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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Gleason & Co. Take 2nd Honeymoon On Cable Tv

August 28, 1985|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The old Philco flickered. The setting was a Brooklyn flat. Two rooms. Drab. Sparsely furnished. A somber tone for comedy.

A woman was working in the kitchen. Suddenly the front door was thrown open and a fat man in a bus driver's uniform burst through in a fury. He was outraged. He was steaming. He was beside himself. He was exploding. "All right, Alice!" he bellowed, slamming his lunch box down on the kitchen table. "ALL RIGHT, ALICE!!!!!"

How sweet it was.

Before tuning in the fall seasons of the three networks, have another look at that Jackie Gleason classic, "The Honeymooners," to see how it used to be done. And should be done.

The picture is black and white and the technology crude. But Ralph Cramden, and his wife, Alice, and his best pal, Ed Norton, still work. Gleason, Audrey Meadows and Art Carney still have the magic.

Fortunately, we can see for ourselves. "The Honeymooners" continues in wide syndication across the nation, and next week, cable-delivered Showtime begins Thursday night showings of 52 episodes of "The Honeymooners" that have been out of circulation for 30 years.

They feature Gleason, Meadows (who took over from the original Alice, Pert Kelton), Carney and Joyce Randolph (as Norton's wife, Trixie) in their old roles.

And, judging from a sampling made available by Showtime, they are a real hoot.

Showtime's "The Honeymooners--The Lost Episodes" series is drawn from sketches that were part of Gleason's "Cavalcade of Stars" in 1950-52 on the DuMont Network and "The Jackie Gleason Show," 1952-57 on CBS.

"The Honeymooners" was a series within a series and is one of the few remnants of TV's Golden Age that still stands up.

A Gleason creation that he shaped and oversaw with authoritarian, almost maniacal control, "The Honeymooners" recalls one of TV's rare meshes of splendid writing and performing. So splendid, in fact, that in watching it today, one is only faintly aware of the rudimentary TV technology of the era and the malfunctions and fluffs that accompanied live broadcasting. It was fresh and spontaneous and surprisingly insightful about the human condition.

Gleason created such other memorable characters as The Poor Soul, Reggie Van Gleason III and Joe the Bartender. But "The Honeymooners" sketches best reflect his comedic genius.

There is more universality and essential honesty in the characters on "The Honeymooners" than in most of TV today. The emotions and relationships are genuine and the characters up front. There are no pretensions. No masks.

Ralph Cramden is more than merely hilarious. Although broadly drawn for comedic purposes, he is Everyman, a modestly talented schlub who often seems overmatched by life, his crazy get-rich schemes a metaphor for the dreams for most Americans. His frustrations are our frustrations. Though continually put down, he never gives up.

Ralph is always angry. There's no "Hi, honey, I'm home" with this crowd. Ralph doesn't speak; he shouts. "A man is king of his castle!" he menacingly tells Alice on one of the Showtime episodes. "And I'm king of this castle and you're nuthin'!!!"

Wrong! It's all bluster. Ralph continually menaces the wise-cracking Alice with his fists, but would never strike her. Of the two, she is smarter and is seldom cowed.

"If you were only my size," he growls with a clenched fist. "If I were your size," she snaps back, "I'd be the fat lady in a circus."

The Ralph's triple-chin roundness is always an issue. His birthday gift to his pal and upstairs neighbor Norton is a night at the movies. Ralph buys the tickets. But when a TV set is raffled off at the theater and Norton wins, Ralph insists the set should rightfully be his. When he challenges Norton to fight outside he theater, Alice and Trixie side with Norton.

"This fight is unfair," Ralph protests. "You outweigh us," Norton agrees, "but we'll fight you anyway."

The bullied Norton is a simpleton sewer worker who either follows Ralph like a puppy or enrages him with his imbecility. They are the original odd couple, ever together (as lodge associates in the International Order of Friendly Raccoons) and ever battling.

It says something that Gleason, who has no small ego, would even let a brilliant comedic actor and scene-stealer like Carney on the same stage with him, or that he would allow the talented Meadows so many toppers. But as dominant as Gleason was, he also understood that the essential strength of "The Honeymooners" was its ensemble cast, actors creating laughter on a nearly bare stage. They didn't need props. They had themselves.

Ralph would ultimately eat his crow and come crawling to Alice on his knees, but only after one of his classic explosions. "One of these days, Alice, one of these days . . . Pow! Right in the kisser!"

How sweet it was. And still is.

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