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Boy, they sure don't make 'em like they used to.
I'm a little uncomfortable kicking the review off with such a clichéd sentiment - mostly because it makes me feel like an ole' fuddy duddy - but if there's a single program that justifies the usage, it's clearly The Honeymooners. It may have had a short run as a full-fledged series, but thanks to a richer background than the story of The Classic 39 Episodes could ever tell, its legacy was nevertheless cemented in the annals of sitcom history. Truly timeless, its success was never the result of gratuitous flash or pizzazz. 99% of what we saw took place in the single room of a two room apartment (we never did get to see the bedroom), and numerically speaking, the talent was a bare bones crew if there ever was one. That said, Gleason went to great lengths to depict a lifestyle that average Americans could relate to, and they responded in kind. As minimal as the cast had been, they played off each other brilliantly and displayed profound respect for the art of comedy. The end result was pure comedic bliss, and thanks to the combined efforts of Paramount and CBS Home Entertainment, we can finally laugh our way through each ‘hamina-hamina' and ‘bang, zoom' in high-definition.
For those unfamiliar with The Honeymooners' humble beginnings, it debuted on the DuMont Network - and just 10 days before the premiere of I Love Lucy, at that - as a six minute sketch on the Jackie Gleason starring Cavalcade of Stars. The idea behind it was simple - Sitcoms had a tendency of placing husbands and wives in settings that were too comfortable even for middle class, and everyone (of course) always looked their Sunday best. Gleason, on the other hand, wanted to break the mold and take a more realistic approach. He grew up in little more than four walls with a roof over his head, so he knew what it was like to struggle financially. What was the point in conveying an idealistic view of life that nobody could relate to? He wanted something genuine, and that's what he set out to achieve.
In '52, he made the move to CBS and started The Jackie Gleason Show, where The Honeymooners finally began to gain a significant amount of traction. Before long, overwhelming fan response allowed the skit to become a regular part of the program, and was eventually the only part of the program (well, almost). For some additional perspective of how popular it was, consider that The Jackie Gleason Show's ratings heavily competed with, and at times even bested those of I Love Lucy. After a few seasons however, Gleason's contract was set to expire with CBS... and that's when he was offered a generous deal to make The Honeymooners its own show. The rest, as they say, is history...
The Classic 39
Residing in apartment 3B of 328 Chauncey Street - which only features two barely furnished rooms - are the Kramden's. Ralph drives a bus by day, but dreams of grandeur tickle his brain... well, pretty much all the time. Unable to provide any kind of frivolity for his wife Alice (Audrey Meadows), he often resorts to plotting get-rich-quick schemes. It doesn't take long for his imagination to reach the stars, but unfortunately, his grasp on logic tends to fall by the wayside. Worse yet, he always manages to convince his friend from the apartment upstairs, Norton (Art Carney), into helping execute his harebrained ideas. Knowing their husbands are bigger dreamers than doers, Alice and Trixie (Joyce Randolph) chime in to convince their husbands just how foolish they sound, but their advice falls on deaf ears. The boys spring their plan into motion, and it inevitably blows up in their face. After all is said and done, there isn't much left for Ralph to say, other than to admit that he's "got a biiiiiig moouuuuuuuth!"
A simple premise, yes, but it's an excellent contrast to the grandiose, highly idealized programs that regularly graced the airwaves. I mean, Lucy Ricardo's shenanigans may have been hilarious and amongst the best that television has ever seen, but what was her motivation? To become a star? Her husband was already in show business, if not already on the cusp of becoming a big name in Hollywood. She'd be hobnobbing with the likes of John Wayne, William Holden, Harpo Marx and more. But the Kramdens? They were poor. Dirt poor. They had no television, no telephone, and settled on using a dilapidated ice-box because they couldn't afford a modern refrigerator. Alice often says something along the lines of, ‘it would be nice if we could afford this, because everyone else seems to have one,' which pains Ralph because he knows there's little he can do about it… unless he's able to coax some ‘luck' into coming his way.
