Series Retrospective: Our Gang
The Our Gang series was originally produced as one and two reel film shorts intended to precede feature presentations in theaters. The series lasted for over twenty years, with multiple cast changes, and the simple and honest stories made them winners with the public. In the 1950’s, a portion of the films were syndicated to the new medium of television which was starved for any type of children’s programming that could be run daily. For the next three decades, generations of children grew up watching these shorts, often combined with the Three Stooges or various cartoons, every day after school. In this respect, the Our Gang comedies can actually be considered more of a television product than a theatrical one.
In 1938, Hal Roach sold everything associated with the Our Gang shorts he had produced for close to two decades, including the back catalog of films and the rights to the name, to the series’ distributor, MGM. The shorts had seen declining financial returns in recent years and Roach was more interested in pursuing new properties rather than trying to revive an existing one. After several years of less than stellar success, Roach bought back the shorts he had produced in the late 40’s. Since MGM retained the rights to the name Our Gang, Roach changed the title of his shorts to The Little Rascals, a variation on a name that had been originally considered and briefly used, Hal Roach’s Rascals. After a few years of revivals screenings in theaters, this package was sold to television in 1955 and this collection of shorts are the ones that most people today remember watching almost constantly in their formative years.
At a time when most short subject stars, like Laurel and Hardy, were being transitioned to features films, MGM made a bold decision and left the Our Gang comedies in their original format. Short subjects as a whole were declining in popularity due to theaters switching to double features to entice cash strapped audiences still recovering from the Depression. Backed by the MGM studios powerhouse of features though, Our Gang was guaranteed a home for at least the immediate future.
The format of the series was not the only thing that MGM continued. The current cast of Spanky McFarland, Alfalfa Switzer, Buckwheat, Porky, and Darla Hood, easily the most recognizable roster from the entire run, were all retained. Secondary characters like Butch the bully, his lackey Worm (or Woim as Butch liked to call him), rich intellectual Waldo, and background kids Leonard and Junior were also held over. A few other familiar faces, including Pete the Pup, would make guest appearances during the MGM years, often as different characters than they had previously played in the Roach films.
As seamless as MGM tried to make the transition, they made one serious miscalculation. The new shorts bore the unmistakable shine of major studio polish. The kids were no longer the rag tag street urchins of the Roach series, playing in abandoned lots and junk yards as though they owned the place. The MGM gang lived in suburban neighborhoods and had visible families who often participated, at least peripherally, in their children’s exploits. As the series progressed, some shorts even dared to preach morals or attempt to educate the audience on safety or social issues. This sanitized version of Our Gang may have been more appealing to parents but kids knew better.
The initial MGM shorts followed the Roach formula closely but were still clearly inferior to their source. Standout early episodes include Practical Jokers, where Butch’s mother is inexplicably certain that the gang are Butch’s best friends and so must present him with the cake at his birthday party, and Auto Antics where a free for all soap box derby recalls many of the pre-MGM shorts. Stripped of its trademark lower class edge, the Our Gang series began a rapid decline into formulistic and repetitive plots. By the end of the first year, seemingly every other episode had the gang staging elaborate shows at the drop of a hat to raise money for the reason of the week.
Time was also the enemy of MGM’s Our Gang. The core group of child actors carried over from the Roach shorts was already dangerously close to the age of replacement when the series started. While some discrepancies could be overlooked, when an actor grew too quickly to fit in with the rest of the cast or just ceased to be cute, a replacement had to be found. Eugene “Porky” Lee was the first casualty of puberty and secondary character Leonard Landy, the big eared kid in the Amish hat, was bumped up to temporarily fill the void. A short time later, a six year old actor named Mickey Gubitosi (better known today as Robert Blake) was added to the supporting cast. One year later, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer was the next to leave and Billy Laughlin was moved into his spot in the ensemble. Laughlin, better known as “Froggy” due to his perpetual case of laryngitis, was a blonde, bespectacled, youth who often appeared to be suffering from some form of Down’s syndrome, just about as far removed from Alfalfa as they could get.
As the Our Gang comedies entered the 1940’s, MGM tried a few gimmicks to bolster the sagging series. A rival gang, the creatively named 3rd Street Bunch, was added to provide some conflict. While the episodes featuring the Bunch were not classics, they did at least give audiences a break from the overused “let’s put on a show” installments. Fighting’ Fools is both their debut and standout appearance as they battle the gang in a war of flying produce on a vacant lot. In Robot Wrecks, members of the Bunch pull a clever con on the Gang and convince them to buy “invisible rays” to make their cobbled together robot, or “row boat” as Spanky insists on calling it, work. The ensuing mishaps make this one of the better entries in the later MGM shorts but still not enough to slow the decline.
The dawn of World War II brought the series a brief reprieve. The good natured adventures of Our Gang seemed like just the thing for an uncertain public to find comfort in. Unfortunately, the war effort was a perfect excuse to trot out the “let’s put on a show to raise money” plots that were already worn paper thin. The group was also growing smaller and less familiar to audiences. Darla Hood had left in 1941 and Janet Burston, a background player from recent years who had played Mickey’s sister among other roles, took her spot as the final replacement character. When George “Spanky” McFarland called it quits a year later, MGM finally accepted the fact that the end was near and spread his part among the other actors rather than adding anyone new. This left only Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas from the Hal Roach shorts to ride out the remainder of the MGM years.
With Spanky, arguably the most identifiable member of the gang, departed, MGM squeezed out ten more shorts with the remaining cast. The final film, Dancing Romeo, was released to theaters in April of 1944 and then the Our Gang clubhouse was boarded up for good. MGM wisely passed on one last attempt to cross Our Gang with the Bowery Boys and a brief series of Gas House Kids features starring Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer and Tommy “Butch” Bond went to PRC studios instead. After seeing the success of the Hal Roach Little Rascals shorts in syndication, MGM sold the Our Gang series to television in a similar package. Whether it was because the Roach shorts were already established or that the syndication companies, and children, recognized an inferior product when they saw one, the Our Gang comedies were not carried as widely as The Little Rascals. I spent my entire childhood watching The Little Rascals’ shorts in syndication every weekday after school. I only remember seeing the Our Gang series for a year or two in the late 70’s on a channel out of Central Florida.
The fifty-two Our Gang shorts produced by MGM were released on DVD this month as part of the Warner Brothers Archive collection. As is typical of the WB Archive releases, this is an absolutely no frills DVD but the picture and sound quality on the shorts is very good overall. While the five disc set contains no liner notes or booklet and only a solitary photo, it does include an ominous warning on the jacket – “The Our Gang Collection is Intended for the Adult Collector and Is Not Suitable for Children”! Granted, some of the shorts do contain some minor racist content and a few scenes of children in unsafe activities, like super charging a go cart with sky rockets, but nothing close to what can be seen on any local television channel any weekday afternoon. Apparently what was acceptable for the previous generation to grow up with is now considered damaging to the current one. This set is, however, recommended to Our Gang fans of all ages and serves as a fascinating look at the decline and fall of a short film series that was produced for over twenty years and a staple on television for another thirty.