The idea that Joey could someday return in an hour-long format with song-and-dance numbers gives Appellate Judge James A. Stewart nightmares.
Our reviews of The Color Honeymooners: Collection 2 (published March 10th, 2008), The Color Honeymooners: Collection 3 (published May 21st, 2008), The Color Honeymooners: Collection 4 (published August 20th, 2008), The Honeymooners (published December 8th, 2005), The Honeymooners: The Classic 39 Episodes (published November 25th, 2003), and The Honeymooners: The Lost Episodes (The Complete Restored Series 1951-1957) (published November 8th, 2011) are also available.
"And awaaay we go!"
How often does a short-lived TV sitcom get revived in an hour-long format, complete with song-and-dance numbers? I believe (or hope, at least) that The Honeymooners was the only one, but given its history, it's no surprise that this one's that rarity.
The characters of Ralph and Alice Kramden and Ed and Trixie Norton are perhaps the best-known legacy of the DuMont network, since they originated in 1951 on its Cavalcade of Stars, a variety show helmed by Jackie Gleason (The Hustler, Smokey and the Bandit. As one of the network's most popular stars, he fled to CBS before the original fourth network folded. The characters appeared on various Gleason variety shows through 1970, but only lasted one season in a stand-alone sitcom, 1955-56. The "Classic 39" episodes from that season became popular in reruns, preserving the trials and tribulations of Ralph, Alice, Ed, and Trixie forever.
This collection from the 1966-67 season of The Jackie Gleason Show has Gleason reintroducing his most popular character as part of his variety-show format. Thus you get dance numbers courtesy of the June Taylor Dancers, music by the Sammy Spear Orchestra, episode introductions by the glamorous Glea Girls (giving each Glea Girl just a few words to say), and a few numbers by Gleason and his core cast, which still includes Art Carney (Harry and Tonto) here but has Sheila MacRae (General Hospital) and Jane Kean (Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo) playing Alice and Trixie. Wikipedia says that when Gleason left weekly television in 1970, CBS wanted more of these hour-long Kramden and Norton shows, but didn't want any more of Gleason as a TV variety show host.
The Color Honeymooners: Collection 1 features nine episodes of this new incarnation of the sketches, encompassing a storyline (used in a previous Gleason variety show) in which the foursome wins a round-the-world trip. Of course, by that time, Gleason wasn't in New York anymore either, since he'd relocated his show to Miami Beach, described in the show's intro as "the Fun and Sun Capital of the World," bringing that city lots of publicity and tourism. The old bits are updated with references to the Batman TV series, Ringo Starr, and other 1960s cultural figures. They even throw in a few jabs at that chubby variety show host Jackie Gleason.
Facts of the Case
Ralph, Ed, Alice, and Trixie go around the world in nine episodes. They are:
• "Ship of Fools"
• "Poor People of Paris"
• "Curse of the Kramdens"
• "The Mod Couple"
• "We Spy"
• "Petticoat Jungle"
The first episode is the best of the lot, but each has some good moments—and some slow ones. As is typical of variety shows, Gleason comes on stage at the end, often in costume but always out of character, to introduce the performers and let them take a bow.
From the applause whenever Jackie Gleason utters a familiar line (like the infamous "One of these days, Alice. One of these days. Pow! Right in the kisser!"), it's clear that the 1966 studio audience wanted to see more of the Kramdens and the Nortons. Some episodes show the audience cracking up at the good bits. These episodes are "pre-recorded," the announcer says, but the occasional flub is kept in as if the show were live.
The key to "The Honeymooners" was the team of Art Carney and Jackie Gleason, with Carney playing a Stan Laurel to Gleason's Oliver Hardy. As bus driver Ralph Kramden, Gleason is a loud schemer who knows just a little bit more than Carney's goofy neighbor Ed Norton. That is to say, just enough to hang himself—especially when traveling abroad—with know-nothing lines like: "You don't address anybody in German and say, 'Schweinhund.' You say 'Herr Schweinhund.' " Kramden is proud, trying to play the pompous big shot. When he's addressed by a waiter in French, he's visibly puzzled but tells Ed, "I know what it means but I'm not going to tell you." He also calls a waiter by saying "Gargoyle" (instead of "Garcon"). Kramden always wants to be that big shot to impress his wife, but his schemes usually end up backfiring. Ralph's first contest victory wins him a huge dog that he has to sell because he can't keep the animal in his tiny two-room walkup; the needling from Alice and Ed hits home his humiliation. The rubber-faced Gleason is adept at popping his eyes out, dropping his jaw, and otherwise wearing Kramden's torments on his face.
My favorite Kramden line, an answer to a remark, has Ralph saying, "I'm not a fatted calf," then sensing the wisecrack en route and saying, "Don't say it, Alice."
Sewer worker Ed, who takes along scuba gear so he can tour the famous sewers of Paris on his trip, is more satisfied with his lot. When given a chance to study under the G.I. Bill, he took karate for fun rather than taking up accounting. He's also still got a Little Orphan Annie decoder ring. Norton is a sort of conscience when Ralph gets foolish, remembering that "This is the greatest idea you've come up with since that hair tonic that glows in the dark," but always tags along like Stan Laurel in the movies anyway. The gangly Carney seems to always be in comic motion, with those little bits of business that drive Ralph crazy.
Audrey Meadows, the Alice Kramden many of us remember from the sitcom, wasn't the first to take on the role. Pert Kelton played the bickering wife in DuMont's version of "The Honeymooners," so it isn't too much of a stretch to consider new actresses as Alice and Trixie. Sheila MacRae's Brooklynese accent as Alice seems faked and forced, though, while Jane Kean does a great job as Trixie Norton.
By 1966, the "Honeymooners" name for these sketches was a misnomer, since the bickering Kramdens somehow had managed to avoid divorce court for 16 years of screen time. At first glance, divorce seems like a good option when you hear exchanges like this:
"I have nothing against your sister Helen. But why she married that big loudmouth blowhard, I'll never know," Ralph says.
"She married him because you were already taken," Alice answers.
"One of these days, Alice. One of these days. Pow! Right in the kisser!"
That signature Ralph Kramden line garners laughs because the audience knows it's Ralph who is afraid of Alice, as we see when she catches him in his contest-entering scheme in "25 Words or Less." In "Confusion, Italian Style," we see that Ralph depends on Alice through his pain when he believes that she's found an Italian lover. There's no question that Ralph's sincere when he says, "My whole life's falling apart." Smaller moments, including the signature making-up scene between the bickering marrieds in many segments, show that Alice relies on Ralph as well, though he's always embarrassing her. One might also wonder how the Nortons made it to the color TV era, since Ed's always shirking work (When Trixie enters carrying luggage while Ed's unencumbered, he retorts, "We made a deal. You carry the bags as far as Bangkok and then I take over") and belittling his wife's looks and personality.
The reason these characters have survived the years, warts and all, with audiences is because they seem real, if exaggerated. Gleason has claimed "The Honeymooners" was spawned by recollections of growing up not far from the Kramdens' Chauncey Street address, as Wikipedia notes. "Every neighborhood in Brooklyn had its Ralph Kramdens," Gleason is quoted as saying in Wikipedia. Perhaps there was still a bit of the old Bensonhurst dreamer in the accomplished Jackie Gleason after all those years.
These episodes didn't survive the years perfectly. The main problem with the picture here is bleeding of colors, most noticeable in the colorful song-and-dance numbers. You'll spot lines and marks on the film in a couple of places as well. There's nothing that makes the productions unwatchable, though. The lush orchestral score comes through nicely, if not spectacularly, here.
There's one bonus feature: "The Great Gleason Express," an account of the train trip that moved Jackie Gleason's show from New York to Miami Beach. It's a mix of color and black-and-white footage with still photos. It's short (only eight minutes long) but interesting.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The splashy color treatment of "The Honeymooners" doesn't really add much, although you get visible gags out of the loud outfits worn by Gleason and Carney on their trip. The musical numbers slow down the pace and the general atmosphere of variety-show glitz doesn't feel right; the black-and-white episodes set a tone of simplicity more indicative of a rough urban life. The round-the-world trip setup for these nine episodes seems forced as well. If you're not into their brand of silliness, the variety show excesses might give you something to laugh at.
I spotted at least one episode that looked like it was trimmed. I suspect rights fees were to blame.
On a lighter note, you may be amused to note that the introduction to The Jackie Gleason Show, which features a camera that starts out on the water and zooms in on beautiful Miami Beach, looks more like a scene from Jaws today than the opening to a variety show. I wish they'd have used more location footage in the intro, since it would be a heck of a time capsule of Miami Beach at the start of the modern tourism era. Maybe the next collection can dig up some tourism bureau footage from 1960s Miami Beach and Florida as a bonus feature.
This set isn't Jackie Gleason and Art Carney at their best, but I laughed out loud quite a bit. If you've already seen everything "Honeymooners" out there, you'll want to see this, too. If you haven't, though, I'd recommend hunting down "The Classic 39."
Gleason and Carney make a great comedy team, good enough to get away with the recycling, padding, and bloating that they inflict on "The Honeymooners" here. Not guilty—and awaaay they go!
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Scales of Justice
• "The Great Gleason Express"
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