It’s hard to believe that one of the most popular comedy shows of the 1950’s was not really a show at all, at least not in the way that we think of a television series today. The show began its life in 1951 as a segment on the popular Cavalcade of Stars. At that time only Jackie Gleason and Art Carney starred in their familiar roles. Alice was played by Pert Kelton. The series took its more recognizable look when it became part of The Jackie Gleason Show in 1955. That’s also when Joyce Randolph joined the series as Trixie Norton. The series would take up a half hour of the slot. The second half was taken up by a larger variety of pieces, usually a series called Stage Show. The show would come and go, with other cast members coming and going over time. Even Art Carney had left The Jackie Gleason Show at one time, only to return in 1957 to the role. The show’s history is a complicated one to which entire books have been devoted over the years. It wasn’t until syndication that the series was really a show unto itself. The original 39 episodes were joined with nearly 70 re-edited versions of the other various incarnations of the show have made up what most of us today think of as The Honeymooners. The final original versions of the show ended in 1971; both Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph were gone by then, replaced by Sheila MacRae and Jane Kean respectively.
But this show that wasn’t really a show had legs. The syndicated versions became hugely popular, and new generations of fans were being indoctrinated with each new package. The show even survived on pay television at Showtime for a while in the 1990’s when the 70 newly-formed “Lost Episodes” first aired. But the fever just never died. The show would influence a large number of series that would follow. Even the animated world of cartoons wasn’t safe. The Flintstones would come along and become a prehistoric cartoon show that was basically the same down to the characters. Fred and Barney couldn’t have been closer to Ralph and Norton if their names had been the same. Today, comedians constantly recall The Honeymooners and Jackie Gleason as their inspiration. To more than one generation of television viewers, Gleason really was “The Great One”.
Between 1976 and 1978 four Honeymooners specials were produced. They were filmed, once again live in front of a studio audience. This time they were made in color and filmed in Miami, Florida. Gleason and Carney returned to the star roles, accompanied by Audrey Meadows and Jane Kean, a mix-up, of sorts, of the last incarnations of the show. Two of those specials are now available.
The Honeymooners Anniversary Special (1976):
Ralph and Alice are about to celebrate their silver anniversary. The times might have changed. The characters are noticeably older, but some things didn’t change. The two couples are still neighbors in the same run-down apartment building. It might be 1976 outside, but inside of the Kramdens’ apartment it might as well still be the 1950’s. The couple still doesn’t have a television, modern oven, or even refrigerator. Did they even still deliver blocks for an ice box in 1976? The Raccoon Lodge is planning to give the couple a big bash where they can renew their wedding vows. Then they’re going to send them on an all-expense-paid second honeymoon to the renowned Order Of The Raccoons’ National Cemetery in Bismarck, North Dakota. But before that, the couple has to deal with another issue. Through a comedic, and quite predictable, series of misunderstandings, Ralph thinks that Alice is going to have a baby. All the while he thinks that Alice is going to make the announcement at the second wedding. No stranger to making a complete fool of himself, Ralph gets carried away with visions of a son and Norton gets the honor of godfather, a cultural implication that didn’t quite exist when the original show aired.
The Honeymooners Valentine Special (1978):
Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and it’s a special day for the Kramdens. That’s the day Ralph proposed. So Alice wants it to be extra special. She’s been sneaking out at night to work at an answering service to raise enough money to buy Ralph a tailored suit. But Ralph is too on the ball to fall for the “I’m at my sister’s” routine. He puts 2 and 2 together, and as usual comes up with 6. Ralph is convinced that Alice has fallen for a guy named Armando and intends to bump him off to be with her new lover. He catches her preparations for his “funeral” complete with taking measurements for his coffin. He can’t sleep or eat for fear of when Alice intends to do him in. He and Norton dress in drag in order to lure Armando to his apartment so that Ralph can “let him have it”. The result is a hilarious misadventure. This one is much better than the first.
Each special is presented in its original full-frame broadcast format. I was surprised to find the more recent special was in worse shape than the first. In addition to the issues I’m about to discuss, there were odd color blotches and some rather unique examples of video noise. The shows are not very sharp at all. Colors are weak and look very much like dated video tape. It’s a common situation for television from the 1970’s. I was hoping these might be in better shape because they were “special” events, but sadly little good can be found in this image presentation. Unfortunately, this isn’t a transfer issue, but the state of the prints themselves.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is as dull as the image. You can hear the dialog fine, but there is no atmosphere or ambient life to this presentation.
Audrey Meadows and Ray Bolger: (8:03) This skit was taken from The Hollywood Palace January 7, 1967. Meadows plays Alice while Bolger is Ralph in a bit where their roles are reversed. Alice works for the bus company and Ralph does the housework.
Sheila MacRae, George Kirby, and Rich Little: (3:48) From The Kopy Kats Kopy TV on January 20, 1971. It’s Ralph’s birthday and Alice, Norton, and Ralph are sitting down for cards and cake.
These two releases are strictly for nostalgia purposes only. They are fine as episodes of the series. This was done very much like the live show of the 1950’s. There’s the studio audience, and it’s all done pretty much on a single stage. I suspect it might have been done without the benefit of multiple takes. It goes a long way to recapture the atmosphere of the original series. ““And away we go…”