Friday, May 27, 2016

The Ballad Of Pete The Pup

“To stay a whole weekend with Pete … was my idea of glory and paradise combined.” Jackie Cooper

“He was a gentle, playful and warm dog. He would sleep at the foot of my bed. He was just the regular family dog. I really miss him.” Harry Lucenay

“May his dog star never fade!” Roadside

Today's post is our contribution to the 2016 Animals In Film Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood. For the entire group of blogathon entries, click here.

We are very happy to participate and tip that battered cap - can't remember if it was worn by Mickey Rooney in National Velvet or Stablemates - to Crystal Kalyana Pacey, the Animals In Film blogathon host, journalist and prolific writer about all things classic movies.

Today's post profiles the Ian McKellen, the Patrick Stewart, the Larry Olivier, the John Barrymore of canine thespians - although (actually) that would be several dogs - screen immortal Pete The Pup of the Our Gang comedies a.k.a. The Little Rascals.

The Our Gang comedies, at least until producer Hal Roach sold the rights to "the big studio" A.K.A. behemoth monolith Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, bringing ruination, devastation and Janet Burston to the series, were more often than not 20 minute masterworks.

Since we penned a post for a previous blogathon about Gale Henry, who enjoyed a lengthy career as the trainer of top canine talent (including the beloved Asta) after appearing in 268 films as a comedienne and character actress, it seems fitting that the topic du jour for the Animals On Film Blogathon is these Top Dogs from Our Gang (a.k.a. The Little Rascals, Hal Roach's Rascals).

Pete was hardly the first "Dog Star". There were many predecessors, especially the masterful co-star of Chaplin's A Dog's Life and Keystone's canine action heroes Luke and Teddy.

In many respects, the prototype for what would later be seen with Pete in Our Gang was done with great success by Charlie Chaplin in his wonderful A Dog's Life, in which The Little Tramp scrounges for sustenance with the remarkable Scraps the dog. Almost 100 years later, there's not a dry eye in the house whenever it flickers across the big screen. That Charlie knew how to get a laugh and tug on the heartstrings!

Luke could be considered the canine Chaplin and "dog in demand" at Mack Sennett's Fun Factory, where he supported studio headliners Mabel Normand and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle with athleticism, boundless energy and great charm.

Arbuckle took such a liking to the amazing athletic canine that Luke was among the group from Keystone to also appear in his subsequent Comique series.

And then there was the gigantic Keystone Teddy, who very likely weighed more than most of the leading ladies and some of the leading men at Sennett.

It could be argued that the funniest dog ever was another Sennett star, Cameo - a comedienne and Miss Cameo to you. Here's Cameo, alongside the perpetually non-plussed Billy Bevan in a hilarious Mack Sennett comedy.

Before ending up as Our Gang's ever-intrepid mascot, Pal the Wonder Dog made quite a few appearances with the top comics of the silent screen. There's a memorable cameo in the Harold Lloyd gridiron epic The Freshman as well as the following turns in two films by a pre-L&H Stan Laurel.

More importantly, Pal then was the driving force of Dynamite Doggie, one of the quintessential classic comedy shorts of the silent era. The headliner? The prolific, rubber-legged and quadruple-jointed silent comedy perennial Al St. John. The director? No great surprise - Al's uncle and former co-star (from the Mack Sennett Studio and Comique Productions) Roscoe Arbuckle. Tough to say who is the more acrobatic of the two death-defying daredevils, Al or Pal.

By the time these 1925 films hit the movie palaces, Our Gang had already been an enormous hit with audiences for three years. The winning formula - a lovable band of plucky poor kids show up the stuck-up town snobs, bluenoses, Margaret Dumont-ish matrons and stuffed shirts just by being themselves - was there from the series' inception.

The first three Our Gang releases made their silver screen debuts across the United States in September - November 1922 and proved to be an enormous hit with movie audiences.

As inevitable as death and taxes, a gazillion kid comedies soon followed and Pal the wonder dog would be in the thick of things, starring as Tige in the Buster Brown comedies, produced by the Stern Brothers for Universal.

Imitation being the sincerest form of plagiarism, the Buster Brown series, based on Richard F. Outcault's comic strip character, is actually a shameless ripoff of Our Gang, right down to casting similar looking kids - one cast member is a dead-ringer for Our Gang mainstay Joe Cobb.

