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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Our Gang Creeped Me Out! --- Part One

Parents often go to great lengths to impress upon children how good their lives are, and how thankful they should be for what they have. Mine needn’t have bothered. The Little Rascals got the message over with greater clarity and eloquence than any parental lecture could have achieved. I thanked Dame Fortune each Saturday morning as I munched Zero bars and watched Stymie and Spanky beg food in The Pooch. I knew better than to complain about a small thing like no color television when Farina had to bathe his little brother in water out of a duck pond. My favorite Our Gangs were those primitive, austere early talkies. All the kids were grindingly poor, often homeless, and sometimes worse, inmates in an orphan asylum. Adults were dangerous and unpredictable in the Rascal’s world. Many of my darkest assumptions about grown-ups developed while immersed in their universe. Yes, these were comedies, but a lot of them scared me but good. There’s a dreadful, screeching old harridan in Mush and Milk that still gives me gooseflesh, and the sight of a clearly psychotic Max Davidson with his carving knife poised at Farina’s throat in Moan & Groan, Inc. was the stuff of nightmare for me. Were kids that much tougher in the depression? They had to be, for the gang seemed encircled by hateful, scheming adults unwilling to make any allowance for their potential victim’s tender age. The early talking Rascals were let loose in a survival of the fittest society where kids could be starved, pets gassed (by grown-ups who would enjoy it), and orphans enslaved in remote state-sanctioned hellholes. How could a pampered sixties youth complain in the face of such alarming social documents?

There was a picturesque little general store just outside the neighborhood a lot of us frequented often, very much like the one in Helping Grandma, only this proprietor was no kindly Margaret Mann. She was, in fact, a hard, wizened crone who never forgave that extra penny due for sales tax and always dropped the plain M&M’s on the counter with sufficient force so as to shatter the outer coatings. Myrtle also maintained a hairstyle identical to that of Miss Crabtree, the only person I’d encountered in the mid-sixties to have done so (the resemblance most definitely ended there, by the way). I used to imagine that Myrtle was perhaps the embittered latter day fulfillment of all Miss Crabtree’s lost hopes and dreams, assuming, of course, that Miss Crabtree was indeed consigned to continue her solitary life teaching successive generations of (off-screen) Our Gang kids without hope of raising a family of her own. She and Myrtle did part company in that sense, however, because Myrtle had a husband, who for the few years I knew him prior to his death, acted as a kindly buffer between us and his Mush and Milk wife.

My selection of The Kid From Borneo as the scariest motion picture ever made actually arose from a basic misunderstanding of the story that has dogged me from the day I first saw it some forty-five years ago. I thought the Wild Man really was Uncle George. For some reason, I failed to pick up on the letter in the opening scene that explains the whole set-up. The parent's baleful reference to him as a black sheep suggested to me that this was some sort of genetic missing link that had somehow cropped up in the family bloodline; a savage, inarticulate thing that had years ago been sold to the circus as a freak attraction. Now Dickie Moore and Spanky have to go and reclaim Uncle George on behalf of parents too afraid, or guilt-ridden, to do it themselves. "Uncle George" was every bit as terrifying to me as he was to the gang, all the more so because he was apparently related to them. I never laughed once at this comedy --- still haven’t. When Spanky feeds Uncle George all those contents from the icebox, I know the hapless child’s just buying time before being eaten himself. After drinking port wine, the giant takes off in pursuit of the children with a knife, and for all we know, intends to use it. No amount of slapstick could relieve the dread I experienced when the mother walked into that bedroom to be reunited with her "brother." Believing Uncle George to be the woman's actual sibling, I was consumed with childish horror when she pulled back the bedspread to reveal this frightful thing she’d renounced long ago, back now to seek vengeance for his childhood abandonment. Both the parents play these scenes straight. They’re genuinely terrified at the sight of Uncle George. The whole thing became so profoundly unnerving that I finally had to turn the channel whenever The Kid From Borneo appeared. I’ve since wondered if anyone else misread this short in the same way. Watching it again this week, I’d still maintain it’s open to alternative readings (after all, we never do see the real Uncle George). Perhaps the varied menu of interpretation works to its advantage in the end. Some can embrace it as one of the funniest Our Gang shorts ever, even as it remains for this viewer the most bone-chilling two-reel horror film of all time (and that's Uncle George holding up Gang members in this group shot).

The Kid From Borneo wasn’t the only Rascals comedy with disturbing images. I’m still stunned when Farina’s playmate whacks him full-face with a heavy board in Lazy Days, resulting in a grotesquely swollen nose for the fadeout (such violence would not repeat itself until John Wayne performed a similar service for George Kennedy in The Sons Of Katie Elder). When The Wind Blows finds Jackie Cooper’s father roused from bed when his son tries to enter the house and firing a pistol through the front door. Wheezer is repeatedly whipped by a vicious stepmother in Dogs Is Dogs even as he’s starved on a tepid diet of "mush" (I always wished someone would take a baseball bat to these adult oppressors). Free Eats has two repulsive midgets posing as babies in order to loot guests at a children’s party --- I always found these characters unsettling and not the least funny. Clarence Wilson and pinch-faced wife steal the gang’s new clothes in Shrimps For A Day, later forcing them to drink castor oil. A pirate with fangs and a blood-curdling growl menaced Stymie in Shiver My Timbers. The giant that corners the gang in Mama’s Little Pirate looks fully capable of broiling them in a stew-pot and eating them whole --- he ranks second only to Uncle George for evoking nightmares. Maybe other kids took these shorts in the proper spirit and laughed through them all. Would that I could have, but clearly mine was a more timid sensibility. Still is, apparently, for even now I found it difficult getting through some of these again. Funny how certain responses can again come calling, even after forty odd years. Tomorrow’s Part Two
reveals the one-time Our Gang membership of my elementary school band teacher, and the long road I traveled in getting her to finally talk about it.


