Written by Musgo del Jefe
Little Musgo came to Our Gang the way most of his Gen X generation did - through The Little Rascals on Saturday and Sunday mornings in the '70s. To add to my confusion, much of the same cast appeared in similar shorts under the name, Our Gang. I was a huge fan of these kids and my friends and I knew them all by first name - quite a feat for shorts that were 40-50 years old by the time we saw them. It was only later in life as I tried to collect these fond memories on video did I discover some of the long twisted history of this series.
Hal Roach started the series in 1922 as a collection of silent shorts. Sound was added to the series in 1929. Some of the early cast of children included Sunshine Sammy, Mickey, Mary Ann, Joe Cobb, and Farina. By the time sound arrived, the Gang had added Wheezer, Stymie, Chubby, Jackie Cooper and Pete The Pup. The beauty of these early films is the naturalism of the children's behavior. Much like the other Hal Roach shorts of the '20s - Laurel and Hardy in particular, the two-reel length (around 20 minutes) allowed for the stories to naturally develop and not feel hurried.
By 1938, Hal Roach had produced about 80 shorts. But economics were pinching the series. Laurel and Hardy had made the transition to feature length films but Our Gang had been relegated to one reel (10 minutes). The cast had continued to change over the decade as kids grew older and were replaced. By 1936, the cast settled in to what most people remember as the "core" cast - Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Porky and Darla, with Butch and Waldo as Alfalfa's rivals for Darla. Before Roach could end the series, MGM agreed to purchase the series from him and take over production. The 80 Roach sound shorts would become that package that most people know from TV as The Little Rascals. MGM would go on to produce 52 more Our Gang shorts between 1938 and 1944. These shorts are collected for the first time uncut on the five-disc The Our Gang Collection from Warner Bros. Archive Collection.
The first thing that strikes you when viewing these shorts is the general change in tone between the earlier Roach shorts and the MGM-produced shorts. The earlier films had young, cute kids in generally unscripted and natural situations. The production values alone made these seem like home movies of kids being kids. The MGM shorts here are very stylized. The camerawork is top notch and the sets look like they are trying to hard to look "natural". The dialog is presented by the actors as if it is being fed to them from off camera - it's awkward and unnatural. What really hits home when watching them in succession is that the focus has really changed. These shorts rely on the cuteness of kids often being in adult situations or interacting with adults instead of just peeking in on the children's world where adults are only an afterthought.
In "Party Fever" (1938), the boys compete for Darla's attention by running to win "Mayor For The Day". The ten-minute reel ends up being a forum for political party and election jokes. It's cleverly written for the most part, but here the children's acting doesn't bring home the satire. And part of the problem might have been MGM's insistence on keeping Spanky and Alfalfa as the main characters as they aged from 11 to 13 in the first couple years of the MGM shorts. The series had always relied on a new crop of cute younger kids around the ages of 7-9 to drive the stories.
The chemistry between Spanky and Alfalfa saves most of these shorts. The boys really learned from being around the same studio of Laurel and Hardy. They are best when left to the more broad humor. My favorite of the early shorts on this collection is "Practical Jokers". The short is essentially one extended joke as Our Gang attempts to get back at Butch for his practical jokes. Spanky is the brains in most of these plans and comes up with an exploding cake for Butch. But it's Alfalfa that has to sing "Happy Birthday" while holding the cake. The anticipation is fun and the kids play the physical humor well.
MGM relied on many recycled plots to keep the series cheap and to try to please their audiences. The most often-used plot, used by my figuring about 25% of the time, is the kids have to put on a musical/play/circus of some sort to raise money/win a prize/impress someone. Inevitably, Alfalfa will be the star of the show and sing one of his off-key songs and Buckwheat and Porky will be the comedic duo.
Just as the series is really losing momentum in 1939, Porky left the series because he was getting too old and was replaced by Robert Blake as Mickey. His appearances in "Dad For A Day" and "All About Hash" revitalized the series briefly. His fresh face was cute and the camera loved him. Within five shorts, he went from setting up his mother with the gas station attendant in "Dad For A Day" to saving their marriage in "All About Hash". "All About Hash" illustrates another departure of the MGM shorts that I never noticed in the Roach-produced shorts - the "lesson". This was about appreciating what you have (even if it is hash for dinner every Monday) or in "Time Out For Lessons" when Alfalfa learns to do his homework before football practice. These "lessons" take some of the fun out of the series as the children seem so out of character when they have to explain what they learned.
That 1940 year would introduce Froggy and see the departure of Alfalfa. Just about halfway through the MGM shorts and the series really starts to flounder. Alfalfa's last short, "Kiddie Kure" is also among the best of the MGM shorts. It's on the middle of Disc 3 and represents the high-water mark. After this, the series just won't find the same heart as it does here. In "Kiddie Kure", the kids break a window of an old man while playing baseball. The man feigns illness to convince his wife they don't need any more children, but Our Gang wins him over changing his outlook on life. In this instance, the lesson feels more natural and the results are satisfying.
By the end of 1941, Darla leaves and the series continues to try to find it's way in a very different world than it started in the 1920s. The plots will become even more patriotic and more lesson-oriented. At the end of 1942, Spanky ends his 11-year run as a teenager in "Unexpected Riches". The plot is too basic - the boys get a fortune about buried treasure, find "treasure" without digging because of generic bad guys. The payoff is forced and not very funny. This would leave only Buckwheat as a cast member still there from the Hal Roach days and he would remain until the end.
Mickey and Froggy take over the lead in most of the remaining shorts. There are still forced musicals like "Calling All Kids" that just don't have the same energy as even the earlier MGM ones with Alfalfa. And finally in 1944, after 220 shorts dating back to the silent era of film, the series limps to an end with "Dancing Romeo" (a failed Froggy love story) and "Tale Of A Dog" (a one-joke Buckwheat story about a dog named Smallpox).
It's great to see these shorts again despite some of their shortcomings. I think the series worked better in the earlier years because of the improvisation of the stories and the twenty-minute length. The shorter one-reel length of the MGM shorts and the insistence on scripted action with established children actors led to the downfall of the series. This type of series can't exist in today's market and it's missed. There isn't room for 10-20 minute short subjects and that's a real loss. I recommend that you enjoy the whole Our Gang canon and keep encouraging Waner Bros. to release more from their archives.
The Our Gang Collection is only available from Warner Bros. Archive Collection and for a limited time at price of only $34.95.