And the precise moment he begins to think that way, is the moment he begins to slide down the slippery slope of failure. Ralph certainly means well, but he hasn't the social skills to impress, nor the foresight to see the consequences ahead. He's a child in this respect, as well as many others. To put it bluntly, Ralph has a hell of a temper. When Alice tries to interject with a little logic, that temper flares and he browbeats and even threatens to send her ‘to the moon' unless she falls in line. Needless to say, this kind of behavior wouldn't be tolerated on television today. Viewers would call in and complain the show was making light of spousal abuse, and the program would be ripped off the airwaves in a matter of weeks.
To this day, people question why Ralph's threats against his wife were ever considered funny. You could argue culture, context and delivery - all of which are valid points - but more than that, it's the fact that Alice never cowered to Ralph's explosions of hot air. Not once. She never believed her husband would strike, and by extension, neither did the audience. Once he went and made a fool of himself, he'd come crawling back and admit she was right all along. After reconciling, he'd stare at her adoringly and say, "Baby, you're the greatest!" This is how many episodes of The Honeymooners would come to a close, and we were always left with the understanding that their love was genuine. Yes, it was unconventional to see a married couple bicker on television the way the Kramden's did - and to a certain degree, it still is - but it was yet another wrinkle of the concept that people could identify with. Couples fight and make up. True love perseveres in the end, and that's a message that the easily offended seem to gloss over when performing their so-called ‘analysis'.
And besides, if Ralph ever DID raise his hand to Alice… she's a tough cookie. I'm willing to bet she can take care of herself.
Despite Ralph's hot head and willingness to manipulate people to get what he wants, The Honeymooners is a positive experience through and through, and not just because of all the laughs. The general point deals with how we're supposed to overcome ‘the struggle'. We obviously get upset when the chips are down, but we need to be careful not to neglect the important things in life when we begin the race to catch our dreams. And what's more important than the people we share our ups and downs with? What's more important than the people that stick by our side, even if we are a little stupid from time to time? For me, that's the heart of the show. Ralph gets himself into the worst situations because of his big mouth, but his pal Norton is always there to help him see it through. Alice and Trixie may be the first ones to tell their husbands their schemes are rubbish, but they're always there to catch them when they fall. Life may not be perfect, and many of us may never know what it's like to live without counting our pennies paycheck to paycheck… but so what? Family and friends is where it's at.
Anyways, I began this review by saying ‘they don't make ‘em like they used to,' but there's more to that sentiment than Gleason's desire to go against every convention set by the sitcoms of his time. In fact, the most unconventional aspect of the show's production, was that Gleason had never rehearsed on-set with the rest of the cast. Not because he was lazy or a diva, mind you, but because he believed that spontaneity produced the best comedic results. Rehearse your lines and reactions too much, and it's going to look mechanical in front of the studio audience, not to mention the viewers at home. As a result, he'd forget his lines quite often, but a rub on his belly would inform the rest of the cast to ‘fill in the blanks'.
Audrey Meadows wasn't a fan of Gleason's no-rehearsal policy, but she alleviated her concerns by learning everyone's lines, eventually earning 'The Rock' as a moniker amongst her co-stars. Another downside to Gleason's lack of performance prep, was that it deterred major guest stars from appearing on the show. That aside, I think Gleason was on to something. I mean, just look at what's on television today. While I find The Big Bang Theory to be thoroughly enjoyable, I can't deny it lacks a certain... 'spark', and the same could be said for a host of others. Hell, even Saturday Night Live - a program whose bread and butter is live comedy skits - comes off as labored (no matter how many times the stars giggle at their own stupid jokes). Well, comedy shouldn't come off as laborious. With good timing and a little spontaneity, people should laugh and have a great time. The only labor for Gleason was behind the scenes, but as soon as he was on that stage, he was having fun again... and it showed. Can we see that in any of the sitcoms on the air today? I can't.
So remember, when someone says ‘they don't make ‘em like they used to,' don't be so quick to write it off as nostalgia fueled ramblings. A program like The Honeymooners embodies everything that phrase is meant to stand for, and if you've never had the pleasure of seeing the series for yourself, you should rectify that immediately. And hey, you never know - You may never view television the same way again. Despite its short run as a full-fledged series, you'd be hard pressed to find another program that's had as much as an impact on television as The Honeymooners.
