It's difficult to imagine Archie Bunker without Ralph Kramden, Debra Barone without Alice Kramden, or Kramer without Norton. The Honeymooners is that rare sitcom legacy show that both achieved considerable popularity in its day and stood the test of time to influence so much of what has followed. Conceived as a series of sketches that recurred from 1951-1955 on the Jackie Gleason-headlined variety show Cavalcade of Stars, The Honeymooners spun off into its own half-hour sitcom in 1955. Though it only ran for what are now known as the "Classic 39" episodes before returning to a variety-sketch format and eventually morphing into series of specials, the sitcom version of The Honeymooners has remained indelible for generations of TV junkies.
There's something about this show that has always seemed out of time. Though made in 1955, making it—as a sitcom—four years younger than I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners is as stripped down to essentials as a sitcom gets. That's nowhere more apparent than in the show's primary set, the tiny space of the Kramdens' Brooklyn apartment. A door, a window, a round table with a couple of chairs, a bureau, and some kitchen appliances clutter up the space, which nevertheless allows enough room and flexibility for bus driver Ralph Kramden (Gleason) and housewife Alice (Audrey Meadows, amusingly bone-dry) to prowl around each other, or for comic business involving Gleason's cannonball frame or Art Carney's beanpole one. Over the years, Carney won five Emmies in the role of sewer worker and Ralph's best crony Ed Norton, whose wife Trixie (Joyce Randolph) conspired with Alice.
If the show's production values were basic (including a "live-to-film" aesthetic that, in one episode, captures a set falling apart), that was part of the show's now frozen-in-amber appeal. It's also in the DNA of The Honeymooners to speak to the nature of class in America. Ralph was a striver, and schemer, in hot pursuit of the American dream, always straining against those three tight walls (and the invisible fourth one). Having risen from humble beginnings himself, Gleason was sincere in enobling the working class, and there's something magical and poignant in the way these "low-rent" stories came on each week to the tune of the romantic, impossibly swanky "You're My Greatest Love," an instrumental theme song penned by Gleason himself.
The dynamic between this husband and wife was crucial, with neither Ralph fully tipping over to brute nor Alice to shrew: he always had passion, her brains and both, at core and in spite of the cutdowns and angry retorts, an abiding love for each other. Equally important was the double act of pop-eyed Ralph and sleepy-eyed Ed, the duo always scheming away and always failing to get rich quick. Often the pleasure of the show was something as simple as the two dimwits trying to teach each other how to do something neither understood, as in the memorable apartment-bound golf lesson in "The Golfer." Gleason's flexibility from growly attack dog to whimpering child was all the funnier played against Carney's imperturbable goofball.
The "Classic 39" has too many memorable episodes to name, the most famous being the oft-imitated “The $99,000 Answer” that found Ralph on a game show. The line "Homina homina homina," Ralph's expression of total mental collapse, became a comedy trope, but it's only one of the show's famous catch phrases. Ralph's all-bark-no-bite threats to Alice "One of these days...one of these days...Pow! Right in the kisser!", "To the moon!", and "Bang! Zoom!" have raised eyebrows for decades by mining comedy from the threat of domestic violence (see The Taming of the Shrew), though the passing tantrums always resolved in the end with the affirmation "Baby, you're the greatest."
The Honeymooners looks great in its hi-def Blu-ray debut. The black-and-whte episodes maintain their filmic feel with well-calibrated contrast and shadow detail underpinning revelatory picture detail and textures. These beautiful transfers come with able lossless LPCM 2.0 stereo tracks that maximize the original audio. A fabulous collection of bonus features helps to make this a winning package. Disc One includes network "Promos" (1:07, HD) and Disc Two the "'Best Buick Yet' Dealer Presentation" (20:53, HD). Disc Three offers up a "60 Minutes’ Jackie Gleason Profile" (10/28/84)" (15:15, SD), along with "60 Minutes’ Jackie Gleason Profile Outtakes" (22:35, SD), while Disc Five gathers the 1966 Honeymooners musical hour "The Adoption" (52:38, SD) from CBS' The American Scene Magazine; the CBS specials
"35th Anniversary Special" (21:55, SD), hosted by Audrey Meadows, and "50th Anniversary Special" (42:00, SD) hosted by Kevin James; and a "Person to Person Segment featuring Jackie Gleason (2/3/56)" (10:39, SD).
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