The following is my epic entry in The Honeymooners Blogathon, being held at this blog from Oct. 25 – 27, 2019. Click on the above banner, and read “Honeymooners” fans’ assorted takes on one of America’s most beloved sitcoms!
I don’t think it would stretch the imagination to say that “The Honeymooners” is to situation comedy as The Beatles are to modern music. For decades, pop-culture critics have been digging through the infinite minutia of both entertainment treats, digging up trivia that would make the average Joe simply roll his eyes.
On that basis, just like The Fab Four, I think “The Honeymooners” is perfectly worthy in studying from three viewpoints:
* “Early Period,” where the thrill of the actors and audience getting to know their characters was doubled by watching them performed on live television every week;
* “Middle Period” — where, as Gleason himself put it, the characters’ quirks and reactions became familiar to the audience and were even more endearing because of it; and
* “Late Period,” the valedictory time when the performers relied mostly on old schtick to see them through, and managed to do it with the help of a nostalgic audience.
So let’s roll back the film (or videotape) to those glorious yesteryears and see how they did it! (WARNING: I cheated a little and actually placed the “Middle Period” episode first, mainly because it was so representative of one of Ralph Kramden’s most outstanding [and blustery] traits.)
(SECOND WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
“Head of the House” (orig. broadcast 3/31/56)
Ralph, as he will be the first to admit (when cornered on it), has a “BIIIIIIG MOUTH.” Even when he has just told a whopper and should quit while he’s behind, Ralph doubles down and keeps digging his own grave.
On their way to work one morning, a “questioning photographer” (Gleason repertory player Frank Marth) has a question to ask Ralph and Ed for publication: Who is the boss in your household? Ed gleefully jumps in to declare that he runs things in his home. After blathering on about how assertive he is, Ed meekly asks the reporter not to print his name or photo in order to avoid the wrath of his wife Trixie (Joyce Randolph).
This gives Ralph the opportunity to lord it over Ed, definitively declaring that he gives all of the orders in his home. Ralph conveniently forgets that he is within earshot of a newspaper reporter, who tells Ralph that his name, photo, and comment will be in that night’s edition.
Despite his “amina-amina”-ing, Ralph continues to tell Ed he’s not worried about his wife Alice’s reaction to his answer. Funny thing, though — when Ralph gets home that night, he tells Alice (Audrey Meadows) he doesn’t have the evening paper. When Alice begins to make an issue of it, Ralph says that paper will never enter his house again — only to have Ed sail in with a copy of the paper, opened to Ralph’s published remark. Ralph quickly kicks Ed out, but the damage is done.
Alice asks Ralph why, out of all of the five men to be interviewed, was he the only one to make such a idiotic statement? At that point, Ralph’s defense shields go up. He asserts that he was the only one “brave” enough to say what he did. (Of course. He just wasn’t brave enough to bring the statement home for his wife to see.) Ralph gives Alice a brief history lesson on the dominance of American males, concluding that he will celebrate his “emancipation” by drinking a spare bottle of wine with Ed.
There are some funny lines in this scene, but the more Ralph blathers on, the more cringeworthy he gets. It’s easy to see that, without someone Alice to smooth out his rough edges, Ralph would have been a macho man whom no one could bear to be around.
In any case, Alice tells Ralph that they both know how easily drunk he gets and that he must not touch that wine. (Ralph: “Don’t you ever tell me not to touch anything in this house. Just make sure you don’t touch anything in this house!” Cringe.)
As Ralph goes upstairs to bring Ed back, Trixie comes down and is apprised of the situation. Ed, too, is an easy drunk, and she doesn’t want Ed drinking either. Then Alice gets a great idea: She empties the wine out of the bottle and fills it with grape juice. The wives agree that their husbands are too inexperienced with alcohol to tell the difference.
And brother, are they right. In a hilarious scene reminiscent of Laurel & Hardy’s similar outing in the short subject Blotto, Ralph and Ed get hilariously polluted on grape juice, to the point that they pass out at the table.
The next day at work, Ralph’s blustery co-worker Joe Fensterblau bets Ralph $10 that he can’t order Alice to cook a surprise meal for him at a moment’s notice that night. After Joe leaves, Ralph phones Alice at her mother’s house to order her home and cook the meal. Alice hangs up on Ralph in mid-order.
Ralph initially panics but then decides that he and Ed can cook the meal themselves and put one over on Joe. Unfortunately, the attempted meal goes the way of all of Ralph’s schemes, and the duo end up with some very wild rice and a burned chicken.
Alice returns home, and Ralph humbly confesses all. Alice tells Ralph that if he had only asked her to cook a meal instead of telling her, she’d have been glad to help. Joe arrives, sees the mess on the table and on Ralph’s face, and figures he’s won the bet.
In one of the series’ best-ever endings, Alice, who could have lorded it over Ralph in best Ralph style, kindly tells Fensterblau that she had an accident in the kitchen, and that she’ll be glad to cook him a real meal if he’ll come over the next evening. Joe offers to pay off the bet, but Ralph knows when his wife has saved his considerable face. It’s a moment tailor-made for Ralph to tell Alice, “Baby, you’re the greatest” — and one wishes that Ralph would only remember this moment every time he thinks he has to assert himself with Alice.
“Suspense” (orig. broadcast 1/24/53)
“Suspense” is one of the “lost” “Honeymooners” sketches from Gleason’s 1950’s variety show, which aired such sketches at varying lengths. “Suspense” is only 11 minutes long, so the time it needed to get laughs was shorter than usual. But man, it does a superb job of getting there.
The sketch begins in Ralph and Alice’s apartment, where Alice and Trixie seem to be having a grim conversation about Ralph. Alice declares that she once loved Ralph, but now it sickens her to even kiss him. Alice tells Trixie that the only way out for her is to murder Ralph.
Surprisingly, Trixie applauds Alice at speech’s end. It turns out that Alice is rehearsing lines for a play in which she is soon to appear. Alice tells Trixie that she hasn’t told Ralph about the play yet for fear that he’d put his foot down and try to keep her from acting on stage.
While the women are conversing, a delivery boy brings Alice a bottle of vitamin pills she had ordered. She tells Trixie she wants to sneak one of the pills into Ralph’s evening glass of tomato juice. Alice then tells Trixie she has forgotten to make up the bed for the day.
The women go to the bedroom, and Ralph and Ed enter just as Alice repeats her evil monologue. If you think this is going to go the way it sounds it’s going, you’re absolutely right, and it’s a delicious piece of comedy all the way. Unlike some of the later mistaken-identity tropes that became clichés (Oh, look, Ralph is jealous of Alice again), this one has a well-detailed and plausible setup, and all we have to do is sit back and enjoy how the characters will react to it.
Ralph ponders how it could have comes to this after he details to Ed all of the ways that he’s been a good husband (which ironically end up making a pretty good case against Ralph). After Trixie and Ed leave, Ralph has a convoluted conversation with Alice where he manages to misinterpret every point of her contrite explanation. (Gotta love Ralph when Alice is talking about her stage show, and he thinks she’s talking about his impending murder: “My father said he wants to buy tickets and see it.”)
When Alice drops the poison/vitamin pill into Ralph’s juice, Ralph gets unglued, yelling about how he is on to Alice’s tricks. Alice finally puts two and two together, telling Ralph that if she can’t murder him, she’ll murder herself. She gulps down the drink and goes into hammy histrionics, as Ralph yells for Ed to come down and help him. The icing on the cake here is Gleason’s straight acting, with Ralph thinking that Alice really is going to die and declaring his eternal love for her.
Alice laughs hysterically at the ongoing events, with Ralph thinking she’s finally gone crazy from the poison. When Alice “comes to” and explains the whole thing, we get as close to an actual “Bang! Zoom” moment as the series ever comes. Ralph tells Ed, “Get outta here, we’re gonna have a fight,” and he boldly tells Alice that he is actually going to beat her up. (Didn’t they have censors in 1953?) Alice fearlessly defies Ralph, reminding him that only seconds ago, he had told her he loved her. Ralph acquiesces and resigns himself to a sort-of “Baby, you’re the greatest” moment.
(I was unable to embed the video for this superb episode on this page. Click on the link below to watch it.)
“Second Honeymoon” (orig. broadcast 2/2/76 – available for rental at Amazon.com)
This is the first of three hour-long “Honeymooners” specials that Gleason directed from 1976-78. I saw this special when it first aired, and even though I was only 14 years old, I felt it was a bit contrived. But I recently re-watched it, and I guess nostalgia has coated my brain, because it’s quite a bit better than I had remembered. But as much it tries to be an old-fashioned “Honeymooners” tribute, there are a couple of glaring omissions.
One is that these specials aired on ABC. Undoubtedly, Gleason had tired of CBS after they cancelled his and other older-demographic shows in 1970. The other surprise is that, despite these specials being much-touted “reunion” shows, here Ed’s wife Trixie is assayed by Jane Kean (who did the role on Gleason’s variety show from 1966 to 1970), rather than by the original Trixie, Joyce Randolph. Various sources claim that either Randolph had retired from acting by the time of the specials’ tapings, or that she was actually disappointed that she hadn’t been asked to revive her role. (IMHO, Kean is as bland as dishwater. I wonder how Meadows felt acting opposite her.) In any case, these backstage revisions clearly showed that it wasn’t 1955 anymore.