Anonymous Griff said...


Well, no one can say that you didn't supply vivid examples to back up your thesis.

6:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100%, John. While on one hand I love the Our Gangs from 1929-35 with their great exterior shots in Culver City and environs, great music tracks and witty dialogue, I have found myself shutting off their shorts occasionally--due to the cruelty and unfair situations the kids often were in. Even though in the end justice prevails, they are at times an upsetting reminder of a time in our history that we often view through the rose-colored glasses of Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire and the happier visions of the depression years.


9:03 AM  
Anonymous Laughing Gravy said...

Yikes, redux... and I don't even think you mentioned that giant in the cave that hangs the kids up on what appears to be meat hooks, or the truant officer that goes out of his way to try 'n' make the kids pee their pants, or -- perhaps scariest of all -- the "flivver flops" tune that creates a nerve-wracking crescendo of musical horror unmatched until the theme from PSYCHO.

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Jim Cobb said...

I somehow remember an episode where the kids were chased by some sort of voodoo jungle man who was looking to EAT them and who constantly shouted "Yum yum, eat 'em up!!!!" Not sure just how the kids met up with him. Is my memory going or did that actually exist? If it does, I don't doubt that it would be banned for its decidedly racist attitudes.

6:01 PM  
Anonymous Chris U said...

It's called "dark humor," isn't it?

Just looking at those stills makes me laugh.

On the other hand, watching all those shorts on TV when I was 8 years old is probably part of the reason I'm such a weirdo now ...

6:15 PM  
Anonymous brickadoodle said...

John, you're in tip-top form today...I too recall the days of "mom and pop" stores that presaged 7-Elevens and urban sprawl; dark, gloomy little markets where fruit and dreams rotted and dusky oiled-wood floors creaked underfoot and soda bottles shivered in drink boxes swirling with frigid waters seemingly fed by some lost subterranean stream... "Miz Myrtle, I wanna Baby Ruth and pack of Nickle-Nips, pleaz"... Hey, John, which short from the mid-to-late 30's had the Gang breaking into the schoolhouse afterhours and consequently unleashimg a runaway skeleton and terrified janitor? This one scared the Oreo's out of me.

10:40 PM  
Anonymous Eliot said...

While those shorts played regularly on TV when I was a kid, I have to confess that I never cared for them back then. One reason was probably presentation. Our station had both the Roach shorts and the later MGMs and ran then all with the main and end titles chopped off. Additionally, the longer films were cut to about ten minutes so they could run two shorts in half an hour. The other reason was that the kids and their surroundings were so completely removed from the very urban environment in which I was raised. Back then, it was more like watching alien children on some alien planet. I had to encounter the films once again in adulthood to develop a taste for them.

12:33 AM  
Anonymous Laughing Gravy said...

brickadoodle, if I may jump in: That short you ask about is SPOOKY HOOKY.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Say what you will about Shirley Temple, there is no more winning child performer than Tam-O'-Shanter Spanky.

3:12 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Great comments! Glad I'm not alone in my youthful reaction to these shorts. I have to admit it's still hard watching some of these things...

10:35 AM  
Blogger Java Bean Rush said...

Though the terror of the early 20th century's way of playing action in movies is terrifying (chasing a kid with a knife!), it's also oddly refreshing after all the cutaway shots, etc. in subsequent years where you know nothing is really happening off camera.

3:46 PM  
Blogger Java Bean Rush said...

Our Gang is still a bit too slow or sophisticated for my very young nephews.

The kids in these shorts tend to talk alot and there's a long set up to a sight gag; my nephews prefer the non-stop, Tom & Jerry-like slapstick of the Three Stooges.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Steven said...

Good Gosh! Anybody who is NOT of a liking of these priceless early HAL ROACH COMEDY efforts is a 'boring, humorless SHMO' in my book! C'mon, lighten up and laugh; so little humor these days! ANYTHING COMING FROM HAL ROACH MADE BACK THEN showing up ANYWHERE NOW THESE DAYS, SEEMS A MINOR MIRACLE. With that one appearance in an 'Our Gang' "comedy, I found one of the most hilarious 'old witch' characters of all time, in "MUSH AND MILK". and I love "HONKEY DONKEY" WITH THE ANTICS OF MR.Barclay and the title character played by Dianna the mule; And Del Henderson's reaction to ANYBODY in "CHOO-CHOO!"!! And who can forget all of the REACTIONS of the kids answers to test questions relayed by 'Bonedust" Bobby Young and HIS REACTIONS to THEM is priceless, while we watch any of the 'MISS CRABTREE -"SCHOOLS' OUT" series (early '30's-early sound), which REALLY brought the laughter at a furious pace. HOWEVER-- When you come right down to it though,- I read somewhere, (perhaps here!)--that 'one HAD TO GROW UP with the "Lil'Rascals" on TV or --somewhere else-- (and good luck there, unless you happened to know a film collector of these shorts!). Same thing with Laurel and Hardy. WE KNEW THESE people, and we GREW UP WITH THEM --laughing AT THEM and LAUGHING out loud WITH THEM! And I must say, that I believe we are all the more better for it.

8:47 PM  

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