November 5 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Our Gang (or Little Rascals) comedy release — titled, appropriately enough, Our Gang. Producer Hal Roach provided the story; the one-reel film was co-directed by Robert McGowan and Charlie Parrott (later to become known to silent comedy fans as Charlie Chase).
Our Gang was filmed in early 1922, previewed in the Los Angeles area in the spring and summer, and released on November 5. It was indeed the first entry of the series to be filmed, but, for unknown reasons, was delayed for national distribution until after two other shorts in the series were filmed and released.
This film had long been considered lost, but resurfaced and is in the public domain, its copyright having expired:
Here’s a bit of background on Roach, who not only created Our Gang, but also teamed Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy, Thelma Todd with ZaSu Pitts for their own series of shorts, and other comedy creations.
More than a decade before the first Our Gang film, Roach had been working as an actor, stagehand, and whatever film-related position he could find when, in 1914, he was able to establish his own production company with money from a family inheritance. His limited budget required him to rely greatly on various locations around Los Angeles, but his dedication to comedy attracted the best talent in the business, both in front of and behind the camera. The first comedy star he created was Harold Lloyd, who was to become one of the most revered and highest grossing film stars of the 1920s.
The original Our Gang short would establish the premise for the next 200 comedies to follow in the series (later known as “The Little Rascals” for TV syndication). Roach said he first got the idea for a film featuring kids after finding himself mesmerized watching a group of kids playing in a vacant lot one day. He felt there was ample comic potential in the idea, and thus created Our Gang.
The cast throughout the 1920s changed on occasion, with the arrival of new members sometimes overlapping with the more established or departing stars, but some became stalwarts in the series’ silent era, including Mickey Daniels, Joe Cobb, Mary Kornman (the daughter of Roach still photographer Gene Kornman), Jackie Condon, and the first two black Our Gang players, “Sunshine” Sammy Morrison, and Allen “Farina” Hoskins (demonstrating that even in the segregation era, Roach had no qualms about integrating the gang, despite the use of some gags that today would be considered racially insensitive).
The Our Gang short Noisy Noises, released on February 9, 1929, is an example of American film comedy in transition, from silent to sound. While it doesn’t qualify as a true talkie, it was the studio’s early attempt to blend sound with visual action. Roach began sending his distributor, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), films with music and sound effects tracks recorded onto accompanying discs. Film historian and critic Leonard Maltin noted, “the original sound effects and discordant musical instruments (not requiring the same kind of precise synchronization that dialogue did) were probably quite convincing, even startling, for 1929 audiences in the unique position of straddling movies’ silent and sound eras.”
Roach’s main comedy competitor, Mack Sennett, had already seen the peak of his own career as a comedy producer by this time. His career continued on a downward slope as Roach’s fortunes were still rising. Sennett was, like Roach, unsatisfied with the way many new sound comedies were relying too much on dialogue and not enough on traditional visual gags. “I’m going back to the fundamentals of the silent screen comedy and I’m going to stay there,” he declared in 1930. “The development of screen comedy does not lie along the lines of dialogue humor. We know that now.” Such stubbornness and defiance became part of Sennett’s undoing in the sound era. Roach, however, was wise enough to allow dialogue to enhance his roster of screen characters, without cheating the audience of top-rate sight gags. Within just a few more years, Sennett’s departure from the movie business would leave Roach at the top of the comedy mountain.
On May 18, 1929, Roach Studios releases the first Our Gang talkie, Small Talk, the 89th Our Gang short to be filmed, with a cast including Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins, Mary Ann Jackson, Joe Cobb, and Allen “Farina” Hoskins.
By 1930, what was arguably the funniest cast of the series was in place, with Jackie Cooper, Norman “Chubby” Chaney (replacing Joe Cobb), Farina, Mary Ann, Wheezer, and a young Matthew “Stymie” Beard (we wouldn’t meet a very young George “Spanky” McFarland until 1932). The 1930 short, Pups is Pups, featuring Wheezer and his gang of wayward puppies who run to answer any ringing bell they hear, was selected for the National Film Registry in 2004.
The series hit its stride during this period, with a string of inventive and genuinely funny shorts. Even the young actors’ somewhat stilted recitation of their dialogue and occasional awkward pauses gives this particular cast a certain charm that the later, more polished cast members lacked.
