Saturday, July 30, 2016
Today's post, reviewing George Cukor's 1939 adaptation of the hit Claire Boothe play skewering "Real Housewives Of Park Avenue", The Women, starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell, (note: spoilers start immediately) is Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog's contribution to the 2016 Joan Crawford Blogathon, hosted by Crystal of In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.
In a five decade career, Joan Crawford was a fascinating screen presence, especially once she had been doing talkies for a few years and had transitioned from perky Our Dancing Daughters ingenue to pre-Code "hot babe" to those hardworking and ambitious shopgirl parts to, eventually, the wide range of characters and genres she'd successfully tackle in her 1940's and 1950's films.
Throughout this review this movie will be described via clips of songs that, although not a single one had been recorded when The Women was released theatrically on September 1, 1939, nonetheless express the movie's essence. After all, this is not a movie blog but a "20th Century Pop Culture" blog - and proudly so!
The Women features no men in front of the camera - alas, Dorothy Arzner, who directed Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red was NOT behind the camera (the formidable George Cukor was) - but 135 actresses total, headlined by Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell, lead a super talented ensemble.
Here's George Cukor, both happy he got dismissed from directing Gone With The Wind and flanked by Florence Nash, Phyllis Povah, Russell, Crawford, Shearer, Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland and a very young Joan Fontaine.
Since The Women revolves around a bunch of largely unhappy Park Avenue housewives dealing with a deadly combo of boredom, a sense of powerlessness and either philandering or absentee spouses, this tune from a movie musical box office smash from 14 years later, says it all.
A topic central to The Women and related to "When Love Goes Wrong, Nothing Goes Right" is. . . well, let's not tell you, let's show you via the following two songs. First, let's hear Hank Williams Sr. in 1953.
The latter describes what both the women and the (offscreen) men in this movie do and have done to them. It is an equally great single recorded in 1968 at the mighty Stax/Volt Studios by r&b ace Johnnie Taylor.
While as much or more a product of its time than Gone With The Wind, the other massive box office hit produced in 1939 by MGM, The Women remains fascinating on many levels: a viciously funny screenplay, the consistently top-notch acting from the talented ensemble cast and the film's places in the celebrated movie careers of its stars, as well as director George Cukor.
Robert Osborne's introduction to the film on Turner Classic Movies touches upon much of this and then some.
The Women is a witty and at times raucous comedy about the wealthy Park Avenue set: quite the compendium of in-fighting, infidelity, Machiavellian intrigue and general skullduggery - with tea cakes served in between by the maid. Men are spoken of, but never seen or heard.
The back stabbing practically begins in the first frame. Indeed, a certain #1 hit recorded by The O'Jays four decades later sizes up these lethal ladies perfectly.
The tone is set immediately when Cukor gets his camera tracking in a beauty salon, catching a wide range of characters blithely trading vicious insults and snappy put-downs with the fervor of the crazed news reporters in another unbeatable classic movie filled with crackling dialogue and starring Roz Russell, His Girl Friday. The pervasive "all males, married or not, can't help themselves from being liars, cheaters and scumbags" theme also asserts itself throughout.
Norma Shearer had been a major star since her breakthrough role alongside 1920's heartthrob Ramon Novarro in The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg, the queen of the MGM lot for a decade and eventually Mrs. Irving Thalberg. By the time The Women was produced, she was winding down her very successful movie career. Along with Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer's competition for box-office laurels at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was Joan Crawford.
While the role of Sylvia Rogers is not the first major part in a movie for Rosalind Russell, it is, arguably, her coming-out party as a gifted screen comedienne and very likely the performance which specifically got that train a rollin' to her ultimate movie role as a gal we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog like a great deal, Auntie Mame.
In this writer's opinion, Norma Shearer has the most difficult part as the happily married Mary Haines who learns that Stephen, her hubby, is a philandering, lying prick.
The central dilemma, then as now, involving a marriage described as "one philanders, the other doesn't" is one summed up nicely by this rocker by The Clash.
The movie presents the case both for staying and going, clearly leaning towards the former - and at least, if the relationship can be saved, doing what The Beatles suggest in one of their hit records.
Now, back to the MGM Big Three divas, this reviewer strongly disagrees with writers who slam Shearer's performance in The Women. Her portrayal of Mary Haines is warm, genuine, just right for the movie and actually quite a bit less over-the-top than most of the other cast members. It is the reality that Shearer's character, unlike most of her Park Avenue pals, is likable, kind to her daughter and not mean-spirited in the least that makes the story work.
