Ralph Kramden succeeded magnificently at failure. "Every time I get up there, something happens to bring me down," the bus-driving everyman says to his loyal everywife. Although "The Honeymooners' Anniversary Celebration," a two-hour package of clips at 8 tonight on Channel 5, has several hilarious high points, the unexpected, fleeting dramatic moments are what give it weight and emotional dimension.
Easily the most poignant segment, near the end of the second hour, finds the childless Ralph and Alice adopting a baby girl, then reluctantly returning her to the adoption agency when the biological mother has second thoughts. The look of despair on Ralph's face, and Alice's dissolve into tears, lift the episode into another realm. This is the bold next step to which Norman Lear took blue-collar sitcoms when he produced "All in the Family" in 1971; Ralph and Alice just as boldly laid the groundwork.
For tonight's special, like those that preceded and will follow it, producer-director Andrew Solt culled material from the so-called "lost" sketches that have been in star Jackie Gleason's possession since the '50s, when they were first filmed off live Gleason telecasts. Again the actors as they are now -- Gleason, Audrey Meadows, Art Carney and Joyce Randolph -- offer minimal commentary between thematically arranged sequences.
One gimmick added is an eight-minute sketch that has been computer-colorized, so that the Kramden apartment is seen not in drab gray and white but in drab green and brown. The addition is pointless, and the sketch chosen doesn't even feature Carney and Randolph, so we don't get to see them colorized. Alice's striped dress has been made green and white by the computer, and Ralph's uniform blue. Big deal.
In other segments, Ralph and Ed pool their resources to reopen the dilapidated Crestwood Hotel; the boys go to court to contest custody of a television set won at a raffle; Ralph mistakenly thinks he has been promoted to manager of the Gotham Bus Company ("$115 a week! It's a fortune!") when in fact he has only been named manager of the company softball team; and Ralph and Alice square off for the usual round of arguments, some of which are bitterly funny and some of which are merely bitter.
The first voice heard on the special is that of Groucho Marx, who in an uncredited interview says, "I consider 'The Honeymooners' the only real classic that's ever been on television." Much of what follows bears Groucho out. The interplay between Ralph and pal Ed Norton (Carney), their updated Laurel and Hardy routines, can truly be riotous, yet the comedy is always grounded in the dank reality of that Brooklyn flat.
In few ways have the programs dated. Some younger souls may be slightly confused when Ralph, ordering Norton to maintain a jolly front for the wives, instructs him, "Let's act it up very, very gay."
The final sketch reprised finds Ralph and Ed sharing a tiny blip of glory, when a pop tune they composed is professionally recorded and played on the radio. As a milky voice croons, the four players listen attentively and triumphantly to the lyrics: "Though it's a mighty din, not like Gershwin or Berlin, it's my love song to you." Sweet music, every note. "The Honeymooners" remains their love song to us. 'The Skin Horse'
Severely disabled people do not lose their need or desire for human contact, including human sexual contact, and a British film called "The Skin Horse," to be seen at 9 tonight on Channel 26, endeavors to make that point -- but to make it, alas, with as much obfuscation and accusation as might be possible.
The narrator of the film, actor Nabil Shaban, himself disabled, appears to assume that all those seeing the film and not similarly disabled are severely prejudiced at worst and morbidly curious at best.
Shaban and producer-director Nigel Evans are entitled to be as bellicose as they want, but the approach might impair the message and narrow the potential audience. The disabled people who do appear on camera, and who talk about their lives and their special problems, are encouragingly assertive and frank, but we see so little of them. Instead, Evans wastes time with long, long scenes from the Tod Browning film "Freaks" and from a more recent movie, "The Elephant Man," scenes that go on for so long that "Skin Horse's" polemical thread tends to unravel.
In addition, a smattering of nudity is interpolated in an awfully contrived way. The film celebrates its own bluntness the way angry plays of the '60s celebrated the use of four-letter words.
Nevertheless, the topic of the program is so underrepresented in the mass media that any authentic exposure is probably worthwhile, and part of the point here is that the disabled are often made to feel as if they should retreat to lives of quiet, asexual submissiveness. Resentment of this is expressed in a justifiably resentful manner.
"The Skin Horse" (named for a character in a British children's fable) arrives on the air armed with recommendations and endorsements from the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, the Veterans Administration and the National Rehabilitation Council. The film itself will be followed on the air by a panel discussion led by Betty Rollin.