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The Honeymooners

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:285:]]The Honeymooners:

The Lost Episodes

B&W. 1985. Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, Joyce RandolPh; dir. Frank $atenstein. 55 min. ea. Beta, VHS. $29.95 ea. Maljack/MPI.

He is the most famous bus driver in the world-which is remarkable given that he is also a loudmouth, a braggart, and a little thickheaded. But he is Ralph Kramden, and as the focus of The Honeymooners his schemes, passions, and whopping mistakes have become well-known and beloved. Now, with Maljack/MPI's release of recently unearthed Honeymooners kinescopes, the story, as they say, continues.

It began in TV's golden age of the early 1950s. As part of TheJackie Gleason Show, The Honeymooners was originally an eight-minute sketch about a quarreling husband and wife (Gleason and Pert Kelton, later replaced by Audrey Meadows). It soon grew to 15 minutes, 30 minutes, even an hour. As it grew, so did the characters. Soon Ralph and Alice had neighbors: sewer worker Ed Norton (Art Carney) and his wife Trixie (Joyce Randolph).

"Unlike I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners wasn't a farce," recalls one of the show's writers. "Lucy would blacken her teeth and Ricky wouldn't know her. We never did that. We worked from a possible-though perhaps not probable-premise.:. and proceeded from there." Premises like Ralph competing for a "pot of gold" on a TV quiz show ("Go for the gold," says Alice, "you've already got the pot"); or, Ralph mistaking dog food for his wife's pate and trying to market it (everyone thinks it tastes great); or Ralph trying to impress his old high-school rival by pretending he's president of the bus company ("I run things," he explains).

It all became as familiar as ritual and The Honeymooners went on to become a fixture on Gleason's show for years, eventually spinning off into the 39 episodes now in syndication, Later, it was as an hour-long Christmas special in 1978. The series' durability came from its familiarity and from its characters: Kramden as a comic Everyman, Norton as his wise/dumb sidekick, ready to rib Ralph but also ready to help, no matter how crazy the idea.

"The poor soul hasn't got a hell of a lot of .ability," observed Gleason recently, "but he keeps trying. He gets schemes and the schemes are all to make him and Alice happy. And he fails. And when he fails, she feels a great deal of affection. She knows why he did it."

It's terrific news that Gleason has unearthed 75 kinescopes of the series, episodes seen only. once and then stored away. Among these well-preserved and restored shows are some real curiosities. In one Gleason plays all the characters made famous on his variety show. While Ralph is out shopping for Christmas, Alice and the Nortons are entertained by Reggie Van Gleason, Joe the Bartender, and the Poor Soul. Another program, filmed when Gleason was laid up in the hospital, parodies Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person show by staging an interview with Ed Norton's father (also played by Art Carney).

The first tapes from Maljack are mostly from 1953. Volume 1 demonstrates classic Kramden misunderstandings. "Letter to the Boss" has Ralph thinking he is about to be fired. After writing an angry letter to his boss, he finds he is about to be promoted instead and spends the rest of the story trying to get his letter back. In "Suspense," Ralph overhears Alice rehearsing for a play and believes she is plotting to kill him. Volume 2 spotlights Art Carney in one of the most talked-about "lost" episodes, "Norton Moves In," which finds Ralph and Ed sharing an apartment-and a cot. The second tape also features "Songs and Witty Sayings," a 1955 episode in which Gleason and Carney impersonate Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, to whom they often have been favorably compared (Stan and Ollie were reportedly big Honeymooners fans themselves).

Because the show was performed live, it has the immediacy and excitement of a stage production: props break, actors ad lib, and the audience applauds when each star enters. It is a style of television that cannot be recaptured today. As Gleason used to put it, "How sweet it is."

January 1986 Video