Norma's scenes with Virginia Weidler, the lesser known but remarkable young actress who plays her daughter (and soon to be outstanding in Cukor's The Philadelphia Story), are among the best in the movie. Expressing the loving relationship between the two and underscoring that Mary Haines is a good, attentive and conscientious mom, their sequences together are pivotal.
Crawford portrays clever, conniving, despicable, amoral and ever-avaricious perfume saleslady Crystal Allen, the evil doppelgänger of her previous plucky shopgirl characters in MGM movies, with more relish than Ford Sterling portraying a dastardly villain in a 1913 Keystone Comedy - but totally without the Mack Sennett Studio star's customary nudge nudge wink wink approach.
This scribe has heard the Crystal Allen character described, quite accurately, as reptilian and life-sucking succubus. Yes, it is apparent from the moment of her entrance as she browbeats her department store co-workers that Crystal Allen is trouble personified!
Gotta hand it to Crawford, frequently a better actress than given credit for, who rolls up her designer sleeves and delves headlong into that evil, inhabiting the character with skill and expressing her truth. Key to the Crystal Allen role is that she's less a killer than a show-off, an individual who clearly gets off on the act of demonstrating to others how evil she is and relishes watching reactions to her brazen "bad girl" antics. It is not necessarily about being naughty and bad, but always about making sure others see that she's naughty and bad.
The big boob we never see in The Women (since this movie post-dates strict enforcement of the Production Code and nudity's a no-no) is wealthy engineer Stephen Haines, who dumps his nice wife and marries the selfish, mean-spirited and abusive mistress. First on the poetic justice list in this movie is that Haines gets to live "I'm A Fool To Want You," the classic love-gone-terribly-wrong standard by The Chairman Of The Board, orchestrated by Gordon Jenkins, as well as learn exactly what "be careful what you wish for" means.
Those who saw Ab Fab The Movie when it opened last weekend and are aficionados of the John Cleese & Connie Booth TV show Fawlty Towers know that it's quite possible to derive big laughs from the thoroughly reprehensible behavior of totally unsympathetic characters.
In The Women, just such a wretched sort, the role of Sylvia Fowler, is played to the hilt by Rosalind Russell. It turned out to be a star-making turn. Watch Roz' loathsome character insult everyone within earshot here - it's white-hot comedy brilliance!
Collaborating with a dirt dishin' gossip-obsessed manicurist, Russell's character drives the storyline and the lives of her would-be "pals" over a cliff. In this scene, the vicious gossip meets Crystal Allen. Mrs. Rogers derives pleasure from harming others via the spreading of gossip the same way Ms. Allen gets off big time by showing off how bad and naughty she is to others.
Some of the funniest scenes in the movies feature Crawford and Russell together, in a truly symbiotic and twisted relationship. The two actresses play off each other beautifully.
The dynamic recalls a lizard the riding on the back of a toad who possesses a poisonous and instantly lethal sting.
It turns out to be the horrid Sylvia's complete and utter inability to keep any secret that proves to be Crystal's undoing, once the terror of the Black's 5th Avenue perfume counter marries Mary Haines' rich but hapless former hubby and commences cheating on him either 150 days before or 150 seconds after saying "I do." Immediately, Crystal cheats with the country western singer married to the Countess (played by Mary Boland) on the inaccurate assumption that the Jimmie Rodgers wannabee possesses a fortune worth many millions. After all, Crystal's all about money and power.
Also unusual in this movie is that there are two misbehaving Park Avenue Playgirl philanderers among The Women and only one is actually unsympathetic. There are two Hoochie Coochie Gals here - one portrayed by Joan Crawford, the other by Paulette Goddard, still beloved for her essential contribution to Charlie Chaplin's wonderful 1936 film Modern Times.
The difference? The former, Crystal Allen, is slimy, unethical and cruel, the latter, Miriam Arons, isn't. In addition, there is some poetic justice to Miriam's lusty character messing around with the husband of awful Sylvia, from the miserable Mr. and Mrs. Howard Fowler, a couple that very likely had even less affectionate physical contact and sex than Basil and Sybil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers.
The key is not that Crystal Allen is a philanderer and home wrecker, it's that she's mean. If Crystal Allen was a man, she'd be a dishonest and unscrupulous businessperson - and also cheating on his wife with both mistresses and prostitutes.
