It’s perhaps not surprising that Memphis — a city of haves and have-nots with a sometimes enviable, often deplorable history of race relations — was a top market in the 1950s and ’60s for “The Little Rascals,” as 80 of the Hal Roach-produced “Our Gang” comedy short subjects were re-titled when they were syndicated to local television stations beginning in 1955.
The racial stereotyping and frequently gratuitous race-based comedy in the shorts troubled many adults and discomfited some younger viewers. But I can testify that little kids of all types loved watching these funny and often inventive films, which at their best captured the hopes, fears and behavior of children with surprising honesty and accuracy.
In time for Christmas gift-giving, these 80 shorts are now available on DVD in a welcome if problematic new 8-disc set from Genius Products and RHI Entertainment, “The Little Racals: The Complete Collection.”
As with many of the products of Old Hollywood, the racial content of the shorts was a double-edged sword.
If progressive African-Americans were embarrassed by such “Our Gang” regulars as Farina, Stymie and Buckwheat, white racists disapproved of the integrated classrooms and — more important — colorblind friendships depicted in the films.
If “The Little Rascals” justifiably can be accused of perpetuating decades-old stereotypes into the 1960s and beyond, in earlier decades the films may have been perceived as a bridge rather than a barrier to tolerance.
In fact, films of this type sometimes were considered a challenge to the racist hegemony of the South. As notorious Memphis movie censor Lloyd T. Binford wrote to United Artists when rejecting “Curley,” a 1947 film produced by Roach in an attempt to re-create the success of the Our Gang comedies: ”(I am) unable to approve your ‘Curley’ picture with the little Negroes as the south does not permit Negroes in white schools nor recognize social equality between the races, even in children.”
Produced by the Hal Roach Studios (also home base for Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase and other popular comics), the “Our Gang” series began in 1922. The first 88 shorts were silent.
In 1929, Roach switched to sound, and produced another 80 shorts through 1938, which were distributed by MGM. Many of the later shorts focus on the pared-down and perhaps most familiar cast of Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Darla and Porky.
When Roach decided to abandon “Our Gang,” the rights to the series were acquired by Hollywood’s glossiest studio, MGM — a somewhat odd home for the scruffiest of film characters. MGM produced as well as distributed the final 52 “Our Gang” shorts, from 1938 to 1944; these Roach-free shorts usually are considered inferior to their predecessors, but I hope MGM Home Entertainment follows the “Complete Collection” with an “Our Gang” box of its own.
When Roach became a top TV producer in the late 1940s and decided to sell his shorts to television, he discovered MGM had the rights to the “Our Gang” name if not his original films, so he re-christened the series “The Little Rascals” for syndication. The “Rascals” began appearing in TV markets around the country in 1955, and were a sensation.
“The Little Rascals: The Complete Collection” includes the 80 syndicated sound films on seven discs. The set’s eighth disc includes three silent shorts; the documentaries “The Story of Hal Roach and Our Gang” and “Racism and the Rascals”; and interviews with several surviving “Rascals,” including famous jazz vocalist Annie Ross.
For many reasons, the shorts of 1929 and the early 1930s, almost all of which were directed by Robert F. McGowan (who had been with the series since 1922), are the most compelling in the box set.
Frequently shot outdoors in the developing neighborhoods around the Hal Roach Studios complex in Culver City, Calif., these shorts merge the documentary realism of their location photography with comedy and melodrama that is alternately outlandish and realistic.
The shorts offer striking evidence of the relative lack of supervision enjoyed by yesteryear’s youth; unlike the overscheduled and overindulged children that would be produced by the generation that grew up watching “The Little Rascals” on television, the “Our Gang” members are left to fend for themselves, often in such dangerous locations as abandoned houses, vacant lots, shipping docks and railway yards.
In these shorts, we see the kids playing with matches, stoves, hammers, tools, trick guns, bear traps and electrical wires. Their tattered clothes testify to their Depression circumstances, and they inhabit a world that is as rural as it is urban: chickens, mules and other animals are as commonplace as streetcars and automobiles.
Other details are more fanciful. In the world of Roach’s Rascals, pet monkeys are pandemic, and every home contains a stinky block of limburger cheese.
In the notorious 1933 episode “The Kid from Borneo,” the Gang is chased by an apparently cannibalistic “wild man” with a bone through his nose who chants, over and over, “Yum-yum, eat ’em up.”
In addition to Allen ‘Farina’ Hoskins, the gang members during the early sound years included both silent-era carryovers and newcomers, such as Fatty Arbuckle lookalike Joe Cobb; squinchy-faced Mary Ann Jackson; Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins; Norman “Chubby” Chaney; and Jackie Cooper, the only Gang regular to achieve success as an adult actor.
Matthew “Stymie” Beard arrived in 1930, co-starring with Farina, whom he’d eventually replace, just as Willie “Buckwheat” Thomas would show up in 1934, first as Stymie’s companion and then his successor. Less than 4 years old, George “Spanky” McFarland arrived in 1932.
The most memorable of the Gang’s adult co-stars was June Marlowe. She portrayed every schoolboy’s first crush, the platinum blond teacher, Miss Crabtree, in six shorts, beginning with 1930’s “Teacher’s Pet.”
Although some of the children were used almost as human props, others were skilled performers. If modern viewers can ignore Farina’s trademark “pickaninny” hairdo and ragged clothing, they may notice that Hoskins probably was the best actor in the series — capable of drama as well as comedy. (Farina’s only real rival for acting honors was Jackie Cooper.)
McGowan’s “Little Daddy” (1931) is perhaps Hoskins’ greatest sound showcase. The film opens with Farina and the very young Stymie passing collection plates at church while the African-American congregation sings “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” (This depiction of a black church service is earnest, and non-condescending.) Farina becomes sad when the preacher tells him that Stymie is going to be taken from his care and sent to an orphans’ home. “The law is the law,” the preacher explains. Responds Farina: “Somebody’s always making laws. Why don’t they make a law to make a man happy instead of making laws to bust a guy all up?”
Seen today on DVD, these comedies may be too antique and stereotyped for children, but they should fascinate adults who grew up watching the shorts on TV. For that reason alone, “The Little Rascals: The Complete Collection” is worth celebrating.
Or is it? Many diehard Rascals fans are unsatisfied with the box, and clamoring for a recall. Apparently, two of the shorts are missing a couple of lines; and more than a dozen of the shorts were mastered from 16-mm Blackhawk Films TV prints, with “Little Rascals” title cards, instead of original 35-mm negatives, with the original “Our Gang” titles.
Such discrepancies won’t bother the typical consumer, so this box set would make a wonderful holiday gift for any Rascals fan eager to revisit the shorts.
For more on “The Little Rascals,” visit John Beifuss’ blog at www.thebloodshoteye.com.