After ‘The Classic 39
The Honeymooners had a three year contract to the tune of 11 million smackaroos, but after a ratings drop and a shortage of ideas, Gleason was forced to make a decision that left 7 million with the studio - The Honeymooners would not receive a second season (Gleason didn't want the integrity of the show to suffer). Instead, The Jackie Gleason Show came back for the '56-'57 season, and The Honeymooners went back to its roots as a variety hour skit. Once that came to an end, The Honeymooners returned time and time again over the years on The American Scene Magazine, a revival of The Jackie Gleason Show, and other various televised specials, with the final one - The Honeymooners Anniversary Celebration - airing in 1985.
Growing up, reruns of The Honeymooners looked like garbage. The footage was soft and the contrast was blown. Early in the life of DVD, we received The Classic 39 on a decent multi-disc set, and although it was a marked improvement over the broadcast version on television, it showed its age more and more as time went on. So honestly, I wasn't sure what Paramount and CBS Home Entertainment would be able to provide, but they met, and even exceeded my expectations by quite a bit.
Now, The Honeymooners - The Classic 39 Episodes is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:33:1, and has been encoded at 1080p via the AVC codec. My, oh my, how sweet it is...
The amount of detail on display is astonishing. I've seen pristine black and white presentations before - most notable of which being The Twilight Zone and The Dick Van Dyke Show - but The Honeymooners can almost go toe-to-toe with them. The fine grain from the 35mm film source has been left intact, meaning all the fine details you'd expect from a high-def disc is present. You'll see individual strands of hair, threads in clothing, Gleason's sweat caused by the studio lights (okay, so there are some downsides to HD)... everything. Because the contrast and black levels are so immaculate, you can even see fine details in Gleason's jet black hair. And speaking of contrast, the whites never bloom and blacks are never crushed. Honestly, I felt like I was watching 35mm film as opposed to... well, whatever we've been treated to over the years. It was like watching The Honeymooners for the very first time.
There are a few minor complaints I have with the set, but they're complaints that can't be attributed to the transfer. There are going to be some soft shots sprinkled throughout any given episode. Because the show was filmed in front of a live audience, and Gleason had a 'policy' about never rehearsing with his co-stars, the cameramen had the difficult job of following him without any kind of reference beforehand. So, of course, the focus would suffer on occasion, but it's nothing that perseveres throughout the entirety of an episode. Also, while the film looks remarkably clean for a television show from the 50's, you're still going to see a fair amount of specks and dirt. Some may appreciate it as some kind of visual charm, others may cite them as a distraction, but I think The Honeymooners still looks great, considering.
I've seen a lot of people on message boards saying they would wait before plunking their hard earned money on The Honeymooners on Blu-ray. Some of these comments are due to the steep MSRP, which is a fair argument, while others believe the upgrade to HD might not be worth it. Well, if seeing is believing, then I'm here to tell you that when it comes to the video presentation on this set, the upgrade is WELL worth it.
Although The Honeymoners was recorded as Mono, and despite the fact the back of the case says the audio is 'English Mono', what my Blu-ray player - Oppo BDP-83 - sees, is an LPCM Stereo track. There's no awkward sound phasing and the sound never appears to be separated between the channels, so I'm inclined to think what we have here is a 2.0 Mono track. I guess that's not a surprise, considering we were given the lossy equivalent in the 'Lost Episodes' collection on DVD. That said, I'm not exactly sure what the point of '2.0 Mono' is in the first place. All it tends to do is waste disc space.
Anyway, regardless of the '2.0 Mono' vs 'Mono' debate, The Honeymooners sounds great. A lot of people complained of muffled sounding audio on the original Classic 39 DVD set, but consider that a thing of the past. Dialogue on this Blu-ray set sounds remarkably crisp, and sound levels don't have a tendency to fluctuate.
Another complaint from the original DVD was the presence of some audible hiss. The background hiss wasn't nearly as bad as the early Universal Monster film DVD's, not by any stretch, but it was still somewhat noticeable. Well, that's been reduced by quite a large margin here. Cranking the volume on my speaker system produced no noticeable hiss at all, really, unless I really listened for it. Even then, the only time I could hear it was during the dead spots in between dialogue exchange. The only time I was really able to make the 'hiss' out at all was when I hooked a pair of cans through my receiver, cranking the volume once again. Then, and only then, did I actually notice the hiss on the track. Does that concern you? It shouldn't. The 'hiss' wasn't offensive even at high volumes blasting my ears. It sounded more like the quiet background noise you might hear on the silent parts of a record.
In short, much like the video, the audio is also worthy of an upgrade. If you want to hear The Honeymooners the way it was meant to be heard, you're going to be satisfied with what Paramount and CBS Home Entertainment have done.
-Two Promos (HD) - Although the output resolution is HD for these two short promos, the quality isn't the same as what you'll be seeing on the episodes themselves. Much like the broadcasts on television, the image is soft, the sound is weak and the contrast is off.
-"Best Buick Yet" Dealer Presentation (HD)
-60 Minutes Jackie Gleason Profile (HD - 10/28/84) - For me, this is one of the better supplements in the set. Although the fifth disc features some pretty great stuff, I'm far more interested in the details of Gleason's life, and from the man himself at that. 60 Minutes tend to provide a pretty comprehensive look at whoever they're detailing, so fans of the show, the actor or just comedy in general, should give this supplemental gem a viewing. As far as the quality of this footage is concerned... well, you cna see for yourself. When there isn't a lot of movement, it looks quite a bit better than I expected it to, but that visual effect you're seeing in the second screenshot? Well, that happens a lot, and is pretty distracting.
-60 Minutes Jackie Gleason Profile Outtakes (HD)
Disc 5 (No Supplements on Disc 4)
-American Scene Magazine: The Adoption (1966) - It's a musical remake of the sketch from The Jackie Gleason Show in 1955 of the same name, and it's surprisingly good (sorry, but when I think of The Honeymooners, musical numbers aren't the first thing to come to mind).
-35th Anniversary Special - Audrey Meadows looks back fondly on her time playing Alice on The Honeymooners. Unfortunately, Gleason had passed a few years prior to the special (which aired in 1990), but there are interviews with Art Carney, Joyce Randolph and even some of the original writers. Definitely worth watching if you're a fan.
-50th Anniversary Special - Kevin James - well-known to be a big fan of Gleason' work on the program - hosts this anniversary special. He speaks of how much of an influence Gleason and the show had been at the start of his career, and even gets Tom Hanks to discuss his time working with, and getting to know Gleason (Hanks starred in what would turn out to be Gleason's final film). Outside of that, Kevin explores what's likely a recreation of the original set with some comedic bits to string his monologue along, while the rest of the special shows old interviews with original cast members, as well as clips both rare and well known.
-"Person to Person" Segment featuring Jackie Gleason (2/3/56) - Gleason starred on an episode of this series, in which host Edward R. Murrow had interviewed celebrities in a comfortable setting. It's a pretty remarkable contrast to the 60 Minutes special, as this was nearly 30 years prior, when Gleason was in his prime.
There's a reason why Orson Welles and Lucille Ball called Gleason 'The Great One'. There's a reason why Meadows, who admits that the word 'genius' is often overused, had no problem calling her co-star one. He was a man with many talents, for sure, but he'll always be best known for his creation, Ralph Kramden. The Honeymooners - The Classic 39 is undoubtedly the best of the best, not just of his career, but of television in general. People could relate to the premise and characters, and the talent had what's arguably the best comedic timing of any cast to ever perform in front of a camera. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - They sure don't make 'em like they used to. With its unconventional production - from conception to how the show had been rehearsed - it managed to capture the hearts of its audience, and the imagination of writers, actors and filmmakers to come for generations. I could go on and on, but if you have no interest in The Honeymooners at this point, I'll leave you with the immortal words of Mr. Kramden himself: "GEEEEEET OOOOOOOUT!" For everyone else, the technical presentation on this release is precisely what the show deserves - Pristine video and clean audio, and the supplements, while not great in number, are pretty impressive, too. DVDTalk Collector Series.