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Ken's Comedy Corner

By Ken Lashway

Featuring:
OUR GANG

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Our Gang cover photo from Picture Show Magazine January 26, 1924The idea to make a group of kids the stars of a series of comedy shorts was conceived originally in 1922 by the great Hal Roach. Sitting in his office, he observed some youngsters playing outside his window, and was himself amused by their antics - if he was so amused, he reasoned, why wouldn’t the rest of America find the idea just as charming? The rest of America did find the idea charming, right from the moment they first appeared on screen, and on through the still-showing reruns of the present time.

The youngsters appearing in these films were always hand-picked by Roach and his casting directors, and they were looking for more than kids who had star quality - they also wanted kids who were great with comic expressions and facial reactions. The very first of these early silent shorts was entitled, appropriately enough, ‘Our Gang’, and featured a group led by distinctively freckle-faced Mickey Daniels and included the enchantingly cute Mary Dornman, jovial and overweight Joe Cobb, endlessly naïve ’Farina’ Hoskins, rich boy Jackie Condon, mischievous ’Sunshine Sammie’ Morrison, and the longest-running rascal of them all, Petey the Dog. This rich diversity of characters was to remain a trademark of each collection of ‘Our Gang’ youngsters, and the spirit of togetherness and equality they portrayed throughout all their misadventures was a half-century ahead of its time.

In that first year of 1922, six shorts were filmed and the series became an immediate success. By the time the series adopted the ‘talkie’ format in 1929, over seventy had been captured on film. The plots of these shorts were seldom scripted in any kind of detail - early directors like Charlie Chase (himself a star comedian) and Robert McGowan preferred to create situations and let the sight gags and reactions to them flow naturally from their young charges. A staple of the ’Our Gang’ humor was having the kids tackle situations in a manner imitating adults, only with their own simplicity of heart. Without even realizing it, many movie-going adults laughed their heartiest at behavior they themselves commonly exhibited, and now saw performed innocently on-screen by astonishingly natural young actors and actresses.

Probably the best-known of the early Our Gang players was a young Jackie Cooper, who joined the troupe in 1930 and replaced Mickey Daniels as leader. Cooper was also the one child star who best parleyed his ’Gang’ success into adult roles in film, which accounts for his present-day recognition. The period begun with Cooper’s arrival and on through 1938 is generally considered to be the golden era of the ’Our Gang’ shorts. It was during this time that the troupe enjoyed some of its greatest film successes, including such classics as “Teacher’s Pet“, “School’s Out”, “Helping Grandma”, “Dogs is Dogs”, “Bedtime Worries”, and “Bored of Education” among the nearly seventy shorts of the period.

Our Gang photo from inside Picture Show Magazine January 26, 1924It was by no means just Jackie Cooper carrying the players to such success however - quite a few other much-loved youngsters were regularly brought into the series, as the incumbents grew older and dropped out. In 1932, ’Spanky’ MacFarland joined the Gang and became a central character. As Cooper was snatched up by other film studios, Spanky and sidekicks Scotty Beckett, Stymie Beard, Mary Ann Jackson, Dorothy DeBorba, and the irrepressible ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer kicked off a fresh wave of immense popularity for the series. During these years, Hal Roach tinkered with the format of the series a bit, filming one feature-length film, “General Spanky”, which was something of a flop, and also filming annual musical revues, which were very well received.

By 1938, it was time for the series to undergo another cast turnover, and newcomers Billie ‘Buckwheat’ Thomas, Darla Hood, ‘Porky’ Lee, and Tommy Bond breathed fresh life into the long-running franchise. Spanky was still around, but more of the plots centered around Alfalfa - his unrequited crush on Darla Hood, his constant harassment by bully Tommy Bond, and his frequently hilarious attempts at singing. But also in this year, Hal Roach sold the franchise to MGM, and it was never really the same. The simplicity of the early films was gone - replaced by expensive sets and the glamour of a big-budget studio. It even affected the acting of the youngsters; whereas a hallmark of the earlier films had been the wonderfully natural performances coaxed out of them by understanding directors, these later films looked stiff and contrived. So it was that in 1944, after 221 shorts and one feature film, the delightful Our Gang series creaked to a grinding halt and disappeared from film.

Fortunately, these wonderful comedies did not disappear forever. They were revived in the fifties and sixties under the television banner of ’The Little Rascals’ (necessary because MGM retained the rights to the original Our Gang name), and a new generation was treated to the antics of the whole succession of adorable youngsters from the early years. And an updated version of this classic troupe was represented in 1994’s entertaining feature film, ’The Little Rascals’, featuring Bug Hall, Travis Tedford, Ross Bagley, and Brittany Holmes portraying respectively, Alfalfa, Spanky, Buckwheat, and Darla. It could not match the originals for simplicity, innocence, and the humor found in everyday lives of kids, but this group of child actors offered up a very creditable effort.

It must be remembered that the 1920’s and 1930’s were a different age from this one, and a certain part of the Our Gang series’ charm was the appeal of that simpler time itself. No video games, no mall-walking, not even TV was around to distract youngsters at that time. And that is at least part of the reason it is still so engaging to see scenes like ’Wheezer’ Hutchins playing with Petey the Dog, ’Stymie’ Beard relating another tall tale, Dorothy DeBorba demonstrating another of her patented scowls, and Alfalfa serenading his beloved Darla. The succession of young stars in the Our Gang films showed us what it was like to be a kid in those times in a manner often hilarious, always endearing.
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Ken Lashway is a freelance writer from New York who has written several profiles of early comic stars for The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.