Sunday, August 25, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #52, "Our Gang Festival" (1930-1937)

Aspiring tenor Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer is front and center in Our Gang Follies of 1938.

The dream team: Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Darla, and Spanky.
NOTE: This program consists of three episodes from producer Hal Roach's legendary Our Gang kiddie comedy series, which lasted from 1922 to 1944, spanning the transition from silent to sound, eventually amassing 220 short films (plus 1936's feature-length General Spanky) and featuring over 41 child actors. The series was produced by Roach's own studio until 1938, when financially-struggling Hal sold the rights to MGM Studios. Though the MGM shorts were not as well-received as the Roach films had been, the series continued for another six years in its new home. 
Roughly a decade later, the Our Gang comedies had an incredible second life when they were redubbed The Little Rascals and sold to television as a syndicated series in 1955. It is through this TV incarnation that most people are familiar with the series today. Since Our Gang centered around young children, the lineup naturally changed over the years as certain actors outgrew their roles. The lineup people remember -- Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Buckwheat, etc. -- coalesced during the last few years of Hal Roach's stewardship of the series and was carried over to MGM for its final run. In fact, the MGM era was criticized for keeping the same cast members for too long and following them into their teen years. The shorts here are all from the Roach era, but only the first features the famous lineup.


The first flick: Our Gang Follies of 1938 (Hal Roach Studios, 1937) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.8

Director: Gordon Douglas (Niagara Falls)

Series regulars (and their tenures): George "Spanky" McFarland (1932-1942), Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer (1935-1940), Darla Hood (1936-1941), Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas (1934-1944), Eugene "Porky" Lee (1935-1939), Darwood "Waldo" Kaye (1937-1940)

Other actors of note: Doodles Weaver (comedian, daytime TV host, member of Spike Jones' band in the 1940s; appeared in Hitchcock's The Birds, plus The Nutty Professor, Topper, and many more films; uncle of Sigourney), Annie Ross (legendary jazz singer, both solo and with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross; acted in Short Cuts, Superman III; still alive at age 83), Henry Brandon (The Searchers, The Ten Commandments, Assault on Precinct 13, much more), Dickie Jones (voiced the title character in Disney's Pinocchio)

Alfalfa's disastrous operatic debut.
The gist of it: Spanky stages an elaborate, heavily-advertised musical extravaganza, the Follies, in his makeshift basement theater, and all the neighborhood kids arrive to watch it. Though Buckwheat, Darla, and others participate in the show, the star attraction is clearly crooner Alfalfa, for whom all the girls swoon. But Alfalfa disappoints the crowd by attempting to sing opera, specifically an aria from The Barber of Seville. The crowd starts booing, and Spanky quickly closes the curtain.

Alfalfa explains that his voice is too good for mere crooning, and he haughtily leaves the theater, accompanied by sidekick Porky, to audition at the local opera house. There, impresario Barnaby (Brandon) humors the lad by signing him to a "contract" that will take effect in 20 years. Alfalfa returns to the Follies to brag about his success to Spanky, who remains unimpressed and tells him that the real money's in crooning.

Nonplussed, Alfalfa falls asleep in an easy chair and has a nightmare of his future in which he completely flops as an opera singer while Spanky has grown up to be the successful owner of a club that features plenty of swing music and crooning... but no opera. Impressed by the money Spanky, Darla, and Buckwheat have made, Alfalfa tries to switch back to his old style. But Barnaby cruelly holds him to the contract and forces him to sing his opera music on the street while begging for spare change.

The dream ends, and Alfalfa wakes up. Snapping back to reality, he immediately tears up the contract and reverts to his old crooning ways.

Tommy Bond as "Owl Jolson."
My take: Like many of you, I can remember watching The Little Rascals on television as a kid, and for whatever reason, this was one of the shorts that really stayed with me over the decades.

Mainly, I was both fascinated and a little horrified by Alfalfa's dream, in which he is twenty years older but still (of course) looks like a child as he makes his operatic debut in front of a merciless audience made up of other "adults" eerily played by other children. Alfalfa's entire act consists of howling the words "I'm the barber of Seville! Figaro! Figaro!" in a pinched, nasal voice again and again as he maniacally sweeps his razor back and forth across a leather strop attached to a barber chair.

