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Honeymooners remains fresh entertainment 60 years later

Date: 11/4/2011

Oct. 31, 2011

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

Television legends are featured in this week’s DVD review column.

The Honeymooners Lost Episodes 1951 to 1957

When comedian Jackie Gleason performed the first “Honeymooners” sketch in 1951 as part of a weekly show “The Cavalcade of Stars,” I’m sure few people would have predicted the kind of the success Ralph and Alice Kramden would enjoy 60 years later.

Yet in 2011, it’s clear to see the comic genius of Gleason, his cast and writers. Today when so many sitcoms rely on gimmicks or staid formulas, “The Honeymooners” have remained fresh with characters that are believable and funny.

For the younger people reading this column, Gleason has been a moderately successful comic on stage and in a handful of movies, who found his true medium — television. He created many characters on his long-running show, but his most enduring was Ralph Kramden, a bus driver who lives with his wife Alice (Audrey Meadows) in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn.

Ralph is desperately insecure and constantly jumps to conclusions. He is always seeking ways to hit it big and yearns to be a big shot. Alice has got the common sense in the family and is more than Ralph’s equal when he goes on one of his frequent tirades.

Ralph’s best friend, Ed Norton (Art Carney), lives with his wife Trixie (Joyce Randolph) in the same building. Norton is a comic original — a combination of child-like innocence and wise savvy.

I was shocked at just how well developed the characters were in the very first skit. Gleason and his first Alice (Pert Kelton) had their roles down cold and were immediately believable as they fought over whether or not Ralph was going down to the deli to pick up a loaf of bread.

This is character driven comedy at its finest, and this DVD collection brings together on 15 discs all of “The Honeymooners” skits known to exist, with the exception of the 39 half-hour episodes Gleason produced as a stand-alone show in 1955 television season.

At the time Gleason produced his first skit, sitcoms were more likely to feature a knowing wife and a clueless husband. The difference is that in “The Honeymooners,” the husband was prone to rage and the wife dished it out as well as he did. People may have fought like that in real life, but characters on television did not.

By the end of the first episode, though, it was clear these two people truly loved each other, despite their failings.

This humanity made Ralph and Alice seem very real to audiences, then as well as now.

This collection also features an informative booklet on the history of the show and a great collection of extras, including two parodies of “The Honeymooners,” one starring Jack Benny in the Gleason role and the other featuring Peter Lorre as Ralph.

If you have a “Honeymooner” fan in your family, this should be high up on your holiday gift list.

The Captains

William Shatner started out as a serious actor on the stage in his native Canada. He became well known to American audiences in the 1950s and ‘60s with frequent guest-starring roles on television, movie appearances and starring roles on Broadway.

Then he accepted the role of Captain Kirk on the original “Star Trek” and his life changed.

For more than 40 years — during which Shatner has seen additional success in show business as well as being the object of adoration for millions of “Star Trek” fans — the actor has apparently nursed an unresolved issue over being identified as Kirk. Apparently he can’t reconcile the “serious” nature of his early career and the promise it had with his post-“Star Trek” life.

To try to deal with this nagging conflict, the actor interviewed every other actor who has appeared as the star — and commanding officers — of a “Star Trek” series or movie to see how playing the part changed them. Shatner spoke with Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bacula, Avery Brooks, Chris Pine and Sir Patrick Stewart.

That’s the subject of “The Captains,” the new documentary written and directed by Shatner. This production seemed to be an extension of the interview shows Shatner has done in the last several years.

As a fan, I found the interviews, with the exception of the one with Brooks, pretty interesting. Mulgrew is very candid in first admitting she really had no idea who Shatner was when she starred in her “Star Trek” series and said her children have never forgiven her for accepting the job, as the brutal work schedule kept her away for years of their childhood.

Stewart spoke earnestly about making the transition between being a renowned Shakespearean actor to a starship captain, while Bacula spoke about how much Shatner had been an influence on him.

Brooks doesn’t address any of the issues brought forth in the other interviews and instead spouts off some strained philosophical blather while seated at a piano. I wondered if he was pulling Shatner’s leg. Of course, I’ve long wondered if Shatner’s wacky self-indulgent and ironic public personality is a well-played parody itself.

At the end, Shatner came to grips with his alter ego – no surprise. In the hands of a lesser egomaniac or eccentric, this film would come across as a huge vanity project. With Shatner at the helm, though, it’s oddly endearing at times.

Die-hard “Star Trek” fans will need to see “The Captains.”

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