Mess with these two chain-smoking Hoochie Coochie Gals at your peril - but put your trust in Miriam Arons, at least a kind, decent and honorable serial philanderer, who might actually have the good sense to fall in love with and marry another player, then make a go of the relationship.
Crawford herself would revisit some of this territory in an entirely different part in an entirely different but also wonderful movie, When Ladies Meet. As far as topics of the political-economic power of women, the myriad problems in coupling, cohabitation and relationships, why men and women (straight and gay) choose to cheat even more than Chico Marx did, well, many have tried to address these difficult topics in the many decades since The Women. . . and very, very few have succeeded.
The ads in 1939 say "it's all about men" but it's actually about the political power, social status and roles of women in society - and who's got the power.
There is a dark context throughout the film regarding a quiet tragedy of wasted lives, partly due to societal orthodoxy and marriage mores in 1939 and especially less opportunities for women. No doubt Joan Crawford herself would have been happier in business than she ever was as a movie actress. Joan Crawford's all-time favorite role very likely was as international spokeswoman for Pepsi-Cola and member of its Board Of Directors.
Kudos, bravos and huzzahs to Joan Crawford and all those who made The Women an amazing movie that holds up to multiple viewings. Thanks to Crystal Kalyana Pacey for organizing the Joan Crawford Blogathon and thanks to all the participating writers as well.
Thursday, July 28, 2016
We love giant thunder lizard movies at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog and there will be a double dose of it at Godzilla Night 5 at San Leandro's Historic Bal Theatre.
Bay Area Film Events, longtime friends of the KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival, with Curtain Call Performing Arts shall present a monster double bill of Godzilla 2000 and Mothra!
There will be special guests, vendors, artists, Godzilla related prizes, monsters roaming the theater and a raffle for autographed photos of Haruo Nakajima, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kenji Sahara, Tsutomu Kitagawa and Shinichi Wakasa. Special guest from Sony Pictures, Michael Schlesinger, producer of the English language theatrical distribution of Godzilla 2000, will discuss the acquisition, dubbing and theatrical release of the film.
Sounds like a blast and big screen fun! Doors open at 6pm and showtime is 7pm. The Historic Bal Theatre is at 14808 E. 14th Avenue, San Leandro, CA.
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog will get a little less lazy later this week and contribute to the 2016 Joan Crawford Blogathon, hosted by Crystal of In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.
While this is very likely the last blogathon we shall participate in this year, Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog much looks forward to reviewing The Women, director George Cukor's and screenwriters Anita Loos' and Jane Murfin's vehicle for big budget MGM splendor and a slew of iconic movie stars and character actresses - led by a strong performance by Crawford.
While the tendency among pop culture vultures has, unfortunately, been to sink deeply and inexorably in the quicksand of Joan's often fabricated offscreen legend rather than enjoy her onscreen work, it's clear looking over her career - from those first appearances in silent movies to her last roles in 1960's TV shows and William Castle films - that Miss Crawford was a fascinating onscreen presence in many ways, as well as the hardest working gal in showbiz.
If an NFL running back, she would surprise everyone (and the coaches) by catching a pass and/or cutting sideways, although her style is to power straight ahead and hit the line hard, fullback-style. More often that not, while imposing and larger-than-life in big screen glory, she's less over-the-top rather than more so and, especially in her film noir period, lets her co-stars have the spotlight.
Here's the lineup of contributors to the Joan Crawford Blogathon. Does Joan Crawford have her fans? Uh. . . yeah, I think so.
Apocalypse Later: Letty Lynton
B Noir Detour: Joan Crawford and Film Noir
Back To Golden Days: Dancing Lady
Christina Wehner: The Unknown
The Cinema Penitentiary Diaries: The Best Of Everything
The Cinematic Catharsis: Strait Jacket
The Cinematic Frontier: Mildred Pierce
Classic Film: Flickers Of Silver and Gold: I Live My Life
Critica Retro: Letty Lynton
Defiant Success: A Woman’s Face
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Prince Of Hollywood: Our Modern Maidens
Film Grimoire: Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?
Finding Franchot: The Bride Wore Red
The Flapper Dame: Daisy Kenyon
The Hitless Wonder Movie Blog: Tramp, Tramp, Tramp
Karavansara: Strange Cargo
LA Explorer: Forsaking All Others
Lauren Champkin: Dance Fools Dance
Le Cinema Dreams: Berserk
Leave It To Beaverhausen: Female On The Beach
Little Bits Of Classics: Tramp Tramp Tramp
Meredy.com: Sudden Fear
MIB’S Instant Headache: Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?