The audience boos and throws vegetables and tomatoes at him, but Alfalfa does not cease his demented performance. He is frightened and confused by the crowd's hostile reaction, and his face and voice register his increasing panic. But the one line is all he knows, so he keeps repeating it, not so much like a mantra but like an incantation he hopes will protect him. His humiliation seems uncomfortably genuine. (Perhaps it was.) Later, reduced to a whimpering beggar on the street, he keeps repeating the same line as the glowering Barnaby forces him to perform for passersby on a snowy New York night. No wonder this pathetic vision of his future -- one nearly as bleak as the real-life fate of Carl Switzer -- causes him to reconsider his musical style. You can see how a thing like this might have haunted me.

The contrast between crooning and "serious" music reminded me a lot of the 1936 Warner Brothers cartoon I Love to Singa. Not coincidentally, that cartoon's main character, Owl Jolson (whose problem is the exact opposite of Alfalfa's), was voiced by Tommy Bond who played "Butch" in the Our Gang series.

Even more profoundly, Alfalfa's pretensions toward artistry at the expense of entertainment put me in mind of Preston Sturges' 1941 masterpiece, Sullivan's Travels. Joel McCrea's character suffers mightily for his abandonment of comedy in that film; at least Alfalfa's punishment is only doled out in dreamland here.

For the most part, Our Gang Follies of 1938 is an elaborate fantasy musical with small children mimicking the behavior of adults in lengthy production numbers like "The Love Bug'll Get You (If You Don't Watch Out)." It's right on the border between "cute" and "creepy," and starts to tip over to the latter category as the short wears on.

For me, a particular musical highlight was a jazzy version of "Loch Lomond" sung by an immediately recognizable (though pint-sized) Annie Ross. Ms. Ross would later go on to play the unfortunate woman turned into a Medusa-like semi-cyborg in Superman III, so she's been in at least two movies that gave me nightmares. Good for her.

Is it funny: Yes, frequently, though some of the musical numbers are not particularly comedic and do drag on a bit. The film's best source of comedy is the interaction between pragmatic, straight-shooting Spanky (whose talents gave a boost to Peck's Bad Boy with the Circus) and egocentric, delusional Alfalfa. Their inimitable dynamic provides most of the laughs here. I also liked it when Alfalfa flew through the air in a perfect arc as he was rudely ejected from the theater. (How nice of Porky to stick with him even during the worst of times.) Elsewhere, the fantasy sequence at Club Spanky provides one of the movie's better dialogue jokes, as Darla repeatedly uses the phrase "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to describe the success she and the other gang members have been enjoying thanks to their avoidance of opera.