And “Second Honeymoon” amply demonstrated that it wasn’t about to break new ground on a very popular formula. Some of the plot contrivances are real eye-rollers. (After 25 years of marriage, how does Ralph continue to misconstrue Alice’s unspoken actions so epically?) Yet the old bits (and a few twists on them) are done so skilfully that after a while, you think to yourself, “Why not?” On that basis, this cast still delivers belly laughs and grace notes.
Probably the most hopeless part of the special is its first scene, which delivers its plot points via bald exposition. (PARAGRAPH SPOILER ALERT!!) After reintroducing us to Alice and Trixie, we learn that, for their anniversary, Alice is knitting Ralph a cover for his bowling ball, and the cover just happens to look like a baby jacket. When Alice is writing down healthy meal choices for her ulcer-ridden mom, she labels the list “Diet for Mother.” Lastly, earlier that day, Alice had accompanied Mrs. Manicotti’s grandson to the veterinarian because the kid had a sick rabbit in tow.
Now look at that list. As Ed Norton might have said, if that doesn’t read like a game of “Ralph Kramden’s Pregnancy Scavenger Hunt,” I give up.
(Another problem with this premise is its issue of the previous 25 years. We, the audience, are meant to imply that this TV special designates the anniversary of both “The Honeymooners” TV series and the Kramdens’ marriage itself. However, in the 1955 episode “Brother Ralph,” Alice nonchalantly references her 15 years of marriage to Ralph, indicating that they would have gotten married in 1940. So after 36 years, it would indeed have been quite a surprise for middle-aged Alice to have suddenly become an expectant mother.
There, I’ll quit ranting now.)
But naturally, once Gleason enters the picture, the farce begins to take flight. Gleason had lost quite a bit of weight over the years (cynics were happy to point out that Carney looked heavier than Gleason at this point). So Gleason takes advantage of his improved image by staring vainly into a mirror during his first few entrances, smiling roguishly and daintily brushing his new mustache. And Norton beams over his suave buddy in the kindest sycophant manner.
The special’s final blow to cliché involves Ralph’s recurring war with Alice’s mother — here played by Templeton Fox (an unsung character actress whose penultimate role was Mrs. Marshall, Ralph’s wife’s boss, in the second ABC “Honeymooners” special). Fox lacks the ferociousness that previous actresses Pert Kelton and Ethel Owen brought to the role, but at least she and Gleason have a good give-and-take, rather than her succumbing to a lot of “fat” insults.
Not to my great surprise, Art Carney steals the show in the next scene, in which childless Ed suddenly becomes as much of an expert on infant care as he was on teaching Ralph how to dance the Hucklebuck and how to play golf. Ed brings a mewling baby doll (“Pa, pa!”) and a box full of props into Ralph’s place to show him how to take proper care of a baby, nearly choking all of them with baby powder in the process.
The special’s other generous indulgence in nostalgia is when Ralph and Ed, their wives out of the apartment, come across the punch drink that Alice has prepared for their wedding reception. The duo decide to have a makeshift bachelor party and indulge in the punch, not knowing that Alice hasn’t yet laced it with her planned supply of vodka. The scene is a shameless remake of the “Head of the House” scene (see above) where the guys get snookered on unlaced grape juice. But again, after again enjoying the sight of their getting liquored up over nothing, the scene’s plagiarism didn’t bother me very much.
The final big scene takes place at Ralph and Alice’s second wedding, being held by Ralph and Ed’s lodge brothers at their Raccoon headquarters. There are a lot of fun surprises throughout, beginning with pianist Ed prefacing “The Wedding March” with his brief intro to Stephen Foster’s “Swanee River” (a la “The $99,000 Answer” episode). But the most jaw-dropping surprise is when the marriage is accomplished and Ralph tells Alice that she can now share her surprise news with everyone. Alice tells Ralph she has no idea what he’s talking about. When Ralph mentions all of the previous clues (baby jacket, dead rabbit, etc.), Alice tells him what they mean, resulting in Ralph’s grandest misinterpretation of all time — that Alice has apparently tried to seduce Mrs. Manicotti’s grandkid! I’ll bet Gleason couldn’t have gotten away with that one in 1955.
The final scene is one last charming whisper to “The Honeymooners'” past. Ralph does his old “moax” routine and apologizes to Alice for the stupid conclusions he aired aloud at the wedding. Alice consoles Ralph that they can always continue trying to conceive. The pair smilingly head for their bedroom when out comes Alice’s mother, whom Alice had forgotten she had invited to spend the evening. The tables are nicely turned, with Alice having to ask Ralph’s forgiveness for a change. Ralph makes another of this special’s rare topical references (to Gone with the Wind — earlier, Ralph had referred to Alice’s mom as the star of Jaws), providing a low-key coda to a nice time with some old friends.