top attraction on television with his variety program that leans heavily on his years spent as a baggy pants burlesque comic. But the soap company that sponsors his show decides that the program needs some romance, and Jerry is ordered to bring on a girl singer who can play his love interest. Jerry chooses department store model Sally Peters (Judy Lynn), but he doesn’t bank on his show’s leading baritone Cliff Lane (Danny Scholl) falling for Sally and she for him. Without his explicit knowledge, Jerry helps Cliff and Sally elope, an act that so outrages his sponsor that Jerry is immediately canned.


Filmed on a stage in the same style as the show was performed for not quite a year on Broadway and then as it toured the country, this is the very definition of “photographed theater,” a primitive technique that hadn’t been much seen since the earliest days of the talkies with The Hollywood Revue of 1929 where at most we get medium and long shots with almost not the hint of a close-up, and with the actors all cheating out toward the audience when they address one another, another time-honored theatrical tradition. We see footlights, spotlights turned on when actors begin to sing, and the grand drape which closes behind performers while scenery is changed during numbers. There are a couple of shots of an audience present, but there is no laughter at any of the comic mayhem or applause apart from a couple of brief moments near the end of what would have been Act I. The film has been heavily condensed from its full stage presentation. All of Rose Marie’s solos are gone (including the best number in the show, a terrific comic ballad “I Fought Every Step of the Way”) and most of the other numbers, too. There is a pleasing ballad for the lovebirds “Be My Guest,” and we’re introduced to Danny Scholl’s baritone talents with “You’re So Beautiful,” the best song in the film as released. Speaking of that, the film that we see appears to have heavy cuts throughout. Some scenes end abruptly and then start again with the star in a different outfit and with no explanation.


The film also reminds us of an era when stage musicals had separate singing and dancing ensembles. (Today's musicals employ triple threat talents who can do it all.) In fact, during “Be My Guest,” a chorus of singers wanders out onto the stage to sing backup for the two co-stars, and late in the show, an elaborate dance number seemingly set in  hell leads into the big burlesque finale where singers join the dancers at the conclusion. The burlesque numbers in the show which recall a much earlier era of vaudeville are heavily drawn on to offer Phil Silvers opportunities to shine. These also enable the company to throw in a very talented acrobatic contortionist who manages to glue himself to Silvers in the elopement sequence giving it its only genuinely funny moments. The music and lyrics were written by the very talented Johnny Mercer, so their exclusion from the film is to be regretted. The show’s cast album gives a much better sense of the musical content of this show than the few oddly placed numbers in the film do.


Phil Silvers won the Best Actor Tony Award for his role in the stage version of the show, and it’s certainly an exhausting performance, allegedly based on Milton Berle who at the time was TV’s top comic. Take what he did for a half hour during his Sergeant Bilko days and magnify that by ten to get the oppressively manic style of “on” that he exhibits throughout the show (of course, this was his shtick, and few were better at it than Silvers). In the show presented here, he doesn’t sing much (nor does anyone else), but he’s in almost every scene and usually in the foreground. Rose Marie gets second billing (and second-to-last bow; yes, they do curtain calls to the title song just as in the theater), but she’s barely in the movie and with almost all of her musical moments gone, she’s a forgettable presence. Danny Scholl as Cliff Lane sings with theatrical flair (which doesn’t always play well for the camera), and Johnny Coy as the show’s lead dancer has a lovely, effortless tap solo in a tramp costume near the end of the film. It’s always great to have stage veterans like Herbie Faye, Joey Faye, and Jack Albertson on hand to feed Silvers the straight lines, and Albertson’s performance as the show’s world weary head writer is actually very good.



Video Quality

3/5


The movie has been framed at 1.33:1, but there is a great deal of headroom, and one suspects a 1.75:1 aspect ratio would have framed the show better for the TV screen. (There is so much headroom that in some long shots during the elopement sequence, one can see the boom microphone overhead.) It was also shot in 3D, and there are a few moments when books or flowers are tossed at the camera, to little effect in 2D, of course, Color is better than one might expect though consistency varies throughout, and flesh tones aren’t always natural. Sharpness isn’t bad either. But the print used for the transfer has scratches, dirt, and some reel change markers which sometimes intrude on the presentation. The film has been divided into 9 chapters.



Audio Quality

2.5/5


The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is decoded by Dolby Prologic into the center channel. There isn’t much high end or low end to the sound, so resonance is very flat. Still, the dialogue is always discernible, and there is a lot of it. There is hiss, sometimes to a more noticeable degree than at other times, and you hear clicks and pops and crackle from time to time as well. Obviously, for this made-on-demand disc, no clean-up was even attempted.



