There couldn't be any doubt about which one was The Great One. Jackie Gleason managed to drift through a mob of shoving, shouting reporters and photographers without so much as a jostle. He seemed protected by a lustrous aura. It sheltered his bubbly, blond wife, Marilyn, too. Everyone else was getting elbowed and kneed. The Great One floated in a bubble.
New York's 21 Club was jammed for a press event tossed jointly by Showtime, the pay-cable network, and Viacom, a gigantic TV syndication firm, together announcing plans to air some 75 recently released episodes of "The Honeymooners," Gleason's sitcom classic about a poor, pipe-dreaming Brooklyn bus driver and his combative but magnanimous wife.
Even Gleason was surprised, or else convincingly feigned surprise, over the velocity of public interest in this unforeseen bequest to American culture. It had long been thought that 39 filmed episodes of "The Honeymooners" produced in the 1955-56 television season were the only surviving examples of the original program. The newly available episodes, which Gleason said were his personal copies long stored in a vault, are kinescopes, films made from live broadcasts in the days when "The Honeymooners" sketches were one element of the weekly Jackie Gleason CBS variety show.
"I had no idea there was this much enthusiasm for it," Gleason said quietly in a back room at 21. "I would continually read things in the paper about 'The Honeymooners' that were on, and I'd turn to Marilyn and I'd say, 'How about this? Still going strong!' And then they had that RALPH organization spring up. These things are all ego-ticklers."
RALPH is the "Royal Association for the Longevity and Preservation of 'The Honeymooners,' " a fan club whose members claim to have seen the 39 originals 50 to 90 times each. There are obsessive constituencies for all kinds of television programs, cargo cults of the electronic society. "The Honeymooners" deserves not only partisan loyalty but genuine respect. It was a television original, a daring synthesis of performance comedy and written comedy in that Gleason refused to rehearse the program extensively and trusted each week that a magical spontaneity among the actors would boost "The Honeymooners" to a luminosity beyond whatever existed in the script.
This is one of the reasons that Jackie Gleason is as important to the Golden Age of Television as Paddy Chayefsky or Rod Serling. "The Honeymooners" is broad, basic comedy, as basic and broad as burlesque or French farce, and it often relied on stock takes or routines that Gleason and costars Art Carney and Audrey Meadows returned to ritually on program after program. But it also embodied a stunning new kind of national theater: the formality of a play plus a renegade improvisatory streak that gave it the immediacy of journalism. It was the combination of these two qualities that made the golden age golden and it is essential to the distinguishing dynamic of real television.
You didn't tune in such TV programs expecting the polish and gleam of a motion picture. That was neither an attainable nor a desirable esthetic. Live television, with its risks and dangers, made the movies look like sissy stuff. Even the filmed "Honeymooners" episodes had that edge because the film merely recorded a live performance; it wasn't reshaped later in post-production according to movie editing rules (as, for example, "I Love Lucy" was). There is a still pervasive purity to it. "The Honeymooners" has not become camp, the way "Leave It to Beaver" has, or the way "Dynasty" instantly is. "The Honeymooners" merits the kind of respect accorded "Playhouse 90" and "Kraft Television Theater."
And Ralph Kramden, one must remember, was not only the direct linear ancestor of Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker on "All in the Family," as O'Connor himself has acknowledged, but also just one of a collection of characters Gleason invented or perfected for his variety program. Among others was the incorrigible playboy Reginald Van Gleason III, Gleason's personal favorite -- a wicked, leering spoof of upper-class foppery. A feckless boozer whose hooch might be delivered by a toy train, Reggie would train an insinuating gaze on his dowager mother as a preface to telling her tipsily, "Mmm-boy, are you fat!"
Johnny Carson still regularly imitates the reedily inebriated inflections Gleason fashioned for Reggie. Gleason said in New York that while all the "Honeymooner" material will be tapped out once the new cache has been made public, there are still long unseen kinnies of characters like Reggie ("he did some wild things"), Joe the Bartender (in which a subjective camera let the audience play the role of "Mr. Dunahy," Joe's only customer), The Loud Mouth Charlie Bratten and others. A rogues' gallery, roguishly played.
