Top Banana began as a Broadway show masterminded by legendary comedian Phil Silvers. He was inspired to create a character based on his colleague and friend Milton Berle, who was at the top of his career as the permanent host of television's wildly popular Texaco Star Theater. "I suggested that we bring in the first musical to satirize the madness of week-to-week television," said Phil Silvers according to Johnny Mercer biographer Philip Furia. "In 1950 the tyrant of the tube was Milton Berle; on Tuesday night at eight, he had the whole country in his hand. I would do Uncle Miltie...I knew every flip gesture of Berle's, every ruthless smile. Milton was, shall I say, an impatient man. He had to have his laughs, and he didn't care where or how he found them."
Since Silvers was friends with Milton Berle, he wanted to get Berle's blessing before moving forward with Top Banana. He told Berle about the project over a game of golf. "Milton," said Silvers, "it's about a guy who's been 'on' all his life. His only goal is the laugh. It's got to come, no matter if it's at the expense of his mother, the President or himself...He never listens to anyone's conversation-he's just thinking of what he'll say next. The poor guy's never had a chance to develop in any other areas. He's been on the stage since he was five years old. His dedication-the laugh must come."
"I'll be a sonovabitch," said Berle according to Silvers. "I know guys just like that." With that, Berle became one of the show's supporters and investors.
Hy Kraft wrote the book for Top Banana and Johnny Mercer was hired to write original songs. Mercer was a top lyricist, having penned words to many famous tunes up to that point including "Goody Goody", "Hooray for Hollywood" and "Blues in the Night". Mercer had always longed for a hit Broadway musical to add to his list of successes. He had tried before by writing lyrics for shows such as St. Louis Woman and Texas, Li'l Darlin', but both had failed. For Top Banana Mercer tried something different. This time out he decided to write both the lyrics and the music - something he had never done before. As a result, Mercer contributed several memorable numbers for Top Banana including "A Dog Is a Man's Best Friend," "A Word a Day" and "I Fought Every Step of the Way".
For the cast of Top Banana Silvers assembled some of the best comic talent in the business including Jack Albertson, Joey and Herbie Faye, Walter Dare Wahl and Johnny Trama. Silvers personally asked vaudeville veteran Rose Marie to co-star as Betty, and she was thrilled with the opportunity. She loved working with Silvers and adored the songs that Johnny Mercer had written for the show, especially her big number "I Fought Every Step of the Way," a clever show-stopping song that likened romance to a round of boxing.
Top Banana opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre on November 1, 1951 and was a smash hit. It ran for 350 performances and Phil Silvers won the Tony award for Best Actor in a Musical. Milton Berle was there on opening night and became an instant fan. "The only public attack I got any pleasure from," he wrote in his self-titled 1974 autobiography, "was the one dreamed up by Hy Kraft and Johnny Mercer, and starring Phil Silvers...It was a vicious and funny swipe at me, and I loved it so much, I offered to sue Hy Kraft for the publicity value. Anything to help. After all, I had put some money into the show."
When the producers of the stage version decided to make Top Banana into a movie, they wanted the film to represent a true experience of the play-as if the film audience were sitting front and center at a live performance of the show. The cast of the stage version was re-assembled and producer Albert Zugsmith was brought in to shoot the film in a mere five days with an equally meager budget to match. With Alfred E. Green directing, Zugsmith decided to make it a bare bones production shot on an actual stage specially constructed at the Motion Picture Center Studios. "Al Green was on one camera," said Zugsmith in a 1973 interview, "and I was on another, and we just kept shooting. We didn't have a script. Phil Silvers had done the play, so we just shot the play, really. We rehearsed the play straight through for one day, so we could just pull a switch and light that particular scene. I went on the big crane, since Al (Green) was getting pretty old by then, and he stayed on the small dolly and we shot it. And it did pretty well."
Top Banana was also shot in 3-D for no explicable reason other than it was a cinematic trend in the 1950s. However, due to declining public interest in the gimmick by 1954, the 3-D version was never released to the public.
Albert Zugsmith was able to finish shooting the film in the allotted five days, though the production value suffered as a result- something for which the film would be criticized later on. Actress Rose Marie had the only bad experience during the shoot. According to her 2002 autobiography Hold the Roses, during rehearsals for the film she received unwelcome advances from the film's producer (whom she does not name). When she tried to laugh it off the producer said, "This could be your picture. I'm the producer and I can see to it that it's your movie..." The married Rose Marie was nonplussed and rejected his offer, insulting him with a wisecrack in front of the cast and crew. Her husband Bobby warned her that because of her outburst there might be ramifications. "You know all your songs will be cut," he told her. "It will be like you weren't in the picture."
"They can't do that," said Rose Marie, "the duet with Phil is one of the best numbers."
"You'll see," replied Bobby. And he was right. All of Rose Marie's songs were cut out of the final film.
Top Banana was released by United Artists in early 1954 and was widely praised as a worthy showcase for Phil Silvers and his supporting cast of top-notch comic talent. "(Silvers) is simply hilarious in the film," said the New York Times. "The whole picture looks as though a camera was set up in front of the stage and set going on medium, long and close shots while a performance of Top Banana was going on...But Mr. Silvers is in it, and so long as he is romping around, shouting his head off at people and prodigally tossing out gags - which, we are happy to inform you, is just about all the time - there is gaiety and bounce in Top Banana."
Variety said, "Primary credit must go to the superb antics and incredible drive of Phil Silvers...Thanks to his comic virtuosity and professional authority, this film runs a long 100 minutes without running down...there are plenty of laughs."
Producer: Albert Zugsmith
Director: Alfred E. Green; Albert Zugsmith (uncredited)
Screenplay: Gene Towne; Hy Kraft, Johnny Mercer (musical play, both uncredited)
Cinematography: William Bradford
Art Direction: Danny Hall
Film Editing: Terry Morse
Cast: Phil Silvers (Jerry Biffle), Rose Marie (Betty Dillon), Danny Scholl (Cliff Lane), Judy Lynn (Sally Peters), Jack Albertson (Vic Davis), Bradford Hatton (Mr. Parker), Johnny Coy (Tommy Phelps), Dick Dana (Danny), Joey Faye (Pinky), Johnny Trama (Little Man), Herbie Faye (Moe), Gloria Smith (Featured Dancer), Walter Dare Wahl (Walter).
by Andrea Passafiume