Special Features

0/5


There are no bonus features on this made-on-demand disc.



In Conclusion

2.5/5 (not an average)


Top Banana is a dated comic stage farce that doesn’t play well decades away from its inception, but as a souvenir of the kind of show that could run a season back in the day, it’s a rather fascinating archival artifact. Theater fans may want to try to rent the title to see what star turns on the stage looked like almost sixty years ago.




Matt Hough

Charlotte, NC

 

ahollis

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Good view of the film. This title had eluded me for several years. First it was announced in the last days of laserdisc only to never see the light of day. Then MGM announced it for a DVD release before they got into all that financial trouble, but alas that never happened. I got this not really expecting anything much so my expect ions were low. Due to that, I found myself enjoying this view of the past Broadway. I agree that the color was a brighter than I expected and again you are correct on the film condition, but really expected it to be worse.

It's not the greatest film ever made, nor is it any where near, but it is a lot of fun and watching Phil Silvers put across his shtick (is that right) is priceless.

Edit: Due to the great background history of the production of the film by Bob in post #8, I deleted the reference to it being filmed at the Winter Garden Theatre, as I had always been lead to believe. History is now correct.
 

moviepas

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ahollis is right it was announced as a laserdisc as was another film that did not see the light of day in that format from the same filmed period. This, I seem to remember was The Girl Most Likely but I might be proved wrong by another forum user. Anyway, Image were doing these films for LD and I had them on order before they were deleted. The reason was that the LA area earthquake at the time was centered around the Chatsworth area and the work done was destroyed in that disaster and not redone. I don't know what else was in trouble here as these were the only two I had on order canceled at the time. Nothing more was ever heard of any later release coming. I got the Top Banana DVD a good week ago with others but have yet to screen it. Wonder what happened to the 3-D materials or have we already discussed this in the past in this forum?
 

ahollis

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Matt, I have been reading a lot of reviews on DVD's and Blu-rays the past few months not only on this site but on many others. I keep coming back to the reviews here at HTF, yours and the other reviewers, for they seem to be an overall snapshot of the film that is being reviewed and the thoughts seem to be correct and go along with my thoughts when I finally see the product. A lot of the reviews on other sites tend to use the word I a lot. I found this, I don't understand this, or I think this could have been better, it really makes me feel that if I disagree then I should be locked up and never look at another DVD again. While reviews should offer the observation and thoughts of the reviewer, they should not be personal objections. I also feel that a majority of the other reviewers look hard to find imperfections so they can the first to point them out. None of the reviewers on HTF seem to make a review personal and while they do point out imperfections, they do so in a way that allows me enough information to make a informed buying decision. Thank you and the other reviewers on this site for responsible, informative and interesting reviews.
 

Matt Hough

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Thank you for your kind words, Allen. I very much respect the staff of reviewers we have at HTF. I know myself that if I am in doubt about a decision to purchase a particular title, the reviews here are the first ones I consult. I believe that all reviewers have prejudices of one kind or another; to be completely objective is very hard, but I do think we really try here to give every disc a chance and not to take cheap shots just for the fun of it or to show how clever we can be.
 

Brian McP

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Would love to see the 3D version, even just out of curiosity. There was a dvd around 10 years ago promoting a 3D film festival that had every 3D movie trailer and a few trailers in actual 3D (glasses were supplied) -- sections of the trailer for "Top Banana" was in 3D.
 

Matt Hough

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With the static way it was filmed, virtually no camera movement, and actors often lined up in straight lines as they converse, I think it would not be an especially enlightening experience. For curiosity's sake, of course, it might prove momentarily interesting, but I'd rather see Kiss Me Kate or The French Line (a lousy musical as I recall) in 3D. I've never seen either of them in 3D.
 

Bob Furmanek

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After it was a smash hit on Broadway, TOP BANANA went on tour for a year playing in major cities across the country. Phil Silvers and the cast finished their successful run at the Biltmore Theater in downtown Los Angeles. During that engagement, Harry Popkin (D.O.A., AND THEN THERE WERE NONE) negotiated with producers Albert Zugsmith (TOUCH OF EVIL, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN) and Ben Peskay to film TOP BANANA exactly as it had been presented on stage in sold out performances across the country. They packed up the sets and costumes, and moved the entire company over to the Motion Picture Center Studios in Hollywood. That's where the film was photographed, and not on the theater stage which has been written over and over again for years. The idea to film it in 3-D was in order to give the audience a choice seat at a top Broadway show. The producers envisioned this format as a new way to inexpensively film stage shows, and present them in theaters across the country. They even developed a rather complicated tracking shot for the opening of the film. The camera would be the person approaching the theater. They would go to the box office and buy their tickets, enter the lobby and proceed down to their seat in the 3rd row, center stage. The lights would dim, the overture would play and the show would begin. (This elaborate opening was abandoned in favor of a static shot of the theater marquee, which then dissolves directly into the stage show.) It was photographed with Natural Vision cameras, the same rigs that filmed BWANA DEVIL, HOUSE OF WAX, FORT TI, CHARGE AT FEATHER RIVER, DEVIL'S CANYON, THE MOONLIGHTER, SOUTHWEST PASSAGE and GOG. The film was in post-production in September 1953 just as THE ROBE and CinemaScope hit theaters, and 3-D was starting to decline at the box office. While shopping the property around for a distributor (the film was independently financed) the producers announced they would release TOP BANANA flat only, citing the public’s lukewarm response to the current 3-D releases. In early December, they signed a distribution deal with United Artists. Later that month, the success of some new 3-D releases (KISS ME KATE, HONDO, CEASE FIRE and MISS SADIE THOMPSON) prompted UA to announce in the trades that a 3-D version would be available for exhibitors. Unfortunately, that is the last reference to any release of the stereoscopic version of this film. When it was sneak previewed, shown to the trades and released in February 1954, it was shown flat only. The film was photographed in Eastman color, and processed by the Color Corporation of America laboratory (formerly SuperCinecolor/Cinecolor) in Burbank. The lab went out of business the following year. Apparently, all of the original elements were junked at that time. (The negatives were probably labeled under the production company name, Roadshow Productions.) Sadly, the only material in the United Artists archive today is an edited 35mm release print of the right side. That is the version which has been released on home video, and it's missing about 15 minutes of footage. There are no negatives, color separations, interpositives, dupe negatives, nothing. The "lost" footage does survive in both an uncut 16mm Kodachrome print struck in 1954 and an original, faded 35mm release print. I made a very interesting discovery in 2003. While examining an original 35mm trailer, I found that certain shots in the trailer were from the opposite eye of the surviving 35mm print. Dan Symmes at Dimension 3 was able to recombine these previously unseen left/right 3-D images from TOP BANANA into anaglyph. If you have a pair of red/blue glasses, place the red lens over your right eye. These anaglyph shots are for ease of viewing only. The film (had it been released in 3-D) would have originally been shown in dual-strip Polaroid. Finally, TOP BANANA began filming in late July 1953 and was composed for 1.85 presentation. I hope that I've answered your questions! Bob Furmanek 3-D Film Archive
 

Bob Furmanek

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My pleasure Matt, happy to share. Here's some original ID from the existing right 35mm print:
 

Doug Bull

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The mystery deepens. It appears that an actual 3D Trailer was made (and survives) so it seems that they were still very much into releasing the Movie in 3D at that point. Go to YouTube and watch it in full Colour 3D (Anaglyph) Almost all of the Trailer is in 3D with just a couple of shots that look 2D. At the time, when I worked for UA in Australia, it screened to almost empty houses for just a couple of days and then quickly disappeared. We only ever had 2D prints and trailers. From memory I had always thought the color looked strange, so I'm surprised that Bob discloses that it was actually shot in Eastman. Being processed by the Color Corporation of America probably explains a lot. This new DVD with it's missing 15 mins is very disjointed with awkward cuts allover the place. Long shots are very soft (probably the camera) but the medium to close shots are better than expected. Like many other enthusiasts I have waited many years for this to surface, so it's great to finally have it, even in it's truncated condition. Thanks Bob for that very informative post and also Matt for the great review.
 

Bob Furmanek

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You're welcome Doug but it's not an actual 3-D trailer. Some of the scenes just happen to be the left eye so they could be matched with the existing right eye of the feature.
 

Doug Bull

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Thanks for that Bob. I missed reading "3D Restoration" at the beginning of the YouTube clip. It was the odd couple of title card sequences that appear to have definite depth over the original images that threw me. Obviously not all the titles are 3D but the Phil Silvers and Rose Marie name credits certainly have depth. Overall the restored trailer looks quite effective and has been very cleverly put together. The Original Broadway Cast CD is a must if you want to hear all of the other great songs that, unfortunately, are missing from the filmed and DVD version.
 

Richard--W

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I kinda wish you'd posted those in stereo pairs for a Lorgnette instead of analgyph, Bob.
 

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