MPI // 1951 // 3000 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // November 8th, 2011
And awaaaaaay we go!
Jackie Gleason was one of TV's all time great stars, a man with a personality as large as his very rotund figure. Gleason was the star of the original classic series The Honeymooners, a show that churned out only a scant 39 episodes -- in today's market that's just under two seasons worth of shows -- and left behind a legacy yet to be matched. What many fans don't know is there was a cornucopia of 'lost' episodes sitting in Gleason's vaults for decades until they were finally released to public praise in the mid 1980s. MPI collects almost all of the original 'lost' episodes in one fifteen disc set with The Honeymooners: The Lost Episodes (The Complete Restored Series 1951-1957).
Before he was attempting to send his much loved and ever suffering wife to the moon each week, Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) and Alice (Audrey Meadows), along with their sewer dwelling neighbor Ed Norton (Art Carney) and his adorable wife Trixie (Joyce Randolph), were getting big laughs on live television. These original 107 live episodes are finally presented in one large offering, all in chronological order.
The shows included on this 15 disc set are from the television series Cavalcade of Stars (1951-1952) and The Jackie Gleason Show (1952-1957).
Fans have always reveled in the classic "39 episodes" of the original Honeymooners sitcom. The show's characters have gone on to become not just staples TV sets but also icons of the golden age of television. When one thinks about the beginnings of television, only a handful of faces top the list: Lucille Ball, George Burns and Jackie "The Great One" Gleason. What some may not know is that those 39 episodes aren't the only adventures of The Honeymooners -- over 70 'lost episodes' still survive in various forms. And this collection has almost all of them.
The original characters started as a live sketch in 1951 on the television show Cavalcade of Stars then moved to CBS the next year. When the show originally aired it starred Jackie Gleason and actress Pert Kelton. When the show made its move, Kelton was part of the Hollywood blacklist and Audrey Meadows took over the role of the patient Alice Kramden. These "lost episodes" were preserved by Jackie Gleason filming them using a Kinescope recording device. It would be decades before the world would get a chance to revisit these original episodes, many of which had never been seen since their first broadcast in the 1950s.
In 1985 Jackie Gleason struck a deal with the Showtime network to run these, which then became syndicated in broadcast television and eventually released on home video. By 2011 all but a small handful of original episodes have been accounted for (including a newly discovered episode this past year). Fans will be thrilled that MPI has collected all of these original skits and shows in one mammoth collection. Almost every single sketch is here and the hope is that those final missing episodes will be unearthed in some large cinema vault in the coming years.
It will come as no surprise that The Honeymooners looks positively quaint six decades after its initial run. The show's influence is deeply felt today -- every sitcom that features a doofus husband and smart, responsible wife owes a little bit to the original Honeymooners. The list of pretenders to the throne is seemingly endless from the obvious (The Simpsons, The Flintstones) to the not so obvious (Everybody Loves Raymond, Frasier). Few shows have had a lasting impact on network TV like The Honeymooners.
After working my way through much of this vastly enormous set, I've come to the realization that the show's best asset was its actors: Gleason, Meadows, Carney and Randolph. The scripts themselves are sometimes creaky and often filled with soft laughs. The moments that are most amusing are the wordless interactions between the stars, be it Ralph's bugging eyes at Norton's nonsense or Ralph's endless exasperations at Alice's persistent prodding. Each of the actors brings a unique spin to their roles; it's not surprising that this show went on to become a gold standard.
The Honeymooners episodes aren't overly complex. Many of them involve misunderstandings or domestic squabbles between Alice and Ralph (like when Ralph inadvertently thinks Alice is pregnant) or deal with Ralph and Ed's constant attempts at harebrained moneymaking schemes. Many of the episodes close with Ralph and Alice having some kind of a heart to heart (complete with the requisite schmaltzy music playing in the background) and Ralph telling his wife that she's "the greatest." In other words, the show tends to lean on the side of predictability. Yet predictability may be what fans keep coming back to -- The Honeymooners is like a warm cup of coffee and an old blanket, something that just feels comforting. That being said, there are some moments when the show found pathos in the characters and their plight. In one episode Ralph and Alice adopt a baby only to have the birth mother request the child back after only a few weeks. It's in these moments when you see that Gleason and Meadows' acting talents ran deeper than just zinger and slapstick comedy; the episode pulls at the heartstrings and offers a glimpse into a different kind of Honeymooners experience.
It's amazing how Gleason was able to make the character of Ralph Kramden a likable fellow, even when he's being a complete cad. He often threatens Alice with violence (something no actor would get away with today) and treats her with contempt. Yet underneath his gruff exterior is a man who truly loves his wife and wants the best for her. In one episode he chews out Alice for buying a television set from a local door to door salesman but by the end of the episode relents and pays for the set himself so his wife will be happy. Gleason pulls off a major feat of making Ralph a likable man, even when he does and says some pretty rotten things.
The other actors all come secondary to Gleason's oversized Ralph, but still manage to make their characters something extra special. Meadows has a feisty streak in her that reminds me of Marge Simpson mixed with a little bit of Carla from Cheers. She holds her own well against Gleason and makes Alice not just a pity case for Ralph's put downs, but also a fiercely independent woman in her own right (or at least as independent as a woman could be during the 1950s). Art Carney is amusingly befuddled as the goofy Norton, playing off Gleason's blustering well. You can easily see why Ralph and Ed's friendship was the basis for many, many other fictional male friendships (the brash, abrasive personality and the laidback, lower IQ mentality).
The Honeymooners holds up sixty years after the fact. It's basis is in human comedy and because of that we laugh and find ourselves reflected in the Kramdens and Nortons. That may be why both the original 39 episodes and these "lost episodes" have remained so popular.
All of these episodes are presented in their original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio and look very good, considering their age and medium. Fans shouldn't expect these transfers to look pristine by any stretch of the imagination -- the images are often marred with fuzziness, defects and even some warping from the film. Yet considering these were never meant to be seen again after their original airing, the presentations actually look very good. The black and white images are well preserved (all things considered), and just the fact Gleason let these out of the vault is cause for fans to celebrate.
The soundtracks are all presented in Dolby 2.0 Stereo in English. Don't expect much from these sound mixes -- aside of dialogue that's well heard and some music cues, there isn't much to these audio recordings. Then again, I don't think there was much of an improvement that needed to be made.
The extra features on this set are bountiful, including a nice "History of the Lost Episodes" featurette, some interviews with Joyce Randolph ("All About Trixie"), an Ed Sullivan Interview, a comedy sketch with Robert Q Lewis and Art Carney, Jackie interviewing Ed Norton about baseball and other issues ("Brooklyn Dodgers," "Cost of Living," "Rock & Roll"), an interview with singer Johnnnie Ray ("Norton Helps the Guest Host"), some lost radio episodes ("Letter to the Boss," "Love Letter) from 1954, some Art Carney features ("Art Carney Receives an Award from Sewer Workers," "Art Carney Nescafe Commercial," "Art Carney and Audrey Meadows Sketch," a animated carton for smoking with Ed and Ralph, a segment with Audrey Meadows on The Jack Benny Show, a humorous parody of "The Honeymooners" with Peter Lorre, a Chesterfield cigarette commercial with Audrey Meadows and three CBS era scripts for sketches that are still lost ("Easter Hats," "Alice's Birthday" and "The Missing Pair of Pants").
The Honeymooners: The Lost Episodes (The Complete Restored Series
1951-1957) isn't cheap (hovering around $90), but for hardcore fans of this
series it's an essential buy.
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 3000 Minutes
Release Year: 1951
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Sketches
* Talk Show Moments
* Lost Scripts