BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE OUR GANG COLLECTION

By • Sep 13th, 2009 •

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Growing up, a welcome, daily, late afternoon treat was turning on WPIX-11 and soaking in “Our Gang”. These were great, 20 minute-mini-movies featuring the silly, off-the-wall adventures of a group of pre World War II kids including Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat and Porky. After becoming a long-time follower of Our Gang, and like many kids, memorizing characters and dialog by heart, I learned these films were made during three eras – the silent years, the great depression, (both by comedy producer Hal Roach) and at MGM studios during World War II. Warner Brothers, through their wonderful mail-order-only catalog, “The Warner Brothers Archives” have released (for the first time ever on DVD) a five disc set of all the 52 MGM produced “Our Gang” shorts.

Producer Hal Roach bought silent comics Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy together, thus gracing film comedy with some of its most golden moments. In 1922, Roach was watching neighborhood kids play in a vacant lot across from his studio. He decided to start making a series of shorts featuring kids being themselves, inventing things out of found trash, putting on no-budget stage productions, and upsetting the organized adult world as best they could. The “Our Gang” shorts became a big silent-era hit, often directed by former fireman Robert F. McGowan.

Like Laurel & Hardy, “Our Gang” made a smooth transition into talkies (Their first talkie short was SMALL TALK released in May, 1929.) Roach replaced some of the gang with young talent that could deliver comic dialog, much of it championing mispronunciations. Many of the “Our Gang” early talkies are compact masterworks, short films made with heart and comic genius. They depicted depression era kids coping with squalid conditions, crossing paths with occasional criminals, or even worse, the by-the-book cop or dog-catcher. In FLY MY KITE (1931), the gang defends a kindly neighborhood old lady, who reads ghost stories to them and play wrestles with them. They practically roast her greedy, thieving heir on a telephone pole! In FREE WHEELIN’ (1932) the gang creates a rickety, mule-driven taxi out of trash to drum up extra cash and provide a poor neighborhood rich boy with excitement.

A running theme of the depression era in the “Our Gang” shorts is the lack of cash, and the comic-nightmares the kids endure to scrape up a whole dollar! In SPANKY (1932), Spanky, a three year old child living with his parents and older brother delights in smashing bugs infesting his poverty-ravished home. His brother and the neighborhood kids are putting on a rag-tag stage presentation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. (The Hal Roach Our Gang shorts really dive head first into being un-PC!) Spanky’s constantly cranky, working class father (comic great Billy Gilbert) is hording much-needed inherited money. Spanky discovers the money while bug-hunting, (with a hammer and attitude!) and starts tossing the cash out the window. Gilbert races in, gathers the money (with the help of his children and the gang) and promises to use the money to help his family. Like Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, Hal Roach uses his tales of growing up poor to teach valuable life lessons.

SPANKY, of course is the debut film of then four-year old George “Spanky” MacFarland. A cherubic comedy genius of single digit age, Spanky learned the art of double-takes and comic delivery from Stan Laurel, with whom he shared the same boss, Mr. Roach. Around 1934, two reel shorts were being pushed out of the film industry by almost-feature-length B-movies. Roach tried without success to do an “Our Gang” feature, GENERAL SPANKY (1936). Roach’s friend, Louis B. Meyer, the head of MGM studios, persuaded Roach to continue making “Our Gang” shorts. This time they proved to be a money-losing venture for Roach, so on May 31, 1938, he sold the “Our Gang” franchise to Mayer for $25,000.

The”Our Gang” shorts produced at MGM, and available in this DVD set, feature most of the gang members that graced the Hal Roach shorts. The MGM shorts tossed out the poverty-ravished settings and placed the kids in upper middle class homes. Gone also is the wild edginess the Roach shorts had. The shorts gained production value, and became more family-friendly. The five discs here present the MGM’s in chronological order. On disc one is the first of them, THE LITTLE RANGER (1938). It’s an inventive comic fantasy with a great pace. “Our Gang” member, Alfalfa (Carl Switzer) with his weird cow-lick haircut, is at the movies with his buddies, watching a musical western. Alfalfa daydreams he is the on-screen singing cowboy (Oh, my poor ears! A great running Alfalfa gag is this kids ill-fated belief that he can sing.) In this fantasy-western, Alfalfa saves his lovely sweetheart Darla (Darla Hood, who can really carry a tune!) from the clutches of Butch. Tommy Bond always played Butch, the neighborhood bully. Bond played Butch as a monster who you know has a nice-friendly side, ready to come out.

