Sunday, July 10, 2016
And This Blog Loves Our Gang Comedies
It has been mentioned before on this blog that the mere mention of Hal Roach Studio comedy stars Our Gang (A.K.A. Little Rascals) - as well as their colleagues Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy - brings to mind the line from Jack Ford's classic 1958 film The Last Hurrah, "how can you thank someone for a million laughs?" Well, you can't thank the filmmakers and casts personally but it is possible to see these great comedy shorts and laugh yet again, as the Our Gang comedies are out on DVD and prevalent on YouTube.
The depth of my affection for this series - much as it did during the writing of an "Unca Paul's Foodie Films" piece about the immortal Dogs Is Dogs for Eat With Annie.com - resurfaced when researching the comedic canines who played Pete The Pup for a piece posted as part of the 2016 Animals In Film Blogathon.
Producer Hal Roach, director, series creator and former fireman Robert McGowan, writer Tom McNamara and Roach Studio director general Charley Chase originated the series in 1922. There is certainly some trial and error on the first two episodes, which adhere to more of a rural "kids n' animals" template than the signature Our Gang concept focusing on the personalities of the kids that would be adopted soon afterwards.
There were numerous "kid comedies" but Our Gang had the edge in the personalities and talent of their youthful players. The Hal Roach Studios staff would settle on Jack Davis, Jackie Condon, Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison, Joe Cobb, Mary Kornman, Mickey Daniels and Allen Hoskins as the first regular cast. The chemistry of this stellar and talented group of kids would crystallize pretty quickly: not far into the first season. Film buffs may recognize Sunshine Sammy as the actor who played "Scruno," with enthusiasm and humor that often subverted the stereotypical role, in the East Side Kids movies 20 years later. A pioneer among African-American actors in American movies, Ernie Morrison was also a key supporting player at Hal Roach Studios before Our Gang, working skillfully with Harold Lloyd and Snub Pollard.
The formula - plucky poor kids dealing with day-to-day playground problems (as opposed to battling the elements like Buster Keaton or the baddies like Harold Lloyd) - is there practically from the start.
While the silent Our Gangs in many respects are very different from the talkies - there's a little more slapstick and a little less characterization than would be seen in the 1930's, and production staff could tell the kids their directions before each shot, as there was no sound recording then - the charm and likability factor is off the charts. The Roach production crew got on a winning streak pretty quickly, as these 2-reelers from the first two seasons demonstrate.
Soon the biggest stars on the Roach lot would get into the act. The studio's first headliner, Harold Lloyd, whose nephew Jack Davis was a Gang stalwart in the early years, appears in The Dogs Of War. And one of the funniest entries in the entire series, Thundering Fleas, features cameos by just about every Roach comic not occupied with a shoot at that moment.
The series kept rocking through the 1920's, with slight changes to the winning cast (the addition of Our Gang stalwarts Jean Darling, Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins and Mary Ann Jackson from Sennett's Smith Family series), but none to the essential concept.
At the end of the silents, some very bizarre ideas found their way into the Our Gang comedies. This may be attributable to founder Robert F. McGowan taking a sabbatical in 1926 and handing over the direction to his nephew, Robert Anthony McGowan, who went by the nom de plume of Anthony Mack.Probably the best illustration of the strangeness Bob McGowan's nephew brought to Our Gang would be two late 1920's efforts. Dog Heaven, arguably the single most bizarre entry in the entire 22 year series, starts with Petey trying to kill himself over a broken romance and later includes a scene featuring our canine hero getting drunk and hallucinating.
Cat, Dog and Co., an early talkie from the era when Hal Roach Studios used a sound-on-disc system, includes a long dream sequence with little Wheezer Hutchins getting chased around by giant animals and birds comparable to those seen later in Bert I. Gordon flicks.
One could find Dog Heaven and Cat, Dog and Co. entertaining and funny in a sick-sick-sick way, but the cartoony quality which, while ideal for such comedians as Larry Semon or Charley Bowers, betrays the whole idea of Our Gang. The camera tricks, bits of animation and dream sequences circumvent the goal of achieving genuine pathos.
While the general run of Our Gang in this stretch is undistinguished, there are occasional efforts directed by Mack that have genuine pathos and land in the Our Gang wheelhouse, such as The Smile Wins.
