DVD Review: The Honeymooners Lost Episodes 1951-1957

The opening of King Tut’s tomb might be the only event that rivaled Jackie Gleason cracking his film vault in 1985. For decades, viewers absorbed the 39 episodes of The Honeymooners sitcom. Word had spread that the Honeymooners sketches performed on Jackie’s variety shows in the ‘50s had been lost to archive purges. The kinescopes were supposedly dumped into the Hudson River like so many other pioneer shows. Short sighted network executives considered them worthless. Who would ever want to watch reruns? The characters were revived by Jackie and Art, but with new actresses playing their wives. These weren’t considered canon. The devoted craved the classic cast of Jackie Gleason (Ralph Kramden), Audrey Meadows (Alice Kramden), Art Carney (Ed Norton) and Joy Randolph (Trixie Norton) broadcasted in glorious black and white. They gave up hope of every seeing the earlier sketches. They thought the only way they’d experience them was to read accounts in books. They prayed for a miracle. Turns out that Jackie had saved kinescopes of the sketches. Fans rejoiced when Jackie announced that Showtime would run 68 episodes of The Lost Honeymooners. Members of RALPH retired their TV’s rabbit ears for cable. Now 26 years after that historic moment, there’s even more to celebrate with the release of The Honeymooners Lost Episodes 1951-1957. This is like finding out King Tut’s tomb had an annex.

The Lost Episodes series missed quit a few Honeymooners sketches including two major omissions.The first sketches from Jackie’s Cavalcade of Stars that aired on Dumont hadn’t been recovered. Also MIA were musical episodes that aired on CBS after 39 episodes. The best news is that many of the Dumont sketches and all of the “Trip to Europe” episodes have been found and are on the boxset. No longer will you have to read secondhand accounts about Ralph and Alice’s first appearance in “Bread.” During the season on Dumont, Alice was played by Pert Kelton. She’s a harder edge actress than Meadows. There’s a sense that she could win any fights in that apartment. She could probably hold her own in a bar fight at the dock. Art Carney does appear in the first sketch, but not as everyone’s favorite sewer worker. The first encounter shows Ralph as a major blowhard while Alice remains overwhelmed by the demands of her simple life in the sparse apartment. Ralph loses his cool when she suggests he run down to the store to get bread for dinner. It’s an epic verbal battle that turns to slapstick. The characters quickly became favorites on the show. “The Christmas Party” goes over 40 minutes long. There are now 8 sketches from this season recovered. Jackie knew he had a good thing with the roars of laughter from the studio audience.

Jackie skipped over to CBS the next season with his cast and crew for The Jackie Gleason Show. For the first three three seasons he kept the Honeymooners as a regular sketch until it was finally spun off as a pure sitcom. A majority of the Lost Honeymooners comes from this time. Some segments are long enough to be one hour shows in today’s TV. Yet even at that length, they’re hilarious. A few are rough versions of what would become sitcom scripts. After Jackie pulled the plug on The Honeymooners sitcom, he kept the characters for the final season of The Jackie Gleason Show. The first batch are under 15 minutes so it seems Jackie didn’t want to go completely back into the Ralph mode. But after a few weeks, he’d spend thirty minutes of more in the bus driver uniform. The big event of season is a six episode arc that sends the Kramdens and Nortons around the world. Can foreign countries handle Ralph’s stomach? Judging from the writing, the series could have lasted another full season as a sitcom. Although by Jackie keeping it on his variety show, he wasn’t hamstrung by time restraints. If a story needed more time, he had a full hour. If it needed less, he could schedule more time to other sketches. It was a perfect arrangement for a comic who enjoyed letting the moment dictate the timing.

The Honeymooners Lost Episodes 1951-1957 brings back the initial rush of ’85 when Jackie Gleason realized it was time to share his hidden bounty. The first few seasons show how he shaped and developed the dynamics of the four characters before the sitcom. The final season gives a hint what would have happened if they had gone beyond 39 episodes. While there is still a few items lost, there’s so much found. There’s no greater way to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of The Honeymooners than starting at the real first episode and working to the last time Ralph told Alice that she’s the greatest.

The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The black and white transfers are from kinescopes so the quality will vary. This won’t be unnerving to fans eager to see more of the characters. The image looks better than the original release of the Lost episodes 25 years ago. The audio is 2.0 mix of the mono soundtrack. The show was done live so sometimes it take the microphone boom a moment to catch up with the characters.

This Lost Episodes release doesn’t skimp on extras.

History of the Lost Episodes (14:19) let Dan Wingate explain how these Honeymooners sketches went missing for decades.

All About Trixie (19:07) interviews Joyce Randolph. She gives the complete history of how she went from a commercial to Norton’s wife.

Man Under the Street Interview (6:12) is from the Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 6, 1954. Art Carney chats with Ed in character.

People to People (11:32) is a comedy sketch with Robert Q Lewis from Feb. 13, 1954. Ed Norton dad gets interviewed. It’s Art with a mustache, glasses and derby.

Brooklyn Dodgers (6:17) is Jackie interviewing Ed Norton on April 27, 1957. It deals with rumors that the baseball team is moving to Los Angeles.

Cost of Living (5:34) lets Jackie once more talk to Ed Norton on May 4, 1957. How does he deal with higher prices?

Rock & Roll (6:55) allows Jackie and Ed Norton to talk about that new form of music on May 25, 1957. It turns into a PSA for young men to join the sewer workers of America. He even plugs Nathan’s hotdogs.

Norton Helps the Guest Host (8:38) lets him lighten up singer Johnnie Ray on June 8, 1957. Johnnie Ray would be remembered as a line in Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen.”

Honeymooners Lost Radio episodes include “Letter to the Boss” (35:04) and “Love Letter” (29:10) that aired in 1954.

Art Carney receives an award from sewer workers (1:45) during the show.

Art Carney Nescafe commercial (2:11) has Art and his wife loving their new instant coffee.

Art Carney and Audrey Meadows sketch (7:52) is from 1954. They play a royal couple making a BBC radio address. Art uses a pair of Billy Bob teeth to look British.

Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton Old Gold commercial (1:01) is an animated cartoon for the cigarette. Remember smoking is bad for you.

Audrey Meadows on The Jack Benny Show (16:00) makes us wonder what it would be like if she’d married to a different comic genius.

Honeymooners parody from The Red Skelton Show (8:22) features Peter Lorre in Jackie’s role. This is gold as Peter says, “And away we go!” He has a Vampira character as Alice. Red plays Ed.

Audrey Meadows Chesterfield commercial (1:22) reminds us that Audrey goes for the King-sized cause she likes smoking.

Scripts are provided for Easter Hats, Alice’s Birthday and The Missing Pair of Pants. These are the only three CBS era sketches that are completely lost.

The Honeymooners Lost Episodes 1951-1957 uncovers even more sketches. For fans of the original sitcom, this is a feast of Ralph Kramden stature. This is the greatest gift you can give a fan of vintage TV from the golden era. The only thing that’s missing is a Raccoon Lodge hat.

MPI Home Video presents The Honeymooners Lost Episodes 1951-1957. Starring: Jackie Gleason, Audrey Meadows, Art Carney and Joyce Randolph. Boxset Content: 107 episodes on 15 DVDs. Released on DVD: October 4, 2011. Available at Amazon.com.

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