It takes some getting used to, but The Color Honeymooners - Collection 4, actually consisting of all of the original "Honeymooners" episodes from the 1969-70 season of The Jackie Gleason Show (its fourth and final season under that title) have really grown on this reviewer. Though it falls short of the comedy perfection of the "Classic 39" - the single-season run of half-hour Honeymooners from 1955-56 - the 12 one-hour shows in this collection are frequently laugh-out-loud funny and highly enjoyable overall as live-on-tape theatrical performances. The cast is older, the material less fresh, and the world changed so much since the characters' debut that by 1970 they had become downright anachronistic - yet the Great One's magic, happily, is still there.
For those of us (and there are many) weaned on the Classic 39, episodes viewed over-and-over again until we knew nearly every gag by heart, the first season of shot-on-tape, hour-long musical episodes from 1966, with Shelia MacRae and Jane Kean replacing Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph as Alice Kramden and Trixie Norton, is a jarring experience. Gleason, as short-tempered bus driver Ralph Kramden, a big "little guy" with dreams of striking it rich and earning the respect of his peers, and Art Carney as Ralph's best friend Ed Norton, sewer worker, had hardly changed at all. It was like they had been teleported into an alternate universe.
The first season shows, following the Kramdens and the Nortons on an all-expenses paid European vacation, were actually remakes of Honeymooners stories done in the late-1950s, and their lack of originality, coupled with must have been a killer schedule of writing songs, staging dance numbers, rehearsing the actors, etc. week-after-week, resulted in a mixed bag of shows. These fourth season episodes, in contrast, play better. I think partly it's because the actors and songwriters and so forth had hit a groove; the regular cast, especially the four leads, give confident, relaxed performances and many of the songs are really good, almost hit Broadway show material, a far cry from the generally inane original songs other variety shows contented themselves with.
This season follows the two couples to Hollywood after Ralph and Ed win a song writing contest for their composition, "Love on a Bus." Naturally, Ralph becomes insufferably self-important, and like I Love Lucy's Hollywood sojourn in the 1950s - which this in many ways resembles - there are lots of guest stars, usually playing themselves. Among the guests: Paul Lynde (paging Paul Mavis!), Bing Crosby, Bert Parks, Maureen O'Hara, Milton Berle, Jesse White, Carol Lawrence, Hector Elizondo (not a guest but in an episode nonetheless), Phil Leeds, George Chakiris, Joe Flynn, Bonnie Bartlett, Mike Douglas, Joey Heatherton, Donald O'Connor, Frances Langford, Morey Amsterdam, George Burns, Ron Carey, Sandy Duncan, Al Lewis, Jack Benny, Rodney Dangerfield and, strangely enough, director William Wyler. Fans of the 1955-56 show will be happily surprised members of that show's stock company turn up, including George Petrie.
When Gleason introduces the first show of the new season the audience audibly gasps: he had dropped a lot of weight during the hiatus, and while he wasn't exactly thin, he was certainly the thinnest he'd been since at least the early-1950s, perhaps 100 lighter than he was at his fattest. Indeed, gone this season are nearly all the fat jokes; hard to pull off when Ed Norton's gut is bigger than Ralph's. By this time Gleason's deep Florida tan (from endless hours out on the golf course) also seems out of place for a New York bus driver, especially considering how pale-skinned Carney, MacRae and Kean all were.
And yet I laughed out loud long and hard at least once per episode. In "Play It Again, Norton," there's a great scene where Ralph and Ed audition their song by lip-synching to a record they've recorded. Ralph was too cheap to go to the expense of using a professional studio, so they improvised using one of those 25-cent recording booths at an busy arcade. When they play the record, it's drowned out, hilariously so, by the sounds of other attractions nearby: rifle shots, pinball machines, P.A. announcements. Funny stuff.
There's also the immediacy of the live performances that belie the fact that these shows are almost 40 years old. Things occasionally go wrong - Carney inadvertently uses profane language during a song with Kean which Gleason insisted the network censors wouldn't notice - and the actors' recovery from these occasional mishaps is part of the fun - it's something you just don't see on TV anymore.
At the heart of it all is Gleason himself, whose bug-eyed reactions to pain or embarrassment are still sure-fire laugh-getters, whose performances never get old, no matter how repetitive the material.
Video & Audio
The 1969-70 Jackie Gleason Show was shot in color, on videotape, when that technology was still relatively new - two-inch videotape (yes, two-inch tape) had only been in use for about 10 years. The picture tends to be very soft and limited (and especially soft on the sides of the frame for some reason). Shows are neither edited nor time-compressed, with four episodes on each of the three single-sided discs.
The English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is okay, poor by today's standards of course, but about par for a mid-'60s variety series. English subtitles are offered (including lyrics on all the songs, so sing along!), and the disc, happily, is all-region.
This time out, there are two valuable extra features. The first is a warm and enlightening interview with Jane Kean, Trixie's Honeymooners Memories. She details her early encounters with Gleason before they were stars, and how she came to be cast on the show. She tells a sweet story of bumping into predecessor Joyce Randolph in New York, discusses Gleason's rehearsal methods, and goes into frank detail especially about Art Carney. Carney, according to Kean, suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after playing Felix Unger in the original Broadway production of The Odd Couple, implying co-star Walter Matthau drove him nuts, during which the alcoholic Carney fell off the wagon. According to Kean, Carney was actually living in some sort of sanitarium when Gleason cast him, refusing to continue The Honeymooners without him.
Also included is a half-hour reunion sketch from a 1973 special (Gary Merrill is mentioned in the credits, but nowhere to be seen on the show). It's a funny and satisfying finish to the sets. (Rights to later Honeymooners specials appeared to belong, at least in part, to ABC.)
The Color Honeymooners is a bit like the pleasant surprise of discovering that Laurel & Hardy's later films with 20th Century-Fox, though not up to the level of their films for Hal Roach, aren't nearly as bad as their reputation would suggest. It's strange at first to see them thrust into an unfamiliar environment, but the core of what made Laurel & Hardy Laurel & Hardy is still the same, and the joy of seeing the team in "new" movies is very real. The same holds true with these later visits with Ralph and Ed and Alice and Trixie. Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.