With the release of The Honeymooners: Classic 39 Episodes, and I Love Lucy: Ultimate Season 1, two of the most important and influential sitcoms have now hit Blu-ray. The former stars Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph, the latter stars Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, William Frawley and Vivian Vance, and for those who grew up with these shows on television, these new 1080 masters are night and day in terms of picture quality. My review of both on Blu-ray follow after the jump.
Both shows have very simple premises that often repeat the same narrative in different iterations. In The Honeymooners Gleason’s Ralph Kramden is a dreamer who works as a bus driver, with his best friend the mostly stupid but occasionally clever Ed Norton (Carney). In most of the episodes Kramden gets himself in trouble by thinking he’s smarter than he is. His failings make him angry at his wife Alice (Meadows) who he threatens to punch so hard she’s sent into orbit. With I Love Lucy, Ball is the dizzy dreamer, who often expresses interest in working with her husband in his stage act and spends her time with landlords Fred and Ethel Mertz (Frawley, Vance).
What stands out most watching these shows from a modern perspective is that there is only one narrative per episode (what has become known as the A plot, where here there’s no b plots or c plots), so if the episode is about Lucy being jealous about a nightclub singer, everything in the episode is about that jealousy, even if it cuts to a different actor in a different situation. If Ralph Kramden lied in the hopes of getting a promotion, everything that happens in the episode revolves around that.
It’s also what makes the shows often very boring to watch. Television back then ended almost every episode by hitting the reset button. If Ralph Kramden finds a million dollars at the beginning of an episode, by the end of it he’ll have lost it in such a way it has no impact on what comes next. If Lucy wants to perform with Desi and does a good job, by the next episode she may still think she has no shot of performing with him. Gleason’s act grew out of vaudeville, so most episodes build to him doing something outrageous and allows for him and Carney to do maximum mugging (a comedy style that isn’t in favor these days), while Lucy was born out of radio. The latter invented the three-camera set-up for recording in front of a live studio audience, which also proved to be the blueprint for The Honeymooners.
Watching both proved to be a little boring, even if both shows’ DNA can be seen all throughout the shows that have comes since. The Honeymooners was the blueprint for The Flintstones, quite obviously, but you can see a lot of The Simpsons, and many more shows drawing from the well, and from the set up. The same could be said of I Love Lucy, which definitely influenced every female-centric show since (even if they were reacting to what they didn’t like about it, or were influenced by the shows that were influenced by it). That may be what’s most interesting to viewers looking to bone up on television history. But those these shows obviously have a staying power, part of that is because they were syndication favorites for years when people didn’t have as many channel options, on top of that television has always been more of the moment, less precise than cinema (at least until the last fifteen or so years). But also once you adjust to the rhythms of the shows, there are pleasures to be had. Ball and Gleason are marvelous entertainers, but their manners seem more dated (to me at least) than the inspired lunacy of the Marx Brothers.
The Honeymooners is presented over five discs, with the first three discs offering eight episodes, the fourth nine, and the fifth disc six, all presented in full frame (1.33:1) and in a Linear PCM 2.0 mono mix. The presentation of these episode show a full 1080p master, and though you might expect a disaster, almost all the episode look as good as possible. Shot on stages in front of an audience, the camera moves aren’t all that dynamic, and the lighting is functional, so the picture quality looks solid in these new masters, but it’s not breathtaking.
Thirteen of the episodes are presented with their original sponsor material, which means that they may promote Buick before the end credits. Disc one offers two promos (1 min.), while disc two features “’The Best Buick Yet’ Dealer Presentation” (21 min.), an audio presentation that features the show’s cast pitching the car, along with people who work for Buick. It also features stills, so maybe this was a slide show accompanied by audio.
