Ahh, The Honeymooners. I've been a big fan of Jackie Gleason as long as I can remember. As a young child, watching the Jackie Gleason show in the late 60's was a highlight of my TV-viewing week, eclipsed only by Star Trek and Saturday morning cartoons (mainly Spider-Man.) I eagerly awaited every installment of The Great One's TV show since I knew I would be guaranteed an hour of hilarity. Once when I was playing with some friends in an empty lot near my house, I fell on a rusty piece of metal and gashed my arm open pretty badly. Many hours and several stitches later as my parents and I were leaving the hospital I asked what time it was. It was late, after 9 pm, and I instantly started to cry and cry. My mother asked me if my arm was hurting, and I said no, we had missed Jackie Gleason. That was much worse than getting scared for life.
When I heard that some of these classic Gleason shows that I remembered from my youth were coming to DVD, I was naturally looking forward to them. Having soaked up the nine episodes on this set I'm glad that they've been released, though the shows don't hold up as well as I was hoping. A little dated and not as tight as the "Classic 39" Honeymooners show, these episodes still have some good laughs in them.
Originally created as a reoccurring skit on the Gleason hosted Cavalcade of Stars, the Honeymooners stared Gleason as Ralph Kramden, a blow-hard Brooklyn buss driver who's always trying to come up with a scheme to strike it rich. Aiding him in his schemes is his best friend and upstairs neighbor Ed Norton (Art Carney), and opposing them are their long suffering wives Alice and Trixie.
The skit was so popular that in 1955 it was spun off into its own half hour TV show that lasted only one season. These are the known as the "Classic 39" and featured Audrey Meadows as Alice and Joyce Randolph as Trixie. Though the ratings weren't good in the mid 50's, when the series went into syndication it became incredibly popular and has been on the air ever since.
After the failure of The Honeymooners as a stand alone show, Gleason kept the series alive on his variety shows where it had started. It was a part of his 1962 show The Jackie Gleason American Scene Magazine (which was soon renamed The Jackie Gleason Show) and when he moved his show to Miami Beach ("The fun and sun capital of the world") in 1966, the Honeymooners started playing a larger role. Though the characters wouldn't appear in every episode, when they did the Honeymooners would take up the entire hour-length show instead of being just a short skit. This time around Alice and Trixie are played by Sheila MacRae and Jane Kean respectively.
This DVD set presents nine consecutive Honeymooner episodes of The Jackie Gleason Show from that first season in Miami, 1966. These shows makes a nice collection because they all make up one larger story, where Ralph, Alice, Ed, and Trixie all win around the world trips.
After hearing that his brother-in-law has won a trip to Europe, Ralph decides that he's going to win something too. He proceeds to enter every contest he can find and ends up winning the Flakey Wakey Cereal slogan contest with the line: "Flakey Wakey's add to the taste and take away from your fat little waist."
He wins the contest, and since both Ralph and Ed worked on the slogan, the PR company decided to award both men a trip around the world for two. (How nice of them!) In the words of Jackie Gleason, and away we go....
They group goes all over the world, getting into trouble where ever they end up. Traveling by ocean liner, the boys fall overboard on the way to Paris, Ralph gets in trouble for passing counterfeit money, they get captured by Russians and all other sorts of misadventures occur. By the time they're heading home, the girls are barely speaking to their husbands, but that doesn't last for long.
When compared to the 39 episodes of The Honeymooners that we all know and love, this set isn't nearly as entertaining. This series of shows is based on Honeymooner skits that Gleason originally did in the 50's that have been expanded to fill an hour time slot. Because of this these episodes feel padded. A lot of the new material doesn't work well either.
Each episode starts with a dance number, most of them end with a musical number and there are songs sprinkled through the episodes themselves. These songs really bring the momentum to a halt and ruin the flow of the comedy. Added to that is the fact that Gleason and Carney can't really sing, they recite the songs more than actually sing them. While MacRae and Kean do have good voices, it's not enough to make up for the others.
You can almost pick out the scenes that were added to fill out the time slot too. These are often only tangentially related to the main plot and most of all they aren't that funny. They'll go a long way to set up a joke that's only mediocre.
Art Carney and the Great One himself are also getting older at this point. They are very talented actors and Gleason's expressions are still priceless, but their timing wasn't as solid as it was a decade earlier and they had more trouble playing the more outrageous scenes and making them believable.
The supporting actresses, Sheila MacRae and Jane Kean, were competent in their roles but they didn't have the chemistry with the leads that Meadows and Randolph had. MacRae never seemed to be Gleason's equal the way Jane Meadows was, she just had trouble outshining the star of the show, which is understandable but regrettable.
That's the bad news. The good news is that even with these flaws, the shows are funny. Each episode has a few good laugh-out-loud moments, and Jackie Gleason is a joy to watch. If they could have tightened these shows up a bit by cutting them down to half an hour they would have been much better. As it is, they are good, but flawed.
These nine shows (which run about 45 minutes each) are evenly distributed among three DVDs. They come in a clear, single width keepcase with an single page that holds the two extra discs. A very nice looking package.
I was a bit disappointed in the two channel mono sound on this set. There is a fair amount of distortion especially in the musical numbers. The high notes and loud sections just don't make it. The dialog is easy to understand for the most part, though the voices do fade when people turn away from the microphone. Since this show was filmed on a large stage, there is some echo when the stage is mostly empty though this isn't a problem when the sets fill up the area. These problems are most assuredly on the masters and not due to the mastering of the DVD, but it effects the quality of the presentation none the less. There are English subtitles.
The full frame color picture looks fine for a show this age, but not great. The image is very soft and indistinct. There's quite a bit of color bleeding with all the brightly colored clothes, and some light chroma noise too. People with larger displays may be bothered by the edge enhancement that was added to the picture, and there's a bit of digital noise too. Given the technology of the time (1966) it's about what would be expected for a TV show. Very watchable, but not outstanding.
The only extra is a 10-minute featurette entitled The Great Gleason
Express. This short documentary talks about Jakie's move to Miami
and the fourteen car private train he hired to take the cast and crew of
his show to their new location. There's a lot of film of the train
ride itself, along with an interview with Gleason's widow. A nice,
if a bit short, bonus item.
This show hasn't aged as well as the 'classic 39' Honeymooners episodes, but it's still funny. The song and dance numbers don't really add anything to the show, and the introductions, dressed up and quaffed models announcing the stars, is laughably gaudy by today's standards. Even though these shows feel padded there are great moments in each episode that make waiting through all the other stuff worth it. Hardcore Gleason fans like myself will be happy to own these, but the more casual fan will be happy with a rental. They don't have the replay value of the more well know Honeymooners shows, but they are still fun.