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”.
The original “lost episodes” didn’t end the story either. Now MPI has put together all of the known live broadcasts of the sketch. All of the original Showtime episodes are included as well as many that have been discovered since that time in various film vaults. So this is pretty much every Honeymooner sketch in existence except for the 39 filmed episodes which made up the original syndication material.
In the beginning Pert Kelton can finally be seen again as Alice. She lost the part later because of her suspected dealings with communists and she was blacklisted. These early episodes show a more brutal version of the series. The fights between Alice and Ralph are a bit less comical and appear more like true domestic violence about to happen. It wasn’t until Meadows arrived on the scene that the more complicated relationship is established and we can feel more at ease laughing at the situation. The pieces vary considerably in length. Some are just a few minutes others are an hour long. You’ll also see many sketches repeated several times with little changes. That was the nature of live television. There were no video recordings to air as repeats. The material was simply reused and played out once again. These recordings would not have been broadcast quality even back in the 1950’s. These kinescope recordings were merely for archive purposes. A camera was turned to a television monitor, and that’s how these episodes were preserved at all. This is about a good a collection as anyone has ever had including Gleason himself.
Each episode is presented in its original full-frame broadcast format. You really have to keep in mind that no one considered this material broadcast quality. It’s quite bad, but it’s the only thing that remains. You’re simply going to have to accept what there is in order to enjoy these lost classics.
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. There is distortion and hiss to be found throughout. Again, there simply is no other option.
The episodes appear on 14 discs. A 15th disc contains the following bonus material:
The Norton Interviews: These bits star Carney in character on such shows as Ed Sullivan and People To People. They are incredible rare gems.
Lost Radio Episodes: Here you’ll find three radio broadcasts.
Additional Sketches And Commercials:
Art Carney Receives Award From Sewer Workers
Art Carney Nescafe Commercial
Old Gold Commercial with Ralph and Ed
Jack Benny Honeymooners Parody with Audrey Meadows
Peter Lorre Honeymooners Parody
Chesterfield Commercial With Audrey Meadows
The Lost Episode Story: (14:19) A historical look at the show with plenty of vintage footage.
All About Trixie – The Joyce Randolph Interview: (19:05) A more recent interview with the actress.
Missing Episode Scripts
It’s hard to imagine there has been so much “lost” material from this show until you consider its roots and the realities of live television in the 1950’s. For years just 39 half-hour shows captured the imagination of generations of television viewers enough to bring this material out into the light of day. Honeymooner fans have a lot to rejoice about here. This is about a complete set as we’ve ever seen, or are likely to see again. So, what are you waiting for? “A little traveling music, if you please…”