(Random Thoughts from our Email Exchanges)

By John Larrabee and John V. Brennan
Original Cast

Pert Kelton VS. Audrey Meadows

JL: I can’t believe there was a time I thought Pert Kelton might have made for a better Alice. That was based on my seeing one short sketch in which she appeared. She came off just as caustic and more pathetic, which I thought fit Gleason’s original conception of the character better. Then I watched the tape you sent me with the DuMont sketches. Naah, I was wrong -- Kelton doesn’t cut it, Audrey rules.  Kelton was too shrill and overplayed her wisecracks. She also seemed to be trying to match Gleason in volume. Audrey had it just right: the sensible, underplayed contrast to Ralph’s raving.  She was a regular riot.

JB: Pert Kelton was good for short sketches that were funny in the fifties. But Audrey Meadows was what The Honeymooners needed to make it timeless. With Audrey actually being pretty and classy, it makes her marriage to this big dumb jerk more poignant. Plus she had better comic timing than Kelton. She could just stand there while Ralph circled around the table babbling and then at the right moment hit him with a perfectly timed zinger.

Pert Kelton was great, but Meadows is better --- prettier, better delivery, better timing and more of a chemistry with Gleason. 

JL: Now that I've seen Pert Kelton in more than one sketch,  I think we were both right. She was funny, touching, and slightly pathetic as Alice, the way Gleason envisioned the character. But I'm now in total agreement with you -- Audrey Meadows IS Alice.

Hey, Trixieeeeee!

JL: Normally, I love Elaine Strich. But after seeing her as Trixie, I actually prefer Joyce Randolph. Strich's Trixie doesn't look like a former stripper, she looks like a former halfback for Notre Dame -- only slightly less refined. (Note: See the graphic at the top of the page. Elaine Stritch is the actress on the left. - JB)

JB: Absolutely. The problem with Strich's version of Trixie was she was just another blowhard like Ralph.  That might be okay for Aunt Ethel or Alice's Mother who shows up only once on a blue moon, but for a regular character, every week, it might have taken some of the edge of Kramden's character. Can you imagine Ralph trying to throw Elaine Strich out of the house? She'd kill him.

JL: You know who I think made the best Trixie? Patricia Wilson, and there's only that one example (the 1962 American Scene Magazine Sketch with Sue Anne Langdon as Alice) with which to judge her. I've worked with actresses in community theatre that can act circles around Joyce Randolph, while Jane Kean knew how to deliver a line but I never got any sense of what her version of Trixie was all about. But Wilson is just so shy, mousy, slightly dense and eternally sweet -- I believe this woman is an ex-stripper who would fall for a guy like Norton. And the way she refers to him as "Eddie" -- there's just something so right about that.

Maniacs All Over The Joint!

JB: Gotta love Gleason for his refusal to rehearse or do re-takes, but you'd wish he'd have lightened up once in a while. "Hey, Jackie, just a quick, two-minute retake where that slapstick scene kinda fell apart?" "Hell, no!  At this moment, they're drawin' up my first beer of the night at Toot Shor's and I gotta get there before it loses it head."

JL: If you watch the Classic 39 closely, you'll notice several edits. I think this is one small thing that helps make the C39's as good as they are. Even in the best of the Lost Episodes, there's moments where the pace drags, somebody flubs a line, or an awkward pause calls attention to itself. By keeping the C39's as "live" as possible, he was able to preserve the spontaneity of the live shows, yet take advantage of editing to shore up clumsy moments. They still couldn't get rid of all the goofs and gaffes in "Something Fishy," or that annoying brat in the audience ("Don't fall down!") in "Young at Heart," but it was a happy medium nonetheless.

   As we know, goofs, gaffes, bloopers, and ad-libs ran rampant throughout The Honeymooners. Two favorites: In "Mama Loves Mambo", while Ralph and Alice are arguing about "Carlos Sanchez paradin' around here with his fancy manners", Art Carney makes an entrance a couple of pages too early. He stands off to the side looking uncomfortable while Gleason and Audrey Meadows try to cover with a few ad-libbed references to his presence (Note: See above photo, with Art Carney looking rather awkward - JB). 