Once in a blue moon, series founder Robert F. McGowan would experiment with offbeat ideas and come up with glorious results.
While we do not know the story of just how the Our Gang comedy Wiggle Your Ears, shot like a 1929 "art film," came about (perhaps Bob McGowan saw a Carl Dreyer flick), but it is the rare case in which a complete and total departure from the Our Gang modus operandi works quite well.
As the silent era ended and talkies began, pathos would increasingly be a cornerstone of Our Gang and differentiate the series from such competing kid comedies as the Mickey McGuires and the "Baby Burlesks" (starring Shirley Temple). To a significant degree, the move towards pathos as the 1920's ended and Our Gang shifted from silents to talkies was the acting of Allen Clayton Hoskins a.k.a. Farina. This is apparent watching his performance in The Smile Wins. His talent and sensitivity would be a driving force in the storylines. While lapses into racism in Our Gang - and pre-1935 movies in general - can frequently be cringe-worthy, especially in the silent era, Farina's characterization as the smartest and most resourceful kid in the room does act as a counterpoint.
Little Daddy in particularly uses pathos and a warm, strong performance by Hoskins extremely well. There is genuine heart throughout this film and the key to the comedy is Farina's ingenuity and the love he feels for his little brother. Sealing the deal is the twinkle in the eye of 5 year old Matthew Beard a.k.a. Stymie, arguably the funniest kid comedian who ever appeared in motion pictures.
It is no surprise to this writer that after showbiz and military service in World War II, Mr. Hoskins went on to a long career working with the disabled; his essential goodness and altruism was no act.
Exemplifying everything film buffs and Hal Roach studio fans adore about the series is the formidable Our Gang lineup together from 1930-1933. For this correspondent, indeed, Our Gang's peak was the early 1930's, smack dab in the middle of The Great Depression. Jackie Cooper was the star of the 1930-1931 cast, supported deftly and hilariously by Norman "Chubby" Chaney, Dorothy DeBorba and holdovers from the silent Our Gangs, Farina, Wheezer and Mary Ann Jackson.
The First Seven Years is a particularly good spotlight for Jackie Cooper and Mary Ann Jackson, along with ace supporting player Edgar "Slow Burn" Kennedy as Kennedy The Cop.
Cooper soon left for feature film stardom (Skippy, The Champ). Also leaving before the 1931-1932 season, Chubby, Farina and Mary Ann Jackson. Not to worry: the remaining cast would star in some of the series' best and most charming films.
For the 1931-1932 season, Kendall McComas (from the Mickey McGuire series) and Dickie Moore joined, with Dorothy, Stymie and Wheezer continuing as principal players.
Spanky McFarland also started in Our Gang in 1932 at the age of three and would quickly become a focal point of the series.
He would stay for ten seasons, well into the dreaded MGM-produced era of Our Gang. Spanky's first cameo is in Free Eats, a very funny Our Gang 2-reeler that serves as an excellent a vehicle for both Stymie Beard and the actors who played crooks masquerading as babies.
Stymie and Dickie Moore made such a wonderful comedy team in Free Wheeling that it was a darn shame Moore left the Gang for parts in feature films after one season.
That said, there were some real charmers featuring the later Our Gang cast: Spanky, Scotty Beckett, Alfalfa, Darla and Buckwheat.
The series was sold to MGM in 1938 and started off on the right foot with director Gordon Douglas, but lost its way sometime towards the end of the first season, as the 1930's ended.
Then, as the 1940's progressed, the series fell off a cliff like a character from a Saturday morning serial. Not retiring kids from the Gang at the age of 10 made for some very awkward results, as did the introduction of obnoxious adults and authority figures into a series that previously focused on the kids.
That's okay - before then, dozens of great Our Gang comedies had been produced, many of which would be staples of TV kidvid in the 1950's and early 1960's.
In a world rife with so much hurt and violence, we have nothing but love, respect and admiration for the laugh makers who made things better for moviegoers hit by the Great Depression 85 years ago - and for us watching DVDs now - or, better yet, going out to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum as this writer is today, to see the Gang ON FILM, with an audience!
For more info, read The Little Rascals: The Life And Times Of Our Gang by Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann.