5 December 2003 | schappe1
What really made it work
Jackie Gleason is one of the greatest talents in the history of American show business. His comic takes and blowhard act has produced so many professional and amateur imitators that none even has to question who or what you are imitating. Art Carney is one of America's greatest character actors. He created the greatest side-kick anyone ever had, a character with so many quirks you could probably build a show around him. Together they make one of the greatest comedy teams ever.
But what makes this work is Audrey Meadows as Alice. When the Honeymooners first began, Ralph's wife was played by Pert Kelton, a battle ax of an actress who is just the kind of wife Ralph Cramden would wind up with in real life. The original skits were really comic 'fly on the wall' looks at the arguments the loudest neighbors in the neighborhood keep having. They were amusing enough to keep the skits going but there wasn't enough of a counterpoint to Ralph. His battles with Alice resembled Ralph's later battles with Alice's mother, (which Kelton came back, more appropriately, to play in the 60's series).
When Gleason moved to CBS in 1952, Kelton was unavailable for health reasons and Gleason had to find a new Alice. Audrey Meadows, a glamour girl who worked with all the top comedians of television's golden era, decided she wanted the job. The now-famous story is that Jackie turned her down because he couldn't picture Meadows as Ralph Kramden's proletarian wife. Audrey had a friend photograph her in her kitchen just after she woke up and had the photo sent to Jackie, who immediately declared the woman in the picture to be 'his Alice' and demanded to know who the actress was. When he found out, Audrey had the job and 'The Honeymooners' became a TV classic.
Meadows offered something Kelton didn't: a CONTRAST to Ralph, rather than a fellow gladiator. She was not only attractive, (if not allowed to be glamorous), but she was intelligent and non-abrasive, even if she had the strength to stand up to Ralph and give as good as she got in the battles. More than that, it became obvious why Ralph was such a dreamer and a blowhard. How did a guy like him ever get a woman like Alice to love him and marry him?
He spends all his time either promoting himself and trying to be 'The King of the Castle' or scheming to become rich and important. It's the only way he knew to be big enough to deserve Alice. What he didn't know is that Alice offered him that rarity, unconditional love. Ralph didn't have to be a 'big man' to please her. He just had to be Ralph. He finds that out at the end of every episode but forgets it again in time for the next show, because if he didn't, they'd have no plot.
Strengthened by this theme, the writes got more and more ambitious and The Honeymooners did stories of increasingly greater length, eventually taking up the whole show. Ralph Cramden became Gleason's most popular character because he was so human. He had much more dimension that Reggie Van Gleason, The Poor Soul, Charley Bratton or Joe the Bartender, as entertaining as they were. This in turn, led to the Classic 39, which became the flagship for the series and kept 'The Honeymooners' alive for decades after most of the Golden Age of Television had faded from memory.