Moreover, few actors in film history, be they child or adult, have mastered the wide-eyed, head-bobbing “surprise take” as perfectly as Mary Ann or Wheezer (although June Marlow, as their beloved teacher Miss Crabtree, was no slouch at that, either). It is to Hal Roach’s credit as a talent scout that the gang’s ever-evolving cast changes occurred as seamlessly as they did, as younger players arrived with their own distinct personalities, to replace older cast members who had outgrown the film series.
A top-notch entry from this period is Love Business, released on February 14, 1930. How appropriate it was to release this genuinely hilarious short on Valentine’s Day. Directed by Robert McGowan, it’s arguably the finest two-reeler featuring the cast at that time, with priceless dialogue supplied by H. M. Walker, and acted to perfection by the young performers. In the story, Jackie Cooper and Chubby Chaney are vying for the affections of their teacher, Miss Crabtree, who has moved into Jackie’s house as a boarder. Mary Ann and Wheezer, as his siblings, happily tease him about his crush on the lovely schoolmarm, but Mary Ann later asks the teacher for assurance that she isn’t actually in love with Chubby (whom Mary Ann has her sights set on). Of course, just when Jackie is able to get Miss Crabtree alone for an intimate chat, repeating his highest compliment to her (“You’re even prettier than Miss McGillicuddy”), Chubby arrives with candy and flowers.
Jackie does his best to sabotage Chubby’s declarations of affection, while Miss Crabtree finds it all quite amusing (although she does give each of the rivals a lingering kiss on the lips that would certainly be deemed unacceptable — or worse — by today’s social norms). The mother, overhearing the familiar passages from her old love letters, interrupts the love fest, and the jig is up.
The Our Gang kids were treated pretty much as royalty on the Roach lot, and given virtually free run of the studio during their time off from school. A classroom and tutor were provided for them on the lot itself. Roach was quite protective of his young actors, and even once went to court to obtain an injunction against a father who considered his child’s acting income as his own. On the lot, one parent of each actor was required to be on hand during filming, but studio also had rules against interfering behavior by parents, and these were expected to be strictly obeyed. There were no favorites, and the kids’ onscreen nicknames were given to them by the production crew. The search for the Gang’s cast additions/replacements was ongoing, but parents arriving unannounced with their aspiring child actors were turned away. All had to first submit photos, after which studio agents would respond to those kids whom Roach wanted to see for a screen test. Parents and children were then brought to the studio, at Roach’s expense. The lucky ones would become stars, even while some were still learning how to read and write!
Sound films boosted business for the studio. “When we were making silent comedies,” Roach said, “our foreign distribution amounted to 25 per cent of our total production. Now that we have sound our foreign business has jumped to 50 per cent of our product. This is accounted for by the fact that we have begun making our films in the languages of other countries.”
To accomplish this, a short would be filmed as many as three times: in English, then in Spanish and French, with the young stars reading the foreign languages phonetically to each other. Supporting actors who were already conversant in each language were brought in to replace the originals for each version.
“In comedies, the accent doesn’t matter so much; it’s the action,” Roach explained at the time. “We teach our actors the few essentials of the language, and they are able to pronounce the ‘si’ or ‘oui’ as perfectly as any Spaniard or Frenchman. If there is any part of the story that should be interpreted to the audience, and there is hardly a plot and sub-plot in most slapstick affairs, we introduce a minor character who speaks the language like a native and who conveniently talks the plot into the film.”
Roach instituted language classes on the lot, held twice a week, in Spanish and French. Most of the actors in the studio attended, including the Our Gang kids. “It is not very difficult to teach children phrases in unknown words because then they are instructed to repeat the same words in English it means just as little then. For example, when we ask a child to repeat, ‘How do you do, sir?’ during the course of a picture it means as little to him as if he were to say ‘Como esta usted?’ or ‘comment allez-vou.’ With the child it is simply a trick of memory. But too often that memory is liable to fail, and we have to start all over again.” It took about twenty percent longer to film each Roach comedy in each language, amounting to about five extra days on each version than shooting in English only. “Formerly,” he continued, “there were approximately forty scenes in each reel of a feature in comparison with ninety to more than a hundred in a reel of comedy. With sound there are about sixty scenes in each reel of comedy.”
Despite Roach’s good intentions to please his international audience, the process proved too time-consuming and costly to maintain, and was abandoned after little more than a year.
Several characters came and went in the early ’30s, including Dickie Moore, “Breezy” Brisbane, Wally Albright, Scotty Beckett, and others.
