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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Jackie Gleason: Genius at Work
Jackie Gleason: Genius at Work
MPI Home Video // Unrated // January 29, 2008
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted February 21, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
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P R I N T
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The Show:

Jackie Gleason was one of television's first stars.  He had one of the very few hit shows on the long defunct DuMont network and was soon hired away by CBS where he would stay for nearly the next 20 years.  Of course his most famous creation was New York City bus driver Ralph Kramden, star of the Honeymooners, but that wasn't his only character by far.  During his decades on television he developed and perfected a whole stable of funny and very different characters, most of which are now forgotten.  Jackie Gleason:  Genius at Work sets out to right that wrong.  This TV special from 2006 chronicles Gleason's various characters and through clips from his old shows lets a new generation discover why Gleason was known as "The Great One."

This hour-long show is hosted by Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm) who wisely stays out of the way and mainly gives brief introductory comments on Gleason and his characters.  The vast bulk of the show is taken up with vintage clips of Jackie's various characters.  There's Charlie Bratton the Loudmouth, an insecure braggart who was based on one of Gleason's uncles, the simple but sweet Fenwick Babbitt, and, of course, The Poor Soul, a silent character who, like Chaplin's Tramp, never seems to come out ahead.

One of the funniest sketches involves Rudy the Repairman who, along with his pint-sized helper who no one else can understand, has to install an air conditioner during the lunch hour at an upscale tea house.  He promises the Maître d' (masterfully played by Art Carney) that they'll be quite as can be so that the diners won't be disturbed.  When his helper brings a sledge hammer and a satchel of tools and drops them on the floor, the waiter explodes "Does he have to make all that noise?!?"  "Do you know any softer way to drop tools than the way he did it?" replies the nonplused Rudy.  Destructive mayhem in the manner of Laurel and Hardy ensues.

There are several stories from my personal favorite, Joe the Bartender a character that used to close Gleason's American Scene Magazine show.  This down-to-earth working-class fellow would always greet the unseen Mr. Dunahee and then launch into an uproariously funny anecdote.  "We had a nice time (last night) Mr. Dunahee.  Ricky Callahan was there and Murial Van Bushkirk.  Teddy Galantis, getting a little nostalgic, ya know, as they're drinkin' turns to Murial and he says 'Ya know, I met my wife in this nightclub.'  She says 'Isn't that nice.' He says 'What nice?  I thought she was at home watchin' the kids.'"

There's also an amusing sketch with Reginald Van Gleason III, a rich, pampered gentleman who really enjoys having a drink "Ummmmmm-boy! That's good booze!"  In this outing he invites his girlfriend over to his father's house for a drink.  Audrey Meadows plays the wealthy girlfriend with a lot of glamour, more than you would expect after seeing her in the Honeymooners.  The bit ends, ironically, with Gleason literally sending her to the moon.

Of course no special on Gleason would be complete without a mention of Ralph Kramden.  There are a couple of Honeymooneres sketches, both of which are funny but the one where Alice and Ralph appear on Beat the Clock is outrageous.  A true classic.

While all of the bits and sketches included are funny, just about all of them have been trimmed so that all the material could fit into the hour-long time slot.  That's too bad, since many of the scenes play out too fast.  Cutting from joke to joke makes for an entertaining show, but it doesn't give a feel for Gleason's timing and the way he would craft a gag.  Sometimes the ending is left off, such as with the Beat the Clock episode of the Honeymooners, which is too bad.  Gleason was almost always able to wrap up his sketches in a nice way, something that is fairly hard to do.  Just watch SNL if you have any doubts.

While this show doesn't delve into Gleason's life or history (though his wife does mention a little about what he was like away from the camera) it is a nice introduction to the very talented comedian.  It's just too bad that more of his material isn't available on DVD.

The DVD:


Audio:

The show comes with a stereo soundtrack with optional English subtitles.  The sound quality varies with many of the old TV shows sounding a bit muddled.  While there is some background noise and some distortion here and there, the dialog is always audible and the comedy never suffers due to the crude recording methods of the time.

Video:

The full screen image looks pretty good when taking the age of the material into account.  These old live TV shows weren't recorded under the best of conditions, but the bits presented here are all watchable.  The image is very soft and occasionally blurry, the contrast isn't the greatest and the camera sometimes flares when a light hits a shining jewel, but it probably wouldn't have looked much better back in the 50's on a 16" screen with a signal being pulled out of the air.

Extras:

There's a nice extra included, an episode of the Jackie Gleason Show from May, 1954 where Jackie celebrated his 25th year in show business along with the release of a record album.  Unfortunately, this show is also cut.  The program had Gleason and his company sing the entire album, with each song being sung by a different character.  The songs are mostly cut, and what are left are the joining segments.  Granted these bits of a 'reporter' interviewing Gleason were probably the most entertaining aspects of the show, especially from today's point of view, but I would have enjoyed seeing the whole hour long show.  It's too bad they didn't include it all.

Final Thoughts:

Jackie Gleason truly was a great entertainer.  As this show amply illustrates, he was much more than Ralph Kramden.  It's too bad that the clips from his vintage TV shows had to be cut to fit the time slot, as a two-hour presentation with complete skits would have been wonderful.  As it is, this is one of the very few places where you can see some of Gleason's non-Honeymooner work, and it's well worth picking up just for that.  Recommended.
 

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