It isn't all that flattering to television of the '50s that much of it is being brought back now. Because there are so many hungry hours to fill on nascent cable networks and on independent stations desperate for "product" (that never-flattering term that covers everything from William Shakespeare to Chuck Barris), even terrible old television is bound to return. One industrious syndicator is selling long-forgotten episodes of "Death Valley Days" because the video antique was hosted for part of its run by Ronald Reagan.
But "The Honeymooners" is a special case. For it to have hung on all these years when so few episodes existed was an extraordinary feat. In addition, it was filmed in black and white, it had a small band of continuing characters, and it was shot against patently false and pointedly grubby sets. All that could attract audiences were the characters and the performances, which remain savory even when one can recite Ralph Kramden's outbursts and Alice Kramden's retorts right along with the actors.
How much television produced in 1985 will be cherished and adored 30 years from now? How much will warrant an accolade like "timeless"? Gleason and company were inventing television then. They weren't trying to imitate television that had already succeeded, because television was still too young to be choking on precedents. "The Honeymooners" might have worked on radio, except it would have lacked Gleason's elastic gallery of facial expressions, the delectable visual contrasts between him and Audrey Meadows as the diminutive but rhetorically formidable Alice, and between Gleason and rubber-bodied Art Carney as Ed Norton, the sewer-dwelling Kramden friend who was alternately "pal o' mine" and "idiot."
What gives the program dignity even when it's at its most obvious and rabble-rousing (Gleason played to the audience in the theater more than to the audience at home) is that subtle context of social semi-realism. The Kramdens' poverty wasn't shined up for TV; the apartment was definitively dingy, a small living space and performance space where most of the action occurred. Gleason himself says that "The Honeymooners," by the commercial laws of television, never should have worked, much less caught on.
"First of all, we were in a small room, and that small room showed up every week," Gleason says. "The same people in that same room. The same table, same icebox, same bureau. And we were able to move around in that space, and that's what I think was our greatest achievement. That we were allowed to move around in that specific location and make it entertaining week after week." The sets for "Marty" or "The Days of Wine and Roses" or other great kitchen-sink dramas of the Golden Age weren't any kitchen-sinkier than the layout for this bittersweet comedy of poverty.
The Kramden flat was a shocking contrast to the squeaky-clean suburban patriarchies occupied by Ozzie and Harriet, or Jim and Margaret Anderson on "Father Knows Best." Even "The Life of Riley," supposedly a blue-collar comedy (Gleason starred in the original TV version, later to be replaced by William Bendix), took place in squeaky-clean middle-class surroundings. The Kramdens never even had a telephone; when Alice tried to get one, it precipitated riots. Ralph refused to shell out for a television set. For Christmas, in an episode adapted loosely from O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi," Ralph once bought his wife a hairpin container made of matchsticks.
Ralph Kramden was not, after all, such a distant relation to Willy Loman. He was a bit more defiant. He was a victim of the system before people talked about victims of the system, but he didn't blame the system. He blamed his own blustering bellicosity, his impulsiveness, his susceptibility to schemes. One episode began with Ralph announcing that he at last had won the battle with his violent temper; nothing would upset him again. In walks the landlord with a $5-a-month rent increase. Before the episode is over, Ralph has barricaded himself in his apartment, to which the heat and water have been shut off, and is still belligerently refusing to pay up. He and Alice are eventually evicted. They and their furniture sit ignobly on a stoop as city snow begins to fall.
As with other of the characters Gleason invented for television -- most notably The Poor Soul, a mute shlemiel -- there is a high degree of pathos, sometimes bathos, in Ralph, and "Honeymooners" usually ended not with one last gag but with a remorseful Ralph apologizing to wife Alice for his latest batch of outrages. Often in the heat of battle Ralph threatened Alice physically. Yet these threats remained so farcical, and the mutual devotion of Ralph and Alice so unmistakable, that even seen through '80s sensibilities -- a "Burning Bed" awareness of the frightening extremes of domestic violence -- the threats are not upsetting. References on "I Love Lucy" to the possibility that husband Ricky will attack wife Lucy are somehow scarier than Ralph's endearingly empty threats.
