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3 of 39: Three Classic Episodes of The Honeymooners
by Grant Tracey

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During the 1953-54 season, "The Honeymooners" as part of CBS' Jackie Gleason Show finished third in the ratings behind I Love Lucy and Dragnet. In 1954-55, the show finished number one and Art Carney and Audrey Meadows won Emmys. Fresh from the success of these high ratings, CBS execs decided to give "The Honeymooners" its own separate show for the 1955-56 season (Saturdays from 8:30 to 9:00 EST). These shows, known as the "Classic 39," have been in syndication since 1958.

An avid cult has grown up around them, but the 1955-56 experiment was not a grand one for the Great One. The show's Bronx-kitchen naturalism was repeatedly clobbered in the ratings by NBC's milkshake smooth Perry Como Show and barely cracked the top 20 for the year. When the run was finished, Gleason broke his contract with Buick: "The excellence of the material could not be maintained and I had too much fondness for the show to cheapen it." Although a Miami Honeymooners emerged in the mid-sixties, and over 75 lost episodes were discovered in a Gleason vault in 1985, it is the "Classic 39," despite original low ratings, that have become indelibly linked to cultural memory. In addition to "The Loudspeaker" (discussed in "'Kissville': Meditations on The Honeymooners"), here are three other must-see episodes:

A Matter of Record
(A.J. Russell & Herbert Finn script; 1/7/56)

"A blab-ber-mouth!"

"You are a blabbermouth. Out! OOUUUTT! OUTTT! Out".

That's the classic line in this gem, and what a gem. Ralph's mother-in-law visits and she continually hounds him: "A man doesn't have to get fat if he doesn't want to." Ralph takes it, but when she gives away the ending to a mystery he has tickets for, the bus driver goes postal. "You are a blabbermouth." His face expands as do his eyes. He moves closer to her face. "A bla-bber-mouth. You!" He stabs a finger. "Blabbermouth." He points with his arm. "Out! OOUUUTT! OUTTT! Out!" The physical comedy is priceless, and it's the only time I can recall anybody else sent packing besides Norton. Alice, alarmed by Ralph's boorishness, leaves too, and the rest of the narrative becomes his desire to get her back. Norton, the ever resourceful high-tech guy, has magnetic records with which he encourages Ralph to confess his love for Alice. Ralph's first take is disastrous: he begins lovingly, but gets worked up and in frustration starts ranting, "When she spilled the beans at the end of the play, I shouldn't have gotten mad, I should have just expected it from her. I know how she is. It's never going be any different, Alice. It's going to be the same old WAY, ALICE! She's a BLABBERMOUTH! A BLABBERMOUTH!" Gleason, eyes swollen, practically swallows the microphone in his vitriol. Norton, the voice of conscience, reminds Ralph to "Concentrate on Alice, she's the one that you want back," and his second effort is much better. Of course, Norton switches the records, there are complications, but it all works out. The ending is surprisingly unsentimental. Ralph afflicted with measles (courtesy of a stick-ball subplot) sacrifices his love, not letting Alice come back right away: "I realized how much I loved you when you were away. I don't want you to get anything like the measles." "I love you, too, Ralph," she says. "I love you, too," he says. She throws him a bag with a steak in it.

Better Living Through Television
(Marvin Marx and Walter Stone script; 11/12/55)

"Zip, zip. It's zip. It's zipping the modern way. Amazing!"

"Go ahead, Ralph. Tell me . . Oh, mighty King of the castle."

Norton's line signifies the text's centrality. There's nothing at all new in yet another one of Ralph's harebrained schemes gone wrong (he attempts to sell a housewife's gizmo on television), but this episode's performances, dialog and timing are absolutely amazing. The narrative opens with Ralph visiting Norton, needing to assert himself in his own home. He wants to hook Alice into his scheme, and boasts to Norton that it won't be a problem because he is the king in his castle, "the King, Norton . . . Alice is just a mere peasant girl." When Alice arrives she challenges his authority. "What's with this peasant stuff?" She folds her hands in front and gives a smart-alecky grin. "Go ahead, Ralph. Tell me." Ralph looks sheepish. "There is something you wanted to tell me, isn't there? Oh, mighty King of the castle. Go ahead. Rule with an iron hand. Come on Ralph, tell me. The peasants have a right to know." His power undermined, Ralph pounds his chest and starts screaming: "You think I won't tell ya, you think I won't tell ya? Is that what you think that I won't tell ya?!" "That's right, oh Richard the chicken-hearted." "Just for that, I won't tell ya." Ralph, losing the battle of the sexes, exits Norton's apartment. Later, in his apartment he tells Alice of his scheme, but she catalogs several earlier failures: "wall paper that glows in the dark" and "no cal pizza." A series of brilliant one-liners are exchanged and Alice, forever sensible, won't bend. "Nobody's 100%, Alice." "You are. You've been wrong every time." Unable to assert himself with his wife, he tries to assert authority on the world. He gets money somehow and visits television to sell his product. But he doesn't know his limitations. He's not an actor, and once the camera rolls, Ralph, in a grand set-piece, freezes, shouts "I'm the Chef of the Future," does a series of "humma-humma-hummas" and can't "core a apple" to save his investment. Norton, his partner in this debacle, tries to dignify the mess by stating: "This is not on film, this is happening live before your very eyes."

Young Man With a Horn
(A.J. Russell and Herbert Finn script; 03/24/56)

"I didn't pass the test, huh? Failed again."

"I liked it better with the sock in it," says Alice.

This episode is similar in structure to Marx and Stone's classic "The Loudspeaker." Alice ridicules Ralph's coronet. Then, when he fails to pass a civil servant exam, the coronet, like the Racoon Lodge, takes on new meaning, as Alice gives a stirring ode to her husband, and he admits his love to her. Kissville. For Ralph, the coronet represents his past ("I grew up with it. It's part of my youth." "There's a lot of tender memories attached to that cornet. My father gave it to me"), present (Alice's love) and future (his desire for success, to "hit the high note"). At the beginning of this episode, Alice's lack of sentiment is disturbing and shows that she's too practical--she has no artistic vision or poetic sensibility. No matter what sentiment Ralph might attach to the cornet, she just wants to get rid of it--"You act as if I was throwing out your pool cue." When Ralph plays and finds a sock jammed inside, she quips, "It must be one of the tender memories that's attached to it." He blows an off key wail and she shrugs, "You know something. I liked it better with the sock in it." "I'd like you," Ralph raises a fist, "a little better with a sock in ya." His anger and frustration appears, for once, justified. The coronet eventually becomes an extended metaphor for social mobility and Ralph, like the earlier Ben Franklin, desires self-improvement, making a chart of his good points ("Loves wife," "Admits mistakes," "Soft-hearted," "Has good intentions") and a much longer list of bad ("Late for work," "Oversleeping," "Losing Temper" "Treats wife like Workhorse"). He becomes more thoughtful, and although he fails the civil servant exam, he wins. Alice tells him how much she loves the new Ralph Kramden. "And I'm not going to let you give up. And if the old Ralph Kramden ever shows his face around here again, I'm going to hit him right on top of the head with this cornet." "You know something," Ralph says, "I did hit that high note once. The day I married you." And thus, with the recuperative power of love, they embrace.

Grant Tracey is the editor of Literary Magazine Review and an assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa.

Photo credits: Fox Video

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