Time/Life has been releasing a treasure trove of golden oldies relating to classic TV series. The latest comprises of four episodes of "The Jackie Gleason Show" that have been unseen since their original air dates in 1968-69. Gleason had become an icon by the early 1950s. His variety show for CBS was a national sensation and it was on there that he introduced "The Honeymooners" as an occasional sketch of varying lengths. He would later turn the scenario into a classic stand-alone sitcom that lasted for thirty nine glorious episodes. Gleason had numerous incarnations of his variety series. By the mid-1960s, he was still as king at CBS, which also laid claim to Ed Sullivan's equally popular variety show. Gleason used his clout to relocate his show to Miami Beach ("The sun and fun capital of the world!", he would assure his audience every week.) Gleason's love affair with the city helped increase tourism and paved the way for a burgeoning film and TV industry there. He always assured his audience that they were the greatest in the world, and it's hard to argue with that. Even his lamest sketches and jokes on the variety show bring down the house. A one man show business powerhouse, Gleason also succeeded on the big screen, in stage productions and also as a composer and conductor of romantic tunes that saw his albums improbably sell millions. Gleason revived "The Honeymooners" in the latest incarnation of his variety series, albeit with the roles of the female characters were recast. Gone were the beloved Audrey Meadows who played Alice, the wife of Gleason's Ralph Kramden. So too was Joyce Randolph replaced as Trixie, wife of Ralph's best friend, Ed Norton (Art Carney). In their place were Sheila MacRae and Jane Kean. Again, the "Honeymooners" sketches would vary in length but were a key ingredient in maintaining Gleason's high ratings.
The Time/Life release showcases "The Honeymooners" in three of the episodes. Gleason, like Howard Hawks, was unapologetic about recycling plots from his earlier works. Thus, one of the "Honeymooners" sketches is a loose remake of an episode from the 1950s in which Ralph mistakes a dog's dire health report from a veterinarian for his own diagnosis. The sketches are reasonably funny but the recasting of they key roles of the wives simply doesn't work very well, as we are so used to seeing Meadows and Randolph in these roles. Also, the cramped Kramden apartment looks cavernous on a Miami soundstage in color. The rest of the variety show episodes follow a pattern: Gleason is introduced and strolls on stage, dressed to the nines and looking like a million bucks. He chain smokes cigarettes as he jokes with the audience, then participates in bantering with his first guest. On these programs, Red Buttons appears in three of these opening acts with Gleason. Other guests include Frankie Avalon singing a kitschy version of "Can't Take My Eyes Off You", Milton Berle in a long, belabored comedy bit with Gleason that seems endless and unfunny, Phil Silvers in a rare stand-up appearance, future "Brady Bunch" mom Florence Henderson, Edie Adams, Morey Amsterdam, Jan Murray, and, most amusingly, Nipsey Russell and an impossibly young George Carlin. The humor is clean and mainstream. Despite the tumultuous political situation going on during this period, there are just a few lightweight cracks about outgoing President Johnson and incoming President Nixon. The most politically incorrect jokes pertain to Gleason's penchant for self-deprecating remarks about his girth Today, he wouldn't be allowed to refer to himself as fat, but would probably have to say he's "vertically challenged." The episodes don't have consistent running times because the famed June Taylor Dancers, who performed on every show, are nowhere to be found, presumably due to rights issues- although they are mentioned in every introduction. The quality of the episodes is very good and one is impressed to realize just how few commercials viewers were subjected to in the good old days. Today, a show seems to consist primarily of ads with a few breaks for entertainment content. Although much of the humor in this set is rather dated and predictable, it is admittedly irresistible to watch all these great talents at various stages of their careers. We don't have variety shows any more in the traditional sense and we certainly don't have anyone of the stature of Jackie Gleason, who was a true "Man for All Seasons".