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TV History: The Honeymooners

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2019. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

To The Moon, Alice! Representation and Conflict in the 1950s Sitcom

by Kay Bontempo

The popular 1950s sitcom The Honeymooners originated as a spinoff of The Jackie Gleason Show, but quickly became a fan favorite in its own right. Although the show in its original form had a brief lifespan, airing for only one season in 1955-56, its 39 episodes continued to be rerun for decades and earned the network a windfall via syndication. Today it remains one of the most iconic programs of the 1950s, along with I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best. The show was typical of mid-1950s programming for its honest depiction of working-class, ethnic urban family life and its commentary on the gender roles of the time, both of which are evident in the twenty-third episode, “Mama Loves Mambo.”
This clip begins with an impassioned argument between protagonist Ralph Kramden, a blustering Brooklyn bus-driver, and his wife, Alice. It quickly reveals the central conflict of the episode: Alice has been enjoying mambo dancing lessons, which irritates Ralph for several reasons—primarily because it takes her attention away from cooking and cleaning the house. “Mama Loves Mambo” exemplifies The Honeymooners’ complicated and at times contradictory engagement with the limiting gender roles of 1950s America. The show took its place in a contingent of similar programs, carried over from the late 1940s, in which strong female leads were not afraid to transgress the boundaries set for them. The precedent set by Gracie Allen on The Burns and Allen Show—broadcast via radio even before television was widespread—of using femininity and the façade of ditziness to subvert the dominant cultural norms. Television historian Susan Douglas describes the work of Allen and others, on which Sheila McRae built in The Honeymooners via her portrayal of Alice: “These women refused to stay in their place, and broke the stays of corseted demureness,” (Douglas 50). This clip illustrates these tensions powerfully, as Alice expresses her interest in dancing while Ralph cries “Why can’t I have a hot meal?”, caring only that her hobby is taking her away from the housework. Ralph finally shouts in frustration, “Oh, you’re gonna do the mambo, but it’s gonna be on the moon,” a reference to his repeated punchline about hitting Alice so hard she flies to the moon. However, the episode notably ends with Ralph and the other men in the building being shamed for their treatment of their wives, albeit by the building’s male supervisor rather than by Alice. “Well, if I did find the right one and she did all those things for me, I know I would do all I could to make her happy,” he chastises them. While the traditional paradigm between husband and wife is not itself challenged—it still goes unquestioned that Alice and the other wives should cook and clean for their husbands—the clear moral of the episode is that Ralph’s ill-treatment of Alice is not to be tolerated. “While it is true that the shows’ narratives tended to manage and resolve…anxieties so that the woman was happily tamed at the end of each episode,” writes Douglas of The Honeymooners and similar programs, “Our mothers could nonetheless see, on television, women resisting and making fun of the credo that ‘real’ women…thought obeying their husbands made much sense,” (Douglas 51). Alice Kramden might not be able to get away with neglecting the household or serving tuna salad for Ralph instead of a hot meal, but she is unafraid to be vocal about her desire to continue her mambo lessons, and the conclusion of this clip reinforces that her desires at the very least merit respect.
This clip from The Honeymooners also serves as an example of the 1950s urban ethnic working-class situation comedies which were so prevalent at the time. “Many of the most successful pioneering sitcoms depicted urban, ethnic, working-class families struggling to make ends meet, such as…DuMont’s ‘The Honeymooners,” writes television scholar Gary R. Edgerton (Edgerton 130). The Honeymooners, like similar programs such as The Goldbergs and Mama, invited 1950s audiences into a world where they could see people ostensibly like themselves on the screen—Ralph and Alice Kramden are solidly working-class Irish-American Brooklynites, identifiable by their regional accents and modest living conditions. However, these shows also performed the related function of illustrating and encouraging the postwar assimilation of such families into the comfort of middle-class, suburban America, in many cases through material satisfaction. This clip serves as an example of the genre: The Kramdens’ building is a miniature version of the ‘melting pot’ that was New York City, and indeed America, at the time. In this clip, we see Ralph Kramden working together with Italian neighbor Mr. Manicotti and arguing with the Hispanic superintendent Carlos. While the accents of all three are undeniably stereotypical, the clip ties into the narrative described by Edgerton: immigrant viewers of all these ethnicities could fit into American society, too, and even join the ranks of the middle-class (provided they can coax their wives to give up mambo and stick to the necessary housework.) There are also hints at the promises of material success that postwar consumer society held for them; for instance, the record player with which Carlos provides the mambo lessons is placed front and center in several frames, clearly portrayed as a material object to be coveted. Ralph and his friend Ed also commiserate throughout the episode about the hours they put in at work, illustrating the recognizable stressors that come with pursuing success in America and the importance of maintaining the nuclear family model as they strive together to move up the socioeconomic ladder.
While this episode of The Honeymooners does not contain dramatic plot developments or tackle any revolutionary social issues, it does reflect both the primary social tensions of the era and the extent to which television aimed to resolve them. In its depiction of Alice Kramden’s assertiveness and willingness to subvert culturally dominant gender norms, “Mama Loves Mambo” simultaneously gave voice to the anxieties held by both men and women over “who would wear the pants in postwar America” (Douglas 51) while also providing women with a role model for refusing to be contained by their husbands’ unfair expectations. In its images of urban, ethnic working-class nuclear families and its allusions to the promises of assimilation and success, the episode reinforces the narrative shared by other sitcoms of the era about the path to domestic American bliss. While they did not overturn the cultural norms of the time, The Honeymooners and other 1950s sitcoms like it did appeal to audiences by allowing them to see themselves in familiar characters, and project their own concerns onto the storylines the television brought them.

Excerpt from THE HONEYMOONERS

The clip is an excerpt from the "Mama Loves Mambo" episode of THE HONEYMOONERS.

from Mama Loves Mambo-The Honeymooners (1956)
Creator: Jackie Gleason
Distributor: YouTube (User: James Williams)
Posted by Christine Becker
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