My grade: A-

P.S. - Buckwheat, thankfully, is not presented in a stereotypical or demeaning way. He's just another one of the gang, leading the band at the Follies and dancing in a white tux at Club Spanky. One might question the appearance of a subservient black doorman at Spanky's nightery, but his appearance is brief. The only real troubling moment, racially speaking, is a chorus line of African-American boys and girls dressed as maids and chauffeurs. They're so young, and they're being conditioned to accept a servile role in society. To paraphrase Monty Python, isn't it a little early to be imposing ethnic stereotypes upon them?

~~~

Sorry, Alice Cooper, but the Little Rascals got there first. Note the Crane Sisters under the word "School's."

The second flick:  School's Out (Hal Roach Studios, 1930) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.8

Director: Robert F. McGowan (one of Hal Roach's top directors through the 1920s and early '30s; worked on Our Gang shorts for about a decade)

Series regulars: Jackie Cooper (1929-1931), Norman "Chubby" Chaney (1929-1931), Allen "Farina" Hoskins (1922-1933), Mary Ann Jackson (1928-1931), Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins (1927-1933), Matthew "Stymie" Beard (1930-1937), June "Miss Crabtree" Marlowe (1930-1932), Bobby "Bonedust" Young (1925-1931)

Other actors of note: Creighton Hale (Casablanca, Sunset Blvd, The Maltese Falcon, much more), Betty Mae & Beverly Crane (tap-dancing twin sisters who appeared in many 1930s Hal Roach shorts, usually reciting the opening credits)

School's Out publicity shot.
The gist of it: Lovestruck Jackie doesn't want to lose pretty Miss Crabtree as a teacher during summer vacation, so he and the other gang members (including Chubby, Mary Ann, and Farina) conspire to keep her from ever getting married. When her brother Jack (Hale) shows up at the schoolhouse, they mistake him for a suitor and try to scare him away with ridiculous lies about their beloved schoolmarm, including claims that she has a wooden leg and has been married multiple times. Later, when Jack goes swimming in a nearby lake, the gang steal his clothes. Meanwhile, back at the school, "Bonedust" Bobby has sold flagrantly incorrect answers cribbed from a minstrel show joke book to his classmates, incurring Miss Crabtree's wrath when she quizzes her students and gets punchlines as responses. In a minor subplot, junior Gang members (including Stymie and Wheezer) steal food from the older children's lunches.

Real-life 1930s schoolkids: note their non-freakishness.
My take: Every once in awhile, a cultural critic will complain about the non-sequitur "randomness" of much of today's comedy. I'd recommend that these naysayers spend some time studying the comic strips, cartoons, novelty records, and short comedic films of the 1920s and 1930s. What they'll find is a treasury of surrealism and nonsense. School's Out is a perfect example.

The arbitrary, mix-and-match weirdness of this short film simply does not abate, and it all starts with the baffling title sequence. Seeming for all the world like precursors to the Grady twins from The Shining, the Crane sisters walk out in front of a curtain and stiffly recite the opening credits in a vacantly-cheerful monotone as if someone just offstage is forcing them to do this at gunpoint. Who are these girls? Where is this place? Why is this happening?

Then, the story actually gets underway, and the mystery deepens. The pacing of the action and dialogue is off-kilter, with disorienting cutaways, unexpected pauses, and just downright odd reaction shots that give School's Out the feel of a David Lynch film. Granted, this was relatively early in the series' reportedly "rocky" transition to sound, but even that does not explain away all the weirdness, specifically in the dress and demeanor of its child stars.

The children seem to live in a rural, lower-middle-class milieu, but they dress in the dandified manner of Little Lord Fauntleroy. The group's apparent leader, Jackie Cooper, brings an unexpected intensity to his line readings, furrowing his brow the way he would as an adult actor. "Chubby" Chaney, whose stout physique was the result of a glandular disorder that would drastically shorten his life, talks and moves like a grouchy, exhausted middle-aged man, frowning as he tells the gang how his father beat him with a leather strap. ("Fluently," he adds, in one of the movie's oddest punchlines.)

The androgynous Farina, the clear precursor to Buckwheat with his unlikely cereal-inspired name, wears a clown-like costume and affects a dreamy, detached manner. Leering, scheming Bobby aka "Bonedust" is an unwholesome sort, and the frequent cutaways to him during the classroom sequence give the viewer a queasy feeling. And Wheezer... well, I can't explain Wheezer other than to say that he always looks like he's staring directly into the sun.

Does the peculiarity end with the children? It does not. Jack looks and acts like a life-sized ventriloquist's dummy, and his schoolteacher sister is entirely too flirtatious with her very young students. In sharp contrast to the slick Our Gang Follies of 1938, which has a linear, sensible, cause-and-effect story, School's Out has a loose, stream-of-consciousness quality to it and a very vague timeline. Watching the film sort of replicates the experience of hovering between sleep and wakefulness.

Badass Mary Ann Jackson
Is it funny: Um.... I guess so? It's hard to tell. I laughed while watching School's Out, but was I laughing at the jokes or out of sheer disbelief at what I was seeing and hearing? Perhaps a little of both. To my mind, the best and funniest of the child performers (by a mile) is one Mary Ann Jackson, who was the female lead in the series at the time and a far, far cry from the demure, winsome Darla Hood of the later years. Tomboyish, freckle-faced Mary Ann is the anti-Darla.

As tough as the boys and insistent upon being treated as their equal, this tiny proto-feminist is a precursor to Tatum O'Neal's Addie Pray from Paper Moon as well as monster-hating Kassie Cucchiella, the notorious "kick his ask" girl of YouTube fame. Jackson was one of the rare Our Gangers (Our Gangsters?) to have previous acting experience. (Hal Roach preferred untrained amateurs who would behave more naturally on camera, quite an innovation at the time.) From 1926 to 1928, Jackson appeared as Bubbles Smith in a series of domestic comedies for producer Mack Sennett, with Mill Creek favorite Billy Gilbert playing her father.

In School's Out, Mary Ann has the film's absolute funniest scene opposite smarmy Creighton Hale, who keeps trying to put his arm around her. Not one to be condescended to or sweet-talked, she keeps pushing his arm away -- not violently, but purposefully. It's a scene I think would elicit cheers from modern-day audiences.

My grade: B, maybe? I don't really know what to say for this one.

P.S. - While Stymie is treated as an equal to the "junior" gang members, Farina does not fare so well. One of his first jokes has to do with eating watermelon, so he doesn't get off to a great start here. He speaks in a laconic, lazy drawl and seems to have no regard for traditional morals or values. His mother -- or "mammy" as he calls her -- has been married three times. His "pappy" is in jail. And he plans to avoid marriage altogether... and raise his children to do likewise. So, uh, maybe not a great role model for black youth. The inclusion of the "blackface and minstrel show" joke book seems gratuitous, but it's no cause for alarm. The jokes are the typical cornball gags that might appear anywhere -- placemats, popsicle sticks, etc. -- and are not of a racial nature. Example: what was Abe Lincoln's mother's name? Mrs. Lincoln, naturally!

~~~

If Davy Crockett can kill a bear at the age of three, then why not the Our Gang kids?

The third flick: Bear Shooters (Hal Roach Studios, 1930) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.8

Director: Robert F. McGowan (see above)

Charles Gemora, gorilla man.
Series regulars: Jackie, Mary Ann, Chubby, Farina, and Wheezer (see above), plus Pete the Pup (various dogs used throughout the series; this one also played Tige in the Buster Brown series)

Other actors of note: Leon Janney (Charley, The Wind), Fay Holderness (W.C. Fields' The Bank Dick, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Pride of the Yankees), Charles Gemora (one of Hollywood's busiest and most celebrated gorilla performers as well as a prolific make-up artist; acting roles include War of the Worlds, Island of Lost Souls, I Married a Monster from Outer Space, and a couple of Bing & Bob Road movies; makeup credits include Double Indemnity, Grapes of Wrath, Witness for the Prosecution, etc.), Bob Kortman (Sullivan's Travels [mentioned above], Ace in the Hole, The Big Clock, Sunrise), Charlie Hall (King Kong, Top Hat, Chaplin's Limelight, much more)

The gist of it: Spud (Janney) has a problem. He's supposed to go "bear shooting" with Jackie, Chubby, and Farina, but his mother (Holderness) says he has to stay home and take care of his baby brother, Wheezer, who has the croup and must be rubbed with goose grease whenever he coughs. Spud asks his sister, Mary Ann, to take over his Wheezer-greasing duties, and she agrees on one condition: that she be allowed to go with the gang on their hunting expedition. He reluctantly agrees, and they head off in their very rickety mule-drawn wagon. Unfortunately, their chosen hunting spot also happens to be the hideout of a couple of bootleggers (Kortman and Hall), who use a phony gorilla (Gemora) to scare them away. But the crooks and their gorilla-suited pals prove no match for the resourceful and violent children.

The fatal jar of cheese.
My take: "And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for you meddling kids!" Ah, the last words of many foiled Scooby-Doo villains of the 1970s. That line isn't uttered in Bear Shooters (which pointedly features no bears and very little shooting), but it very well could have been. Like the Scooby gang, the Rascals have their own famous canine mascot -- Pete, the dog with the big black circle around his eye, courtesy of Max Factor. Pete (or Petey) is one of filmdom's most famous pooches, and his surprisingly eventful and complicated history is well worth checking out.

This short film's surrealism may surpass even that of School's Out. Again, rather than a linear "this happened so this happened"-type structure, Bear Shooters is more like a twenty-minute fever dream of nebulously connected images and plot points: the lumpy goose grease on Wheezer's neck, the actual goose used as a makeshift car horn on the ungainly mule-drawn carriage, the foul-smelling Stoltz brand Limburger cheese that "Chubby" eats directly from the jar and which (inevitably) is substituted for Wheezer's goose grease, etc. And we haven't even gotten to the guy in the gorilla suit whom Jackie attacks with a swarming bee hive.

Even more so than the previous film, this one places the children in a world of rural semi-poverty with dirt roads and tiny, ramshackle structures. By comparing this film to Our Gang Follies of 1938, one can see how Hal Roach took the series further away from its countrified roots as the films got more and more slick on the technical level.

The backroads austerity of Bear Shooters, a far cry from the swanky urbanity of Our Gang Follies of 1938.

Is it funny: See my answer for School's Out. As John Hay Beith might have put it, this film is both "funny peculiar" and "funny ha ha," the former more so than the latter. I don't really remember laughing out loud while watching this. I think I was mostly so confused as to what was supposed to be happening that I possibly forgot to laugh. When the ending finally came, my first thought was, "What the hell did I just watch?" Such is the magic of Hal Roach's Our Gang in its (relatively) early days.

My grade: B-

OVERALL GRADE FOR OUR GANG FESTIVAL: B+

P.S. - Farina is treated a little better in Bear Shooters than he was in School's Out, but he's still slow-talking and slow-thinking. This is particularly noticeable during a sequence in which the pseudo "gorilla" menacingly approaches the children's picnic table, and Farina is very late to react.

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