Disc three offers the 1984 “60 Minutes Jackie Gleason Profile” (15 min.) and outtakes from that interview (23 min.) that are amazing. Gleason is open about his life as an older man, and what’s great is the first section is taken from film so it’s in great shape. Disc five offers “The Adoption” (53 min.) which is an episode from a 1060’s TV show where Gleason is joined by Art Carney and Audrey Meadows to do a musical version of The Honeymoners. It’s followed by a 35th anniversary special (22 min.), which is hosted by Meadows, and features then-current interviews with Art Carney and Joyce Randolph, and excerpts from the Gleason interview on 60 Minutes. Then there’s the 50th Anniversary special (42 min.), which is hosted by Kevin James, and features comments from people like Tom Hanks, Dennis Franz, John Ritter and Carol Burnett. Finally, there’s a “Person to Person” segment featuring Jackie Gleason from 1956 (11 min.)
I Love Lucy Season 1 is spread out over six discs, with episodes presented in either the original rerun version (which opens with the satin heart), or the original broadcast versions, which feature advertisements for Phillip Morris. Thirteen episodes feature the original rerun versions, which were done while Lucille Ball was on maternity leave. All episodes are presented in full frame (1.33:1) and in a Linear PCM 2.0 mono mix. The picture quality here is phenomenal for what these are
The first disc is the original pilot, presented from a newly discovered 35mm negative, and the kinescope version, which was the only version of that pilot available until recently. Also included are five additional episodes, and a truckload of supplements. First up are costume and make up tests, one hosted by Robert Osbourne (10 min.), while the footage can be viewed on its own as well (11 min.). “I Love Lucy: The Very First Episode” (48 min.) offers the original release of the first airing of the show’s original pilot with archived interviews and footage of Lucy and Desi, and an interview with writers Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr., whose interview footage plays longer in an outtakes section (17 min.).
There’s a short promo (21 seconds), and a Criterion Collection commentary produced in 1991 featuring commentars from TV historian Bart Andrews, Ball, Arnaz, writer/producer Jess Oppenheimer, Carroll Jr. and Davis, director William Asher, performers Jerry Hausner, Doris Singleton and Mary Jane Croft, and stage manager Herb Browser. The Criterion commentary played over highlights from the show’s run so it’s in no way scene specific. There’s also a text profile of Andrews. “Before and After” (2 min.) shows the restoration off well, and it’s followed by six “Flubs” (3 min.) which come with a play all function, that highlight small mistakes. “Lucy on the Radio” offers two episodes of the radio show “My Favorite Husband” which inspired episodes of I Love Lucy. There’s a behind the scenes audio book featurette that offers excerpts from Jess Oppenheimers book, and two slide shows for the pilot and for the episode “Lucy Thinks Rick is Trying to Murder Her.” There are also guest cast profiles, sponsor talent profiles, production notes and a photo gallery.
Disc two offers five episodes, and in the supplements on that disc features on-set color home movies (3 min.), and this is followed by the openings excerpts and closings from the The Sunday Lucy Show (4 mins), which just aired the original series on Sundays with new credits (and earlier in the day). This disc has two flubs (1 min.), and it’s followed by a still gallery about Marc Daniels, three episodes from “My Favorite Husband,” guest cast profiles, sponsor talent profiles, production notes and a photo gallery.
Disc three offers six episodes, two flubs (1 min.), two episodes from “My Favorite Husband,” guest cast profiles, sponsor talent profiles, production notes and a photo gallery. Disc four offers six episodes, four flubs (1 min.), one episode from “My Favorite Husband,” guest cast profiles, sponsor talent profiles, production notes and a photo gallery. Disc five offers seven episodes, three flubs (2 min.), one episode from “My Favorite Husband,” guest cast profiles, sponsor talent profiles, production notes and a photo gallery. Disc six offers seven episodes, two flubs (1 min.), the Criterion commentary for ‘Lucy Does a TV Commercial” with TV historian Bart Andrews, Carroll Jr. and Davis, Stage manager Herb Browar performers Jerry Hausner and Ross Elliot. There’s also “Fancy Editing” which edited out the cigarette product placement in two episodes (3 min.), four episodes from “My Favorite Husband,” a behind the scenes audio book featurette that offers excerpts from Jess Oppenheimers book, guest cast profiles, sponsor talent profiles, production notes and a photo gallery.