The Midnight Drive-In: Reunion In France
Movie Classics: The Damned Don't Cry
Movie Rob: Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, The Bride Wore Red and The Story Of Esther Costello
Old Hollywood Films: Mannequin
Once Upon A Screen: Possessed
Phyllis Loves Classic Movies: Joan Crawford’s clothes closet
Portraits By Jenni: Above Suspicion
Recap Retro: Joan Crawford in Night Gallery
Shadows And Satin: Dance Fools Dance
A Shroud Of Thoughts: Strait Jacket
Silver Screen Modes: Joan Crawford and Adrian
Silver Screenings: Reunion In France - Starring Joan Crawford As France
Speak Easy: The Queen Bee
Stars and Letters: Joan Crawford and Bette Davis
The Stop Button: Love On The Run
Taking Up Room: Grand Hotel and Mildred Pierce
Wolffian Classic Movies Digest: Humoresque
The Wonderful World Of Cinema: Autumn Leaves
Friday, July 22, 2016
There shall be great classic comedy in NYC on the big screen at MoMA all weekend. Kudos, bravos and tips of the Max Linder top hat go to Dave Kehr, Steve Massa, Ben Model, Rob Stone of The Library of Congress (and writer of Laurel Or Hardy: The Years Before The Teaming) and Hal Roach Studios expert Richard W. Bann for their roles in Seriously Funny: The Films of Leo McCarey , which started last weekend and extends through the end of the month.
For screen comedy geeks, just a few highlights from this weekend's programs: Friday night and Saturday afternoon show is the Roach Sound Shorts Program, starring several of our favorites at Way Too Down Lazy To Write A Blog: Charley Chase, Edgar Kennedy and Thelma Todd. The Saturday afternoon show presents Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth.
The Saturday night show pays tribute to Laurel & Hardy and Sunday's program spotlights the very funny comedian Max Davidson.
Saturday night's Laurel and Hardy Tribute and Sunday's retrospective of Max Davidson comedies will be introduced by Rob Stone of The Library of Congress.
From the MoMa press release:
"McCarey had been promoted to director-general of the Roach organization in 1926 and supervised everything on the films — story, gags, screening the rushes, editing, and shooting retakes. Although he left the studio in 1929, he was on hand to start their transition to the new sound medium and left them with a number of scripts for their first talkie efforts. These extraordinary rarities, which represent McCarey’s last work for Roach, come to us through the courtesy of Roach historian Richard Bann, who will introduce both screenings."
Friday, July 22 at 7:00 p.m.
Roach Sound Shorts Program - approx. 80 min.
The Big Squawk. 1929. USA. Directed by Warren Doane
Madame Q. 1929. USA. Directed by Hal Roach, Leo McCarey
Snappy Sneezer. 1929. USA. Directed by Warren Doane
Dad’s Day. 1929. USA. Directed by Hal Roach
Saturday, July 23, 7:00 p.m.
Laurel & Hardy Program - approx. 80 minutes
From Soup to Nuts. 1928. USA. Directed by E. Livingston Kennedy
Wrong Again. 1929. USA. Directed by Leo McCarey
Liberty. 1929. USA. Directed by Leo McCarey
Two Tars. 1928. USA. Directed by James Parrott
Sunday, July 24 at 5:00 p.m.
Max Davidson Program - 5:00 p.m.
Program approx. 80 min.
Jewish Prudence. 1927. USA. Directed by Leo McCarey
Don’t Tell Everything. 1927. USA. Directed by Leo McCarey
Should Second Husbands Come First? 1927. USA. Directed by Leo McCarey
Pass the Gravy. 1928. USA. Directed by Fred Guiol
For more, see the MoMA website and its descriptions of the Seriously Funny: The Films of Leo McCarey series.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
Earlier today, started writing this post to raise our champagne flutes both to France and the early innovators of cinema in celebration of Bastille Day. This day in 2016 has turned out to be a crushingly sad one for France and the world - yet again - giving us all the more reason to raise that toast to the innovators who invented cinema and our friends and film historian counterparts there.
When it comes to filmmaking, the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, sons of prominent portrait painter Antoine Lumière, were responsible for many early innovations in the field of photography and in the development of the movie cameras.
