Because I’ve had occasion to mention this franchise many times on this blog and in other writings, and it’s pretty important to film comedy history, I thought it fitting to finally do a special post on the comedy film short series known as “Our Gang” or “The Little Rascals.”
Most Americans from the Baby Boom Generation through Generation X know these comedy shorts well from their showings on television, though since the ones that were distributed to TV were mainly from the Depression years of the 1930s, they might be surprised to learn the series started in the silent days (1922) and lasted all the way until 1944, 22 years, outlasting the popular Spanky, Alfalfa and Darla. Measuring from inception to the present day, Our Gang enjoys the distinction of being the longest lasting series of comedy shorts in the history of American cinema.
Those who primarily know the cast from the series’ latter days may like to know about some of the original gang. The kernel of Our Gang began with “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, an African American child actor who began appearing with Harold Lloyd and Snub Pollard in Hal Roach shorts as a kind of mascot in 1919. That’s him on Lloyd’s shoulders in Number, Please, for example . In 1922, Roach had the inspiration to build a whole gang of friends around him, and other kids were recruited for the job: curly haired Mary Kornman, freckle-faced Mickey Daniels, Jack Davis (Harold Lloyd’s brother-in-law), wild-haired Jackie Condon, the grossly corpulent Joe Cobb, and Allen “Farina” Hoskins. Their animal companion Pete the Pup was drafted from the competing Buster Brown film series, in which he had played “Tige.”
Most people don’t know that the franchise was originally created under Charley Chase’s supervision, and the writing stable included such future greats as Frank Capra, Leo McCarey, Frank Tashlin and Walter Lantz, among many others.
In the Our Gang comedies, the Roach aesthetic of (relative) realism prevails. The kids in the gang are poor, unkempt, often barefoot. If they are idealized, the inspiration seems to be Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn – a world of back fences and horse barns and lemonade stands. But one in which the little ones are not saccharine little dollies – no, those are the ones the Gang tends to get in scraps with. The humor was generally gentle and universal, and centered around the kids getting into the kind of trouble Dennis the Menace might relate to. What has come to be regarded as its most significant aspect by cultural historians is that the Gang functions as a kind of color-and-gender-blind utopia: girls, boys, blacks and whites all playing and interacting equally side by side, the premise being that kids are innocent, oblivious to the bigoted attitudes that will set in as they become adults.
Talkies and the Depression arrived at about the same time. The aspects of poverty and grittiness clicked especially in the 1930s; images from these films are often what I think of when I am imagining those times. The sound arrival saw those wonderful big band scores composed by Leroy Shield and Marvin Hatley, with the actual theme song written by Shield. Older kids were switched out; new ones came in, including Jackie Cooper (soon to go on as a major star in features such as 1931’s The Champ and to enjoy a flourishing 60 year career after that), as well as Norman “Chubby” Chaney and Matthew “Stymie” Beard. (Note: from this point, I’m only going to mention the more famous members of the gang, there were dozens more besides these over the years). Their teacher Miss Crabtree was played by June Marlowe. In 1931, they were joined by three year old George “Spanky” Macfarland, whose adorable catchphrase “Okey doke” became a highlight of the films and eventually made him the star. In 1934 came Darla Hood, Eugene “Porky” Lee, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer and his brother Harold, and Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas, initially represented as Stymie’s sister, though he was a boy, and would later switch to that gender role.
In 1938, Hal Roach dropped out of shorts production, handing the reins over to his distributor, MGM. The tone became sweeter and more polished, less “rough and tumble” and gritty. Gradually the personnel changed again. In 1939 they were joined by “Mickey” Gubitosi, better known to Baretta fans as Robert Blake; the following year Billy “Froggy” Laughlin joined. Spanky, Alfalfa and Darla all dropped out 1940-1941 leaving the series to limp along without them until its conclusion in 1944.
In the mid 1950s the series began to be syndicated to television, where it was near ubiquitous in the after school time slot for the next three decades. (Along the way, some of the more politically incorrect elements were edited out over the years).
New incarnations. In 1977 tv producer Norman Lear cast Gary Coleman in a pilot version of a revived version of the Little Rascals. None of the networks bought the series, so Different Strokes was developed for Coleman instead. Animated versions were produced by Hanna-Barbera in 1979 and 1982-1984. And in 1994, a fairly dreadful feature length movie was released. Ya wanna be a good parent? Don’t show them that movie, show them real Little Rascals shorts. These were definitely the earliest old, classic comedies I ever watched, and definitely the first Hal Roach movies. Their charm is not to be matched, and the nitty gritty details of cultural, social history are in every frame.
To learn more about comedy film history, including Our Gang, please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc