They called him "The Great One." He was a man of large appetites and even larger talents. He was a multiple pack-a-day chain smoker and loved his adult beverages. He refused to fly and traveled everywhere by private train car. At the height of his popularity, he was the highest paid television star in the history of the medium and millions watched his variety show every single week. While he was a god of the small screen and the nightclub stage, big screen mega-stardom mostly eluded him. From critical acclaim (he was Minnesota Fats alongside Paul Newman in The Hustler) to saccharine cult clamor (he's one of the few good things about the deaf mute mush of Gigot) his Tinseltown appearances further proved that only the TV was able to properly channel his larger than life persona. But Jackie Gleason was so much more than a curse word filled hick sheriff or a rich racist. He was a superstar before there really was such a nomenclature. He was a Renaissance man in a world filled with teeming mediocrity. His creative legacy begins and extends infinitely with the formation of what, for many, is the foundation for all situation comedies: The Honeymooners. Now, thanks to CBS Video, Paramount, and Facebook fans worldwide, you can sample what many believe are the eight best episodes of this classic series. While all 39 have merit, these are the populist picks.
The Honeymooners got its start as a sketch as part of The Cavalcade of Stars in 1950. Over the course of the next five years, the segments grew in popularity. Hoping to capitalize on their success, Gleason crafted a standalone half-hour sitcom around the adventures of the Kramdens and the Nortons. Debuting in 1955 and only lasting one 39-episode season, The Honeymooners was never a huge ratings triumph and Gleason returned to the variety show format. But something odd happened. Over the course of the decades in reruns and reverie, The Honeymooners' cult developed into a universal legion of devoted followers. Even with the release of "The Lost Episodes" in the mid-'80s (from Gleason's own private collection), fans and scholars still returned to the 'Classic 39' to experience comedic perfection at its most sublime. The eight installments here come from that era.
The setup of the show is simplicity itself. Ralph Kramden is an overweight, loudmouthed, hard-working bus driver for the Gotham line in New York City. He lives in a small apartment in Brooklyn with his kind-hearted, put-upon wife Alice. They've been married for 15 years and it seems like every day of their time together has been a struggle. Money is tight, Ralph is full of get rich quick schemes that always seem to fail, and though he protests about being the boss of his home, it is Alice who saves the situation and the day most of the time. Ralph's best friend is Ed Norton, a ditzy soul who works in the New York sewers. His wife is the ex-burlesque dancer Trixie. The Nortons live on credit and cockeyed optimism, playing happy-go-lucky larks to the Kramdens dark depressives. Ed and Ralph love to bowl, shoot pool, and attend The Loyal Order of Raccoons Lodge where they are both very active members. Alice and Trixie are also gal pals, both in their domestic drudgery and husband-hampered existence. But these married couples sincerely love each other and express their emotions freely and openly.
On this single DVD set are the following episodes:
"TV or Not TV": Since neither can afford a set on their own, Ralph and Ed buy one together. But this comfy communal arrangement is challenged when Ralph wants to watch a movie, and Norton is determined to tune in to Captain Video.
"Funny Money": Ralph comes into a fortune when a suitcase full of cash is left unclaimed on his bus. But it turns out the money is counterfeit and the gangsters who made it know who has it...and they will do anything to get it back.
"The Golfer": In order to impress his boss, Ralph brags that he can play golf. It's up to Norton to teach this non-linkster the tricks of the traps before he embarrasses himself on the course and perhaps loses his job.
"The Sleepwalker": Norton's nighttime strolls while he snores have kept the Kramden and Norton households awake for far too many nights. A late night visit from a doctor may lead to a cure, as long as Ralph agrees to stay and look after Norton.
"Better Living Through Television": Ralph stumbles upon the idea of selling a "kitchen helper" gadget on television. Unfortunately, Norton and Ralph must do the commercial themselves, and Ralph has stage fright.
"The Man From Space": Ralph wants to win $50 at the Raccoon Lodge costume contest, but no one will loan him the cash to rent an outfit. So using his ingenuity (and several parts of the household furnishings), Ralph creates a hilarious man from space outfit.
"The $99,000 Answer": Ralph wins a chance to be on a game show and he chooses popular songs as his category of expertise. It's up to Norton to help him brush up on his tune knowledge so that he can hopefully win the jackpot.
"Young at Heart": After talking to her teenage neighbors, Alice wants to go out and be young again. But Ralph refuses until Norton teaches him the finer skills of being hip and modern. But the physical price may be too much to bear for this tired old fogey.
When the age-old argument about the "best" sitcom rears its seemingly omnipresent head, names and nominations are tossed out like junk mail from a day's postal delivery. Seinfeld and The Simpsons are almost universally acknowledged, as well as other entries like Friends, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Cheers. More times than not, however, the same familiar faces and showcases are mentioned and discussed. But few discuss the "perfect" sitcoms, the exact marriage of premise to performers that transcends the cathode ray tube to become a timeless monolith of mirth.
Fawlty Towers is such a show, an uptight tale of manners under pressure all fueled by the least likely hero in the history of the hospitality trade. I Love Lucy is also among the ideals, not merely for its invention of the sitcom convention, but for the undeniable brilliance of its cast and creators. But when the faultless feats of fine programming are lined up for inspection, one seems to consistently stand head, shoulders, and stomach beyond the rest. The Honeymooners, a three camera concerto about four average individuals from Brooklyn, NY seems to encapsulate what is good, what is comic, and what is endearing about television.
With only eight shows to sample, the overview will be brief (and a bit incomplete). Still, we can learn a lot just by singling out certain installments, beginning with:
"TV or Not TV": Since The Honeymooners were already a part of several previous Gleason television shows, they arrived fully formed and honed to perfection when this, the premier episode of the standalone series, made its debut. Indeed, some jokes were so "inside" (the whole "to the moon, Alice" bit) that it took the audience a while to warm up to them. Still, the sight of Norton donning his Captain Video space helmet and cheering along with his TV idol makes this episode a must see, as does Ralph preparing his "snacks" for an evening viewing, laying them out in true "Homer Simpson" style.
"The Golfer": Art Carney's necessity and superiority as a sidekick was never underestimated by the creators of The Honeymooners, and they jumped at the chance to showcase this versatile actor. Here, Carney's golf lesson to Ralph is pure comic genius, a well-timed combination of physical humor with hilariously corny old jokes.
"Better Living Through Television": Exploring the still virginal medium was always a safe bet for the scriptwriters, and nothing sparked their satire more than commercials. Like Lucy's drunken drone through an advert for Vitameatavegamin, Ralph and Ed's handy dandy kitchen helper spot is another clear example of expert actors essaying characters under extreme circumstances. Ralph's trademark "homina-homina-homina" stammer is in full effect here, and Gleason's deer in the headlights looks and uncomfortable body language are just fantastic.
"The Man from Space": Because of his size, Jackie Gleason was the ultimate sight gag. With a simple pratfall or an undulation of his ample hips, he had audiences rolling in the aisles, so adding a crazy costumed element to his human humoresque seems only natural. The best part about this showcase for Gleason's goofiness is how Norton is also ridiculed. His fancy French nobleman outfit underlines his hysterical lowbrow nature in a wonderful way, and it makes Ralph's homemade fiasco that much more comically crude.
"Young At Heart": Gleason's gift for broad physical comedy, combined with the show's wistful theme of recapturing one's youth, makes this another prime example of why The Honeymooners was so successful. Even with the awkwardly unrealistic "hep cat" teens at the beginning, the pure comic genius in the "Hucklebuck" dance sequence and Gleason's mastery of roller-skating shakiness more than make up for it. And with the final speech at the end, a beautifully written paean to the melancholy march of time, we have the touching topping to this tasty treat.
Now, one could argue that The Honeymooners relies far too much on the fat joke and Gleason's stocky build to bolster its percentage of laughs, and there will be some that listen to the barefoot and pregnant paternalism expressed by all the men in the show and scream chauvinism. But you have to accept the show within the context it was created and the sentiment it actually expressed. Ralph's violent threats toward Alice never manifest themselves in abuse or bruises and are made more out of frustration than brutish glee. Alice and Trixie truly run their households, never letting their husbands get away with anything without making them pay some price. For a woman whose place was supposedly in the home, Alice gets a lot more freedom than many early '50s housewives would have dared (living on the edge of poverty will do that).
Sure, Ralph and Ed are the breadwinners and socially accepted kings of their castles, but they seem stuck in their jobs, destined to go nowhere but sideways in their career choice. It's this strange equilibrium between power, the perception of power and the intense emotion that these characters have for each other that helps forgive The Honeymooners of some of its less than enlightened ideals. It's a smart, insightful show that has something very real and very relevant to say about the human condition. Trying to boil it all down to eight endemic episodes is really a fool's paradise.
As they did with the previous Classic 39 collection, CBS Video and Paramount provide a Fan Favorites, The Honeymooners package that is significantly short on bonus features but long on transfer polish. Some websites have long argued that more care should have been taken with the prints offered to the public, as there are numerous scratches, dirt, flaws, and age issues to be found here as well as on other compendiums. Yet after seeing the shockingly poor quality of the episodes offered on cable channels such as TVLand or ME TV, the DVD release suddenly looks incredible. Instead of a gray, cheesecloth vagueness, the monochrome is sharp and focused. Overall, those used to seeing this show in less than stellar reruns will adore the digital picture here. While not perfect, it is pretty good.
On the sonic side, the Dolby Digital Mono is clean, without major hiss or distortion. The DVD seems to be mastered a little on the low side, so you'll have to turn up the volume to hear the show properly. "TV or Not TV" also has a muddy, muffled mix that really shouldn't exist here.
There are many lasting legacies to be found in The Honeymooners. One can't help but look at any stocky television sitcom lead and not instantly think of Ralph Kramden and his appetite challenged physique. Whenever the wacky neighbor wanders over from next door to illuminate the proceedings with his or her own particular brand of outrageousness, Ed Norton and his cashmere vest over white T-shirt stylings can't be far behind. There is a little of Alice Kramden's temperance in every comedy mom and Trixie's perky persona can usually be located somewhere amongst the colleagues and associates. But beyond the small screen, Jackie Gleason's little show that could continues to resonate with a society brimming with unfulfilled husbands, put-upon wives and outdated social stigmas. Fans of this funny business already own the original 39, so there is no need for his compendium. For those interested in discovering the series for themselves, this eight episode sampler is easily Recommended. Of course, for a few dollars more, four times the fun awaits. Indeed, they don't call them "classic" for nothing.
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