As fate would have it, Pal had a natural ring around his eye. A bit of dye and Max Factor assistance finished the job and transformed Pal into Pete The Pup. Rock-solid through both good and not-so-good periods in the series, Pete in some cases drive the storylines. Many of the silent Our Gang shorts, such as this one, Love My Dog, would be remade and improved upon in talkies.

In this correspondent's opinion, the Our Gang comedies from the early 1930's, thanks to a stellar ensemble cast, LeRoy Shield's evocative background music and inspired direction and writing by Bob F. McGowan frequently rank among the series' all-time best.

There is a level of genuine heart which entirely eluded the other "famous kid comedies" and even Our Gang itself at the end of its 15 year Hal Roach run and throughout the dreadful last six seasons produced by MGM.

Said genuine heart, taking a few cues from Mr. Chaplin and getting the audience to care about the characters, would be central to the 1930-1933 Our Gangs. The hilarious and charming Pups Is Pups, released theatrically on August 30, 1930, was a defining moment for the series and also included the silver screen debut of a new Petey, quite literally a pup when this was produced.

Now the reason that Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins' buddy in Pups Is Pups is not Petey, but by a slew of puppies, shockingly, is due to intrigue, chicanery and violence involving the series' canine hero. Earlier in 1930, the first Pete The Pup, Pal the wonder dog, was poisoned to death by an unknown assailant!

One of Pal's offspring, seen among Wheezer's ridiculously cute co-stars in Pups is Pups, would succeed him and eventually star in a string of pretty darn wonderful Our Gang comedies.

The new dog, bred by A. A. Keller, was named Lucenay's Peter and can be seen following his trainer's commands with utter perfection in a newsreel clip with Harry Lucenay.

Lucenay's Peter grew quickly and made his silver screen debut in School's Out, one of the last Our Gang vehicles for Jackie Cooper before his move to feature films.

Two Pete starring roles that exemplify everything film buffs and Hal Roach studio fans adore about the Our Gang series are Dogs Is Dogs and The Pooch.

The former, the ultimate Depression era melodrama, delivered with lots of laughs along the way, casts Wheezer and Dorothy "Echo" DeBorba in a downright Chaplinesque situation. The two Our Gang stalwarts play impoverished children in danger, mistreated in a truly horrific manner by an abusive stepmother and her hideously spoiled son. Saving the day for Dorothy and Wheezer: one of the funniest and most likable Our Gang cast members and most memorable child actors in movies, Matthew "Stymie" Beard. When the horrid stepmother and her obnoxious kid get their comeuppance at (and in) the end, it's one of the great payoffs in movies.

The Pooch is even more melodramatic. Pete needs a license, the gang can't afford it, and the local dog catcher is a rat who derives sick pleasure from euthanizing strays. In a series of very funny scenes involving Stymie and a 3-year-old Spanky McFarland, the Gang tries various means of scraping up the money for the license. The evil dog catcher is played with appropriate villainy by Billy Gilbert actually attempts to kill Pete in a gas chamber! It all ends well for Petey and the Gang but at one point the kids are crying because they think Petey's dead! Both kids and their parents watching this in 1932 must have been crying their eyes out - there had to be many bruised arms the next day!

After Hal Roach fired Lucenay in 1932, the trainer took the second Pete to Atlantic City, where the pooch both entertained children at the Steel Pier and made his silver screen swan song in Buzzin' Around, one of the Vitaphone Big V comedies produced the East Coast, starring Roscoe Arbuckle and Al St. John. The brilliant and memorable movie career of Lucenay's Peter ended and the talented canine lived until 1946.

After Lucenay's Peter, several different dogs would appear in Our Gang as Pete, starting with Hook & Ladder.

These were also amazing dogs, in general Pete was gradually getting phased out of the series in the mid-1930's. This signals a change in storylines and approach that would be apparent as the 1930's progressed. For Pete's Sake is a memorable example of the later series, directed by Gus Meins, who piloted Our Gang after Bob McGowan's retirement in 1933.

Pete The Pup is to some degree a non-factor after Our Gang transitioned from the 20 minute length to 10 minutes. These slicker and shorter 1-reelers, built around Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Buckwheat and Porky, are the best known in the series. Directed by a young Gordon Douglas - later known for piloting a wide variety of feature films, including The Rat Pack in Robin & The 7 Hoods - they offer enthusiastic performances by the superb cast, plenty of laughs and a snappy pace, but lack the charm, depth, humanity, Depression-era flavor and LeRoy Shield music of the early 1930's Our Gangs.

We thank all the Petes for giving audiences much needed laughs during the Great Depression - and, on DVD, much needed laughs now.

In closing, we both thank and raise our chocolate milk-filled goblets to Crystal of In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood for hosting the Animals In Film Blogathon and inviting us to participate.


Quiggy said...

Holy cow! What a detailed entry. I used to watch reruns of Our Gang and Little rascals on afternoon TV after school as a kid back in the late 60's and early 70's. Always like the little dog. I was a dog man (as a boy). Wish I could have a trained pup like that.

BTW, I noticed at the end of your blog that you are a member of a film noir appreciation group. I have a film noir blogathon on my blog you may be interested in joining.

Caftan Woman said...

Thanks for all the information and the clips. At Toronto's Silent Film Festival a few weeks ago we were treated to "The Spanking Age" as part of a day called "1000 Laffs". It reminded me that it has been ages since I saw any of the silent "Gang" pictures. A raised toast back to you for your efforts and success.

Silver Screenings said...

I have a much greater appreciation for Pete the Pup. Before reading your post, I never paid much attention to him, I'm sad to say. Well, that changes today, thanks to you. :)

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Thanks and :) to all of you!

Caftan Woman, the kind words are much appreciated. Both Toronto and "1000 Laffs" sound awfully good to me! You have learned the secret of course, that Our Gang films come alive with an audience. While Our Gangs and the other Hal Roach films are fun to watch on DVD and on various "newfangled modern devices", there's nothing like seeing them as part of a program of Big Screen Fun with a group that is ready to laugh.

Quiggy of Midnight Drive In, I absolutely love film noir, consider the Noir City festival by far the best annual film event in San Francisco, and also got a big kick out of Eddie Muller's Friday night programs on TCM. When it comes to writing about the genre, I am highly reluctant. After reading the Noir City e-magazine, especially the essays by Imogen Smith (arguably the single most brilliant scribe going) my feeling is that the bar line is SO high that I cannot meet it. That said, maybe I can rewrite, revise and otherwise improve a piece I penned for the For The Love Of Film blogathon back in Feb. 2012

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Fine posts from all three of you!
Silver Screenings, those Francis The Talking mule films were a staple of my childhood, run constantly on TV, along with Ma & Paw Kettle features, but I don't think I have seen one since 1964! I hear the great musical comedy gal Virginia O'Brien co-stars with Donald O'Connor in one of them.

rnigma said...

One frequent gag in Our Gang would be for Petey to crouch down and cover his eyes in reaction to something he ought not have seen - this was simply accomplished by having him already crouching and placing his paws over his eyes, then starting the camera as he was called to get up... and then the footage was run in reverse.

I had watched the "Little Rascals" in my youth - fortunately, there was a station that still ran the uncensored (save for titles) Monogram/Interstate and Official prints, rather than the butchered-to-a-fare-thee-well King World versions that other stations were airing. And whaen Leonard Maltin and Dick Bann's definitive book on Our Gang first came out, of course I had to get a copy, and in hardcover.

And in addition to his memorable musical contributions to Hal Roach comedies, Leroy Shield worked for years at NBC, composing for various radio shows, where he was usually credited as "Dr. Roy Shield" (never figured out exactly what his doctorate was). You can hear him sneak one of his Hal Roach compositions about 3 minutes into this "Author's Playhouse" episode:


What I liked the most about your post is that you focused on Pete, but also talked about canine stars and sidekicks that came before him. It was a true class of dogs in silent movies!
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Thanks, Lê and I like that Betty Boop avatar! I have run Fleischer Studio cartoons in a gazillion movie programs over the past three decades and Betty is always a crowd favorite.

When watching the film clips, the immense charm of these dogs, as well as the iconic Chaplin, Arbuckle and Madcap Mabel Normand, bowls one over.

Alas, I am just now reading the blogathon entries. Spent Memorial Day weekend having a bout with food poisoning, only getting out of bed to drink water, finish the blog post and watch the Golden State Warriors - Oklahoma City Thunder playoff games!