Following his triumph on Broadway, as Punko Parks in Yokel Boy, Phil Silvers was offered a seven year contract with MGM studios by head of production Louis B Mayer. Phil had high hopes of carving out a successful film career, however the reality proved somewhat different.
"When I first hit Hollywood, I was an attraction in the local hot-spots and I was king of the free-talent benefits." explained Phil in a 1957 interview. "But, although I'd been signed by a major studio - MGM - at five hundred a week, paradoxically I couldn't crash the movies."
It was a frustrating time for Phil. Here was this hot young comedian, who'd enjoyed a hugely successful career in burlesque, eventually rising to the status of Top Banana, and who had scored a major hit on Broadway and yet his hands were now tied by a movie contract with no prospective work in the pipeline.
"I know it sounds crazy, but being under contract to a studio didn't neccessarily mean you ever made a movie. In 1938 I went into my first Broadway show, Yokel Boy, straight out of burlesque." said Phil.
"L.B. Mayer, head of production at Metro, saw me in that show and asked me to come to California. I went to Hollywood, but for six months no one even asked me to make the usual screen test. I even had to get a pass to get through the MGM gates!".
Despite the lack of film work, Phil became a regular performer at a string of Hollywood parties given by friends such as Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. "They looked after me. I got to mingle with the Hollywood crowd and invariably I'd end up doing my schtick in the hope of impressing someone! If I knew someone like Darryl Zanuck was there I tried extra hard!."
The hard work eventually paid off. "Finally an MGM director called me and said 'We have a test we'd like to have you make. We need an actor for a picture. We've tested several people, and if you get the role it will be a feather in your cap.' I said 'Give me a crack at it. I'll eat it and sleep it and drink it. Nobody will do it better than I can'."
Phil's enthusiasm however, was short-lived. When he looked at the script for the scene the role he was to play was that of an English vicar in a production of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
"I couldn't figure why a big studio like MGM was taking time out for a practical joke, yet I could figure it no other way; I was to be tested as the Reverend Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. I have never forgotten some of the lines. They're burned on the lining of my brain, 'My dear Dame Elizabeth,' they began, 'you can hardly doubt the purport of my discourse. Please forgive this outburst of passion. Your modesty does you no disservice.'"
"The next morning I spent over four hours with a poor guy in Make-up, who tried to help me look like a British rector. Before he was done he was tearing apart old Nelson Eddy wigs and an Edward G. Robinson wig from the movie Tiger Shark and glueing them to my noggin!."
All the time, Phil could not shake the feeling that the whole thing was a hoax. "I had a broad, thick Brooklynese accent. How the hell did they think I could play an English priest. I knew I was good, I was funny and I could act but....an Englishman!".
When he arrived on set to film the test he was rushed quickly in front of the camera. "The test director said 'Phil, we're late getting this thing started. I know it's not your fault, but we must get going. I want you to be British in a very subtle manner."
After a brief rehearsal the director gave the nod to begin shooting. "All my New Yorkese rushed to the front." said Phil, "The last line of the sentence, 'My dear Dame Elizabeth, your modesty does you no dissoivice!', tore it, and when I said 'outboist of passion' it didn't help."
It was an unmitigated disaster. Phil was distraught. He knew that a bad screen test could signal the end of his burgeoning movie career. "I knew it was bad. Hell even the camera guy couldn't keep a straight face." said Phil.
The following morning Phil was called to attend the screening of his test. It was every bit as bad as he'd feared. "In my frantic efforts to be British I practically had fire flashing from my eyeballs. I looked like Valentino rolling his eyes at that doll who played opposite him in The Sheik!. These three minutes were perhaps the funniest I've ever done!."
Pride and Prejudice starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier was released in 1940. The role of Reverend Collins was eventually played by character actor, Melville Cooper
Phil later found out through a studio source that Billy Grady, who had discovered the likes of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, had taken a dislike to the way in which Louis B Mayer had taken a personal hand in signing Phil to MGM. Grady, who had arranged the test for Phil, had also taken an intense dislike to this brash young upstart from Brooklyn.
"I hadn't gone through the proper channels. Mr. Mayer himself had found me and that wasn't how the studio liked business being done. That test was supposed to destroy me and discredit Mayer!."
Phil felt that he had learned a valuable lesson from the disastrous affair. "That test forced me to keep on learning something about an entirely different facet of entertainment." said Phil.
"In desperation I began to entertain at parties and play more benefits, which gave me new scope, and I began to get bigger and better night-club bookings. Without that training, I wouldn't have been able to play such places as Ciro's and the Copa. Before that I had only been a book comedian - I had only delivered the lines a writer had written in a book for the show!".
But that wasn't the end of the story regarding the screen-test. Despite the increase in night-club bookings there was still no sign of any film work. "I thought I was being ignored." said Phil. "Producers and directors saw me at benefits or at night-clubs; then they called Metro to ask about me. When they did they were shown that British cleric screen-test. They looked at it and said 'I guess he's only funny at Ciro's.'"
Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney persuaded director Arthur Freed to gave Phil a small part in their new musical Babes In Arms. On viewing the footage Freed decided that Phil was walking away with the scene he'd filmed, and he simply couldn't let his stars be upstaged. He ordered Phil's scene be removed from the film.
An aqcuaintance of Phil's, writer and humourist Harry Kurnitz, tipped him off that the studio were still using the screen-test to show to prospective studios and executives, effectively ensuring that Phil's hoped-for movie career was dead in the water.
In a manner not unbecoming of Sgt. Bilko, Phil used a few connections within MGM who, to the best of Phil's knowledge arranged to have the print of the screen test destroyed.
The screen-test was never seen again. Phil had hoped that the excised footage from Babes In Arms might be used as a more favourable testament to his screen presence. But sadly Metro prevented the footage from being used.
As a futher afront, in late 1941 Phil heard that Republic Pictures were to make a film version of Yokel Boy. Sadly Phil was not approached to appear in the film and the Punko Parks role was re-written, re-named Joe Ruddy, and Phil's friend Eddie Foy Jnr was cast in the role.
To date the location and existence of Phil's screen-test has entered into Hollywood folklore and remains a mystery.
Phil Silvers and Buddy Ebsen in Yokel Boy
Pride and Prejudice
Babes In Arms