    And in one of the lost episodes ("The Prowler"), Alice pours Ralph a cup of coffee just as Ralph is knocked unconscious by the title character.  Apparently, the prop man had the bright idea to put a chunk of dry ice in the coffee cup to simulate steam rising from the cup. He must have put in a chunk the size of Gleason's belly, as the coffee bubbles, fizzes, smokes, and develops a nice foamy head -- looking like something Gomez and Morticia would have swilled down. And Gleason, supposedly unconscious, is powerless to cover it with an ad-lib. (Note: Notice the bubbling coffee cup! There is a nice unplanned line at the beginning of this bit, when the audience notices foam and steam rising from what is supposed to be a simple cup of coffee. Gleason notices it too and ad-libs "Four o'clock in the morning, we get hot water!" - JB)

Norton, The Woods Are Burning!

(Note: two of our biggest collective obsessions are The Honeymooners and Arthur Miller's classic play DEATH OF A SALESMAN. So in our emails, this exchange was inevitable. - JB)

JB: By the way, how do you think Gleason would have been as Willy Loman? He was pretty much playing the part every week on the Honeymooners. I think he would have been just fine - I can hear him doing so many lines: "I'm talking about your father!", "Can you imagine that magnificence with twenty thousand dollars in his pocket?", "The woods are burning, boys.  I was fired."

JL: The older Gleason, most definitely. The younger Gleason I would have cast as Uncle Ben. NOTHING IN COMMON gives a good idea of what he would have done with the role.

JB: And Meadows as Willy's wife Linda? "I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name will never be in the paper. He's not the finest character who ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid."

Would have been a classic production, unless Gleason decided it needed the June Taylor Dancers. "Ya want me ta go to Afreeca? A little travelin' music, Ben!"

The Honeymoon is Over

JB: I think unlike I Love Lucy or most other fifties sitcoms, The Honeymooners would not be as funny in color.
JL: And they weren’t. Some cable channel that I don’t get was running the color Honeymooners from the ‘60s last year. It would have been nice to see them again, but I remember them pretty well, or at least the problems I had with them. Gleason and Carney could still pull off a funny scene together, but the Kramdens’ and Nortons’ lives were not meant to be colorful and dotted with splashy musical numbers. Nor were they meant to take vacations in Europe and southern California. And Ralph was not meant to dress in stylish, colorful clothes with little neck scarves (yes, this is how he dressed in the last couple of seasons). It’s as if Gleason forgot the core appeal of the show and succumbed to his glitzy show-biz tendencies. Ralph and Ed doing a number with Bing Crosby? Like Slip and Sach hoofing it with Fred Astaire.
JB: Black and white just underscores the colorlessness of the Kramden’s lives. And disguises the fact that the kitchen is just a set on a stage. In black and white, we can believe those buildings outside the window really represent a street in Brooklyn, whereas in color, it would clearly look like a painted backdrop.

JL: And the set they used for the color show was much larger than the original. Ignore the crummy furniture and you’ve got a huge loft-type apartment that would fetch big bucks today.

They both aged so quickly in the Miami years. In '66, despite Carney having gained about 30 pounds, they both looked enough like their old selves to pull it off. By 1970, Gleason had lost a bunch of weight, and Carney's long grey hair with mutton chops aged him 15 years. I wish they'd aged the characters along with the actors. Like I said, there's something depressing about the notion that these two guys are still driving a bus and working in a sewer well into their dotage.

This Is Probably Just Wrong To Ask

JB: BTW, I always sensed a sexual tension between Norton and Alice.  Am I sick?

JL: Well, there's a lost episode in which Ralph finds an old love letter from Norton to Trixie, and he thinks it's from Norton to Alice. And when the truth comes out, Norton does seem a bit defensive about the whole business. Oh well, it's a less frightening thought than Lucy and Fred Mertz.

This Is Just Plain Wrong

JL: Despite his troubles in the outside world, Ralph had a happy home life indeed.

JB: "MMM-boy, that's good Alice."

Baby, They're The Greatest

JL: The Honeymooners has the sort of pathos that’s immune to sappiness. Ralph is a blowhard, yet he‘s also a totally sympathetic character. We want him to succeed, are sad when he fails, yet things can never get too maudlin when Ralph is the cause of his own problems. It’s when bad things happen to too-good-to-be-true characters that pathos becomes sappy.

JB: It is so much easier to root for a character who is bound to fail due to his own shortcomings than it is to root for a wiseguy that goes around bothering everybody on purpose. That works with Groucho and his brothers because of brilliant writing and characterization (and the Marx Brothers always picked their targets well), but this is why Jim Carey and Adam Sandler comedies will eventually be outdated, while The Honeymooners (and Laurel and Hardy) will always be funny.

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