The evolving cast reached another peak in the mid-’30s, with George “Spanky” McFarland and Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer heading a cast that included Darla Hood, Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas, Eugene “Porky” Lee, and their occasional nemesis, Tommy “Butch” Bond. Most fans probably hold the deepest nostalgia for this period, recalling scenes in the gang’s clubhouse, putting on theatrical productions/vaudeville shows for the neighborhood kids, boxing matches, playing hooky from school, and so many more.
By 1936, in reaction to the new trend toward double-features, Roach contemplated discontinuing the two-reelers, but MGM head Louis B. Mayer wanted more, so it was agreed that Roach would produce one-reelers for the series from August of ’36 onward, beginning with Bored of Education. But production values improved as well, perhaps reaching an apex with Our Gang Follies of 1938 (a lone two-reeler among the single-reel entries at the time):
The story consists mostly of Alfalfa’s dream sequence in which he, fancying himself as a great crooner, seeks success and adulation as an opera singer (“The Barber of Seville”), but is met only with boos. His contract demands that he sing, no matter where— including on the street for spare change — and eventually discovers Spanky’s elaborate nightclub, Club Spanky (where customers are served such specialties as ice cream sundaes and candy). His pal gives Alfalfa a chance to perform, but his singing is met with the same hostility from the patrons. He eventually awakes, humbled but newly encouraged to sing for the gang’s modest neighborhood production.
Big changes were afoot for Hal Roach Studios in 1938. The 10-or 20-minute short subject was losing favor as major movie studios and distrubutors hit on the idea of the double-feature. Roach himself, while committed to shorts in the early days, saw the writing on the wall. His last Laurel & Hardy short was produced in 1935, before assigning the team to features only. In 1938, he sold the Our Gang franchise to his longtime distributor, MGM, which, as most comedy buffs know, was pretty much incompetent and uninterested in comedians and their special skill sets (i.e. Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers…)
It was no different when the studio took control of the Our Gang series, depleting it of the kind of humor Roach and his talented directors, writers, and production staff had provided for the previous fifteen years. The decline wasn’t immediate. but by 1940 it was obvious, with comedy that paled in comparison to the Roach years, and increasingly preachy stories requiring the kids to learn some kind of moral at the end. MGM finally pulled the plug on the series in 1944, after the release of Tale of a Dog.
Whichever cast you might prefer, or whenever you may have first “discovered” the series (most probably on TV with programs presenting “The Little Rascals”), Our Gang is still a reliable source for laughs, and charm, as it has been for a full century.
Until next time…
This article is largely excerpted from my book The Funniest Decade: A Celebration of American Comedy in the 1930s.
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Read my previous articles about comedy history at the links below, and at the links below:
“Halloween with Abbott & Costello” https://garryberman.medium.com/halloween-with-abbott-costello-2d39a21bbbba
“Buck Privates: An Appreciation” https://garryberman.medium.com/buck-privates-an-appreciation-da7b7d645fab
“Whatever Happened to Comedy Teams?” https://garryberman.medium.com/whatever-happened-to-comedy-teams-7e243b5c9d45
“Pie in Your Eye: A History of the Pie-in-the-face Gag” https://garryberman.medium.com/pie-in-your-eye-a-history-of-the-pie-in-the-face-gag-4dd8c31286a0
“Stars For a Cause: The Navy Relief Show of 1942” https://garryberman.medium.com/stars-for-a-cause-the-navy-relief-show-of-march-1942-af2ff6edf8d9
“Mary Kay and Johnny: Television’s First Sitcom” https://garryberman.medium.com/mary-kay-and-johnny-televisions-first-sitcom-835fec303b5e
“The First Person to be Censored on TV was…Eddie Cantor? https://garryberman.medium.com/eddie-cantor-the-first-person-to-be-censored-on-tv-78b56c68cae1
“A Tribute To Our Funniest Sitcom Moms” https://garryberman.medium.com/a-tribute-to-our-funniest-sitcom-moms-ed3f5757fe73
“Television’s Greatest Sitcom Dad?” https://garryberman.medium.com/televisions-greatest-sitcom-dad-ef2dab761525
“Breaking the Fourth Wall (in comedy)” https://garryberman.medium.com/breaking-the-fourth-wall-in-comedy-51edfa9f88f0
Please visit www.GarryBerman.com to read synopses and reviews of my books (including The Funniest Decade: A Celebration of American Comedy in the 1930s) and order them via the links to Amazon.com.