Another early MGM short, ALFALFA’S AUNT (1938) features Alfalfa, Spanky, and other members of the gang, like Porky, an always-confused looking pre-schooler, and the wish-cracking African American Buckwheat. They all believe Alfalfa’s crazy, wanna-be artist aunt is a loony murderer. In its direction and photography, ALFALFA’S AUNT is a playful mockery of horror films (MGM 1930’s horror films tanked at the box office. Maybe this was Meyer having some fun.) Screenplays for the MGM “Our Gang” shorts were getting worse as the years progressed. These resulting shorts were often saved by expert direction. Gordon Douglas, who later directed the sci-fi masterwork, THEM (1954) and THEY CALL ME MISTER TIBBS (1970), helmed a number of these (he started working with Roach on early “Our Gang” shorts). Future musical comedy director Gorge Sidney (BYE-BYE BIRDIE and VIVA LAS VEGAS) directed a number of them, as did Edward Kahn. Kahn started out as a film editor (THE MAN WHO LAUGHS and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT) and later became a director of drive-in horror treats such as THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE and INVISIBLE INVADERS. Cy Enfield, who directed ZULU in 1964, with Michael Caine, also got his start on MGM “Our Gang” shorts.

As the war years came on, the “Our Gang” shorts were truly losing steam. Spanky was already a teenager, his charm waning. The material was just re-hashings of old Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, and previous “Our Gang” routines. New “Our Gang” members didn’t help. Robert “Bobby” Blake joined the cast but had nothing to do except stand there waiting for the phone call for IN COLD BLOOD. Even worse was the addition of Billy “Froggy” Laughlin. “Froggy” was never really given anything to do except speak in his strange, deep froggy voice. For a second or two, yes, it’s amusing. But constantly in almost 50 short films, no! Spanky left the gang in 1943. This set takes us to the following year.

On the back of the box is a warning – “The Our Gang Collection is intended for the Adult Collector and is not suitable for Children.” Why? Is it because the kids here are taking part in games, and activities that modern-era over-protective parents would shriek at?! In SURPRISED PARTIES (1942) Spanky and the gang, without the help of an adult, arrange a surprise party for Froggy, complete with food preparation and party favors. (A catcher’s helmet plays most important in roasting a chicken here!) Despite lackluster writing and some mediocre on-screen talent, these MGM shorts are a warm testimony to the days when it was okay to drink from a garden hose, or challenge the neighbor-hood bully to a boxing match.

Sadly, most of the “Our Gang” kids experienced troubled adult lives. Darla Hood (Who at 11 years old in DOIN’ THEIR BIT here, puts over a great tune.), died at age 47. Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, died of a gunshot wound at age 31. (He did make appearances in Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and Stanley Kramer’s THE DEFIANT ONES) “Froggy” McLaughlin died at age 16 in a cycling accident. Most of the gang, like George “Spanky” McFarland, and Matthew “Stymie” Beard only made it into their 60’s. The exceptions were Jackie Cooper, who appeared in the early Hal Roach talkies, and made film appearances into the 1980’s. He’s Clark Kent’s editor, Mr. White in the 1978 SUPERMAN. Tommy Bond, who always turned in a great performance as Butch, made it to a ripe old age. His 1993 auto-biography is of course entitled “You’re Darn Right It’s Butch!” When asked about the ongoing popularity of “Our Gang” shorts in the 1970’s (and to the present day) Darla Hood recalled: “I felt I let my many fans down by not remaining a child. They’d be waiting to meet me, and yet I could see their faces fall when I walked into the room. What do you say to somebody whose fantasy has just been disturbed?”

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3 Responses »

  1. Great piece! I love the Our Gang (“THE KID FROM BORNEO” is still the best of the series!)
    and try towatch them as much as possible. Keep em coming!!!!

  2. I suspect the “adults only” disclaimer has to do with the racial stereotypes that unfortunately were a sign of the times in which these films were made. And while Froggy only did 29 shorts, it’s still several too many. This was a good read; thanks!

  3. Please pardon the interruption–

    😉

    But I thought that some of you might enjoy my article on another MGM release, and a Hal Roach production, BABES IN TOYLAND (MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS), over at THE VILLAGE VOICE:

    http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2009/12/march_of_the_wo.php

    Happy Holidays!

    Jim Burns (James H. Burns)

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