The bleakness of their lives is frightening; the possibility of violence occurring is not.
Interviewed by Phyllis George on "The CBS Morning News," Audrey Meadows said of Ralph and Alice, "He never did touch her. There was no violence there. It was his way of letting off steam, and that's it," although she added that because of the openness with which wife and child abuse are discussed today, threats of violence in "The Honeymooners" might be "a little too strong" for contemporary audiences.
Still, it's hard not to be amused, and difficult really to be disturbed, when Ralph rears back and rages, "One of these days, Alice, one of these days -- pow, right in the kisser," or warns his wife that her impertinences will get her sent "to the moon." Beneath the roar, there are salient truths about coexistence under a common roof. Alice could not be intimidated, and yet with a withering remark she could send Ralph cowering into the corner. Meadows had a voice that cut through and leveled all of Gleason's most boisterous rancor, reducing it to the ravings of a disgruntled little boy. There was never any doubt, even in that pre-feminist age, who was the stronger figure in the Kramden household.
Brief clips were shown from the rediscovered "Honeymooners" episodes at the press conference. In several of them, Ralph had embarked on one of his notoriously exaggerated demonstrations of pain -- great roars and yelps, black hair dancing on his head like that of a man undergoing electrocution, eyes bulging like doorknobs. Marshall McLuhan called TV a cool medium but there was nothing cool about Ralph Kramden, and yet it worked then and still works. The level of humor in the clips shown looked coarse, but Gleason thinks the refound "Honeymooners" will compare favorably with the episodes that have been rerunning on TV for three decades.
"You have to remember, it was because of those sketches that Buick wanted us to do the 39 episodes, so they gotta be funny," Gleason says. "As a matter of fact, they might be a little funnier, because at that time we weren't having as many script problems. It was a new thing; we had ideas all the time. It was after a while that we had done so many of them that there just wasn't anything else to say."
Gleason has maintained repeatedly that he quit making "The Honeymooners" because he felt it risked becoming stale, but in fact, the ratings for the half-hour version were not all that was hoped for, and in later years Gleason did attempt to revive the characters in one-hour musical specials, with disappointing results -- mainly because the crucial Meadows role was taken over by an inadequate Sheila MacRae. Gleason and Carney appeared to be trading on past victories; their Ralph and Ed looked strange in color, plucked from their indigenous drab environment for such contrivances as a European trip the characters never really could have afforded.
Whether the newly released episodes, to be available on pay TV this summer and on regular TV, in some form, this fall, will enhance or tarnish the reputation of "The Honeymooners" obviously remains to be seen and heard. The picture quality of the crudely recorded kinescopes looks far inferior to that of the 35-mm film on which the 1955-56 episodes were shot, though often these are seen in battered, tattered prints. It could prove to be that by the time the 1955 filmed season came, the characters had been honed by the actors to their most ideally realized state. But it will certainly be worth investigating for oneself when the material becomes widely viewable again.
Gleason, who for years was overlooked by the Television Academy at Emmy time (probably because most of what he did seemed so startlingly instinctual) told Bryant Gumbel recently on the "Today" show, "What I did, I was happy with," and said in defense of his no-rehearsal policy that because of it the actors on "The Honeymooners" recited their lines with greater meaning and conviction than if they'd been over them again and again, and thereby increased the electric credibility of the performances. "That's when you're doing it the greatest," Gleason said.
He should know.
To have been there when it was live was an experience that cannot be replicated, but watching the rediscovered "Honeymooner" films ought to give some indication of what was so exciting about first-generation TV, and of why there is such a close and imperishable relationship between the glory that was television and the glory that was Gleason.