From the section on the Lumière brothers from the comprehensive and splendid Early Cinema.com website:
By early 1895, the brothers had invented their own device combining camera with printer and projector and called it the Cinématographe. Patenting it on February 13th 1895, the Cinématographe was much smaller than Edison’s Kinetograph, was lightweight (around five kilograms), and was hand cranked. The Lumières used a film speed of 16 frames per second, much slower compared with Edison’s 48 fps - this meant that less film was used an also the clatter and grinding associated with Edison’s device was reduced.
In 1895, the Lumières would be doing public screenings using the Cinématographe to project their films featuring scenes from everyday life.
These scenes being an immediate hit with audiences, they augmented them with film of dancers and other performers. Many of these Lumière Brothers productions - and films made not long afterwards by Georges Méliès - can be seen on the DVD The Movies Begin.
The Lumières would very soon be followed by producer, director and Solax Studios founder Alice Guy Blaché. When it comes to filmmaking outside of the "trick film" exemplified at the turn of the 20th century by Melies and his editor Ferdinand Zecca and (slightly later) Segundo de Chomón, it was Solax Studios founder Alice Guy Blaché (1873-1968) who got there first.
Blaché, the cinema's first mogul, is arguably the best known of the female producer-directors who blazed trails in the beginning. She beat everyone else, including Edwin S. Porter, D.W. Griffith and Allan Dwan, to the punch, experimented with color technology, made sound films and also was a mentor to Lois Weber.
It would be an understatement to suggest that the pioneering producer-director wasted no time mastering the new technology.
Alice Guy Blaché was hands-on with the new and innovative motion picture camera technology in Paris and would be making short films for Gaumont as early as 1896-1897.
By the time the first great screen comedian, Max Linder, had become a frequent movie headliner in 1906-1907, Alice Guy Blaché had made hundreds of films. Comedy buffs will note that Alice Guy Blaché is tremendously important to the history of screen humor as both the first comedy filmmaker and the first to film the famous "mirror gag". It's in her 1912 Solax film His Double, which can be seen here, on historian Anthony Balducci's website.
The inventive Ms. Blaché also originated this classic comedy bit for her 1906 film The Drunken Mattress.
Although long overdue recognition, respect and acclaim may not have come in her long lifetime, her contributions to filmmaking were recognized in 1953 when she was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government.
A comprehensive Alice Guy Blaché, Film Pioneer exhibition did hold forth (and wowed audiences) at the Whitney Museum Of American Art in November 2009 - January 2010.
Saw the following film, Falling Leaves, at the 2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival and found it touching, beautifully filmed and very advanced for 1912.
There will be more clips in Be Natural, a documentary on the life and films of Alice Guy Blaché, currently in production.
UPDATE 2 Seeing Alice's Films A Fool and His Money (1912) from Be Natural on Vimeo.
UPDATE 43 The Intern & The Ocean Waif from Be Natural on Vimeo.
Thanks to Dr. Jane Gaines, Professor Of Film at Columbia University and students from both Columbia University Libraries/Information Services' School Of The Arts and Barnard College have created the The Women Film Pioneers Project website to shine the klieg lights on the largely untold story of Alice and other pioneering women filmmakers.
While he may have not been the first comic to make a movie, the dapper Parisian boulevardier was the first movie comedian to headline a continuing series: the great Max Linder (1882-1925), the man in the silk hat.
Author Trav S.D. elaborated on the influence of Linder's comedy on Keystone and beyond in his piece For Bastille Day: How the French Invented Film Comedy, excerpted from his book Chain Of Fools: Silent Comedy And Its Legacies, From Nickelodeons To YouTube.
Max would be an enormous influence on Mack Sennett (see the "Mack as Max" Biograph short subject The Curtain Pole) as well as Charlie Chaplin.
Here are some clips from Max' pre-1910 films, transferred from the 9.5mm format by Unknown Video.
The Kino Lorber compilation of Max Linder films for the Slapstick Symposium series, which includes his later films, is something we at Way Too Damn Mazy To Write A Blog recommend highly - on Bastille Day or any day.
We close with a charming cartoon made about dogs, fleas and Paris for MGM by Tex Avery, followed by two renditions of La Marseillaise (the first from Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog favorite Casablanca).
Tex Avery - The flea circus - Video Dailymotion... by cartoonworld4all
Sunday, July 10, 2016
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.