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Sunday, November 02, 2008




Has Our Gang Left The Building?





I’m looking for a show of hands from those who still care about The Little Rascals. How many of you are left? Websites devoted to vintage TV often confuse Rascal comedies (called "episodes") with programs made for the tube, lumping them in with Leave It To Beaver and even the Brady kids for all-purpose nostalgia wallowing. Our Gang seems more a product of the fifties and sixties anyway for DVD buyers looking to recapture childhood. How many of us saw Our Gang in theatres for which they were intended (let alone called them by that correct name)? Arc the graph of interest and I’d submit the Rascals peaked twenty-five to thirty years ago, much as did looks back to Beaver and the Bradys as both were revived and revisited by boomers wanting to embrace a (for them) less complicated past. Does nostalgia diminish as we get older? I’m not seeing my kind of oldies on TV Land anymore. Stuff I’d have flushed in the eighties is clearly someone’s idea of fond memory now, but how long will Punky Brewster’s generation remain devoted to her? Movies and programs we followed on television might linger long with us, but I wonder if there isn’t an expiration date on sentiment generated by the home screen. Can we maintain the intensity old pards now in their seventies feel for Saturday westerns and serials they experienced in crowded theatres? I saw Spanky McFarland appear at a college in 1984 and realized even then that his party was almost over. Those students had been exposed to Rascals mostly gutted and shorn of alleged offence by a new syndicator (King World) fresh out of sensitivity training. That had happened back in 1971. Eight shorts in the package were removed altogether while others were cut nearly by half. Television has been no safe haven for Our Gang since. Yum Yum, Eat ‘Em Up draws mostly blank stares from those under fifty. The shorts would have been dumped anyway for being in black-and-white. We tolerate the latter for having once lived in households without color TV (I say we in the comfortable knowledge that anyone shunning B/W would also shun Greenbriar Picture Shows). The Little Rascals survive, like zoo animals in protective habitats, on video difficult (until now) to come by. AMC was the last (probably for all time) TV outlet to spend money showcasing them with its 2001 (short-lived) run hosted by teen star of the nano-second Frankie Muniz. Honest appraisal of all eighty talking subjects produced by Hal Roach reveals a bag nearly as mixed as Warner Bros. cartoons swallowed whole. The best are great, the good still get by, and the bad go unplayed. I’m culling them now pretty much as I did in the sixties. Our Gang never got on pedestals with Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and others, despite their greater sustained popularity. Are critics and historians a little stuck-up when it comes to Roach’s Rascals?





DVD purchasers are lately emerging from the dark cave of Genius Entertainment’s Little Rascals box set to report on what a disappointment it’s proven to be. In this enlightened era of heightened digital standards, they actually used 16mm Blackhawk prints as source material for a number of transfers, including ones done right in previous video and laserdisc releases. A lot of Genius’ transfers are out of sync as well. I don’t generally play at DVD reviewing, but this is just unpardonable. Common sense assures me that cubicle dwellers at Genius could care less what seasoned (read old and who cares about them?) fans think, being more alert as to how many units Wal-Mart will buy and who the Lakers are playing tonight (and there's been no response to inquiries buyers have made). They should recall this mess and clean it up, but that’ll happen when dinosaurs again rule the earth. Genius (and I’ll not comment on ironies rife in that name) could have avoided disaster by the simple expediency of letting interview subject Richard Bann supervise all the transfers. Having no one with his competence on site requires such measure, but as that also implies in-housers don’t know their jobs (now confirmed), what were realistic chances of same? I’d send mine back but for shorts that were (by undoubted sheer chance) mastered from 35mm and are presentable on DVD. The thing I find so irritating is compilers too dog lazy to gather restored materials that do exist on all these Our Gang comedies and are accessible to rights holder Genius. I’d not hammer this so hard but for the fact that Genius controls the balance of the Hal Roach sound library, and getting it right next time becomes all the more crucial in the event they finally get around to releasing the balance of Laurel and Hardy on DVD (I won’t even mention Charley Chase so as not to evoke further dinosaur imagery). If the outcome is to be so poor as these Little Rascals discs, what’s the point of bothering?















So what of the shorts themselves (at least those watchable in the Genius set)? My first stop was Railroadin’, the Gang’s second talkie and the only one not included in television packages owing to sound discs being lost until 1979. I can watch this without flash-backing forty years, which is to acknowledge again that there are certain Rascal images in my subconscious as yet unnerving and poised to awaken when I hear Yum, Yum, Eat ‘Em Up or You’ll Eat That Mush and Like It! To my (now) delight, Railroadin’ has its own disquieting element to rival those that haunted my boyhood. Loco Joe ranks high in the gallery of demented adults preying upon the Gang. He corners Farina and Joe in a train engine from which there’s no ready means of escape, his growls and brain-damaged appearance far too realistic to be dismissed as idle (or comical) threat. Such people were (are!) a fact of life, but who other than Hal Roach permitted them onscreen entry into a child’s world? That world, by the way, was largely Culver City, Roach’s headquarters and site of most outdoor shooting for Rascal subjects. It was then a place of humble shops, (surprisingly many) vacant lots and blue-uniformed police directing light traffic at intersections. I visited Culver City several times during the late eighties and nineties, hoping there’d be some vestige left of that place I’d known in Our Gang (and Laurel and Hardy). One or two building fronts suggested what once was, and a few alleys revealed window frames unchanged, but mostly there was disillusionment over merciless change and a simpler life swept away (yes, I did entertain unrealistic hopes that perhaps one of those corner grocers might still be in business). The Roach lot itself, featured in Our Gang’s Dogs Of War, looks in that 1923 short more like a sawmill I worked in one summer after freshman year, and the furthest thing imaginable from anyone’s conception of glamorous Hollywood (the studio was unceremoniously torn down in 1963). Rascal comedies, at least the silents and earliest talkers, are rich in dirt-road austerity. No wonder modern kids fail to connect. The Gang’s childhood has scarcely a parallel with youth as experienced today. It comes almost unexpected to hear of Our Gang-ers still alive. Few are, of course, having been winnowed out by natural causes and fate’s occasional application of Rascal-hood’s "curse". There’s none left of the principal silent group other than Jean Darling, and survivors of the talkies must surely be worn out telling anecdotes as ossified as they increasingly are. You wonder if such interview subjects might occasionally wish they’d gone out with Alfalfa’s bang so as to be spared relentless shadowing for all these years by press and fans.





















Maybe it’s time we looked closer at all those "fake" Rascals who came forward over generations to claim status as the original Fatty, Freckles, or Stinky. I’ve got the feeling most of them were in kid comedies, just not ones Roach produced. There were hundreds of such youngsters, most silent. Competing companies dredged moppet reservoirs in search of profits Our Gang realized. Many were so interchangeable as to be easily confused with the product brand. Syndicators in the fifties packaged ersatz Rascals and sometimes they fooled us on TV. Children that worked in these shorts grew up thinking all gangs were Our Gang, an understandable conclusion. After all, didn’t their comedies also have the requisite fat kid, black kid, bully, and sweetheart? Their numbers surely outweighed those of Roach’s Rascals. I’ve watched some on Looser Than Loose Publishing’s Kid Gangs and Juvenile Stars DVD collection (excellent, by the way) and emerged dizzy from exposure to so many would-be Rascals. Some aren’t bad. There were The McDougall Alley Kids, Buster Brown, Big Boy, and the Hey Fellas! series. "Sunny Jim" McKeen was Universal’s mischief maker, and maybe we’d know more of him had he lived past age eight and had his films survived beyond that death in 1933. Where few were once contenders, most of these comedies ended up lost or ground down to 16mm dupes, even fragments. "Fat kid" players who exited the scene prematurely were said to have died of obesity. Mickey Rooney’s lucrative gang was the screen incarnation of popular comic The Toonerville Trolly, wherein Rooney was rechristened Mickey McGuire. These did well and straddled silents and talkies, their limited number in the latter category explaining absence for the most part from television. No competing series, however, had Roach’s facility for picking personalities and renewing the line as youngsters aged out and were replaced. They had the luck (or likelier skill) of recognizing kids that would click. Several went on to "A" features. Our Gang’s popularity was whitest-hot in the twenties. The Kellogg’s cereal tie-in shown here resulted in five thousand billboards across the country with seven hundred field men out of Battle Creek extolling the virtues of Roach’s Rascals. This was dawn upon an era of merchandising familiar to us now, but revolutionary then. Kids loyal to the Gang they watched could also be faithful to products their screen models used, and the possibilities from there were limitless. Had we not had so severe a Depression, I’d venture Our Gang would have become, as Disney did eventually, a tie-in force truly to be reckoned with, one which alone could have kept Hal Roach Studios affluent for decades to come.






















Better don one of those helmet lamps they use in coal mines should you decide to go looking for Our Gang silents. You’ll dig deep among off-labels and public domain dollar bins, and even then come up with mostly dross. The majority of Our Gang silents are PD, which means you, me, and Loco Joe can package and sell them to whatever super market will basket them up. That Genius box and object of my rant included three that were renewed by copyright owners. Spook Spoofing has a track as still as the graveyard Farina visits, but I sat for its three very silent reels after being drawn in by an opening title (He Knew That No Boy Had A Chance Against The Ghosts Of Dead Men) that neatly summed up the perverse and unpredictable nature of Our Gang comedies. Dog Heaven began with Pete The Dog hanging himself (and alarmingly convincing at doing so) after Joe Cobb abandons him for a neighborhood girl. The canine suicide theme is pursued to a hairbreadth finish as Pete seeks repeated solace in the noose. Hal Roach might have been well advised to furnish counseling services to his creative staff, as many paraded issues and obsessions perhaps better left to treating professionals. Our Gang silents are alive with bizarro sights less peculiar to viewers then. Organ grinders with monkeys are not uncommon (were they actually?), kids get about by goat-driven conveyance and few take heed (dogs pull carts and owners as well). Flies are everywhere. They crawl into eyes and nostrils. I went for years thinking it would be quite impossible for real kids to build their own streetcar or train, but reckoned not with ingenuity of American youth back in those days, for there was an acquaintance I once worked with (then in his seventies), who at the age of fourteen built an airplane that flew (and had pictures to prove it!). He’d been caught up in the Lindbergh fever, but hindsight makes me wonder if Our Gang didn’t provide his first flush of inspiration. If nothing else, Roach’s Rascals gave ongoing incentive for kids to get off their cans and do things. Can anyone imagine a sedentary Our Gang playing video games?











































Enter the Home Restorationist. Their online numbers are increasing. One made a project of 1924’s Seein’ Things, in which Farina steals a live chicken and eats it (presumably raw), only to be beset with nightmares in which the Gang assumes gargantuan size and chases him through downtown streets built to reduced scale for maximum horrific effect. That one’s on You Tube, along with a number of silent Our Gangs otherwise unavailable. Home Restorationists rescue old prints, scraps of footage, so-called "toy" reels once given away with home movie projectors … whatever can be cobbled toward a reconstruction of lost films. The silent Our Gangs had been diced to near oblivion over the years. Most were shorn of content and intertitles besides for TV packaging beneath umbrellas like The Mischief Makers and Those Lovable Scalawags With Their Gangs. You may remember these. Few were coherent inasmuch as they’d been degraded from two-reel running times down to speeded-up travesties. Putting them right has become a mission for enthusiasts able to transfer their salvaged footage on home computers and bring them a degree closer to what audiences saw in the twenties. They can’t approach digital perfection achieved by well-financed corporate efforts, but these are labors of love and deserving of recognition for effort put forth on behalf of comedies too long neglected. Laughsmith Entertainment is presently working on what promises to be a definitive collection of Our Gang comedies for DVD release. Their previous offerings, The Forgotten Films Of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Industrial Strength Keaton, are two of the best classic compilations around, so this promises to be something really special.

27 Comments:

Anonymous Griff said...

In his recently published memoir (well worth a look), Walter Mirisch discusses how Monogram originally acquired the TV rights for the Our Gang shorts. The producer describes the frustrating and laborious task of making new negatives from the poorly maintained original pre-print material. Monogram apparently made a fortune from the TV syndication of the shorts. Per Mirisch, while the studio's license for the comedies was relatively brief, the dupe negatives they created remained the basis for all later television prints. [The censoring of the shorts came after Monogram's license expired.]

To the end of his life, my father fondly recalled meeting Joe Cobb at a big promotional bicycle event in Houston in the late '20s. Everyone loved those kids.

7:56 PM  
Anonymous Ron said...

My two young nephews and some of their friends watched a handful of OUR GANG shorts off the new Genius set. "Divot Diggers," "Hearts Are Thumps," "The Kid from Borneo" and "Dogs Is Dogs," among the selection. The kids watched in absolute silence and afterwards pronounced what they had just seen "boring," "old-fashioned" and, my favorite, "creepy." And yeah, the world has changed. An 8-year-old remarked that the films were "kinda racist."

Not the reaction I was hoping for, because I'm a big fan of these shorts. Maybe the world they depict has become too remote for many of today's children to be able to relate to them. Maybe they're too simplistic, too old-fashioned, and too rough around the edges compared to the slick shows kids are raised on now. Being in black-and-white doesn't help.

I know guys on silent film and classic comedy groups who always seem to live around children who live to watch Larry Semon two-reelers and who cry and act as though they're being punished when they're forced to watch contemporary TV like SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS or FAIRLY ODDPARENTS instead of early, black-and-white Terrytoons or Buster Keaton shorts, but I never seem to get that lucky. :)

10:14 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

It's ironic that these lousy companies had to have ownership of these classic films that actually deserve to fall into the public domain once and for all.

Ironically, I just managed to learn how to put back the Movietone soundtrack to the DVD version of FOUR SONS... and I achieved good results.

12:13 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff, I read that Mirisch book and thought it was terrific. I'd strongly recommend it to all Greenbriar readers. Great stuff!

Can't imagine having "children who live to watch Larry Semon two-reelers", Ron. Your friend must have some kind of extraordinary family!

Radiotelefonia, I know I'm rough on the "Little Rascals" box set, but consider the claims made in their advertising, to wit "Restored and Remastered". And I didn't mention that their booklet inside is rife with factual errors.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Bruce Calvert said...

I love Our Gang. I don't have the DVD set yet, but I have about 10 of their films on 16mm. DIVOT DIGGERS and CHOO CHOO are a couple of favorites.

I got to see Spanky McFarland and Hal Roach at a retrospective a few months before both died. When someone in the audience commented that the shorts were really racist, Spanky actually cried. He said that nobody but Hal Roach had the guts to portray black and white kids as friends in a film at the time.

5:58 PM  
Anonymous Ron said...

I can tell you why the Our Gang shorts disappeared from local TV. In the 1980s most television stations, like the one I worked for, switched to broadcasting exclusively from videotape. Most of them retired their reliable old 16mm film chains completely. Our station, and most others, ended up having to drop old theatrical shorts material such as the Our Gangs and cartoons because the companies that syndicated them rarely made them available to us on tape. In film days, stations kept that kind of material in their own film libraries and programmed it themselves. Whatever was going to air on that day's LITTLE RASCALS CLUBHOUSE or THREE STOOGES THEATER or POPEYE AND HIS PALS was just pulled from the library. But tape is too big and too bulky to library hundreds of films that way. Programming needed to be available to stations in preformatted half-hours, with each "episode" having a uniform running time of 22 minutes or so. Syndicators rarely bothered to do that with shorts material, so that kind of thing just disappeared from almost all stations, except for some of the superstations, like WGN in Chicago and WTBS in Atlanta, who kept their film chains operating a few years longer. King World didn't even bother to offer the Our Gang shorts on tape until that theatrical LITTLE RASCALS film came out back in '94. Having those films off of television screens and away from the regular exposure they got there throughout the 1950s, '60s and '70s is what I think started them on their slide out of public conciousness and toward "huh?" status.

12:17 AM  
Anonymous Kimberly said...

Fascinating stuff for me! Count me in as someone who still cares about The Little Rascals. I don't know much about the early Our Gang films. I'm much more familiar with The Little Rascals and I've seen many of The Little Rascal movies and love them.

You might get a kick out of knowing that I'm related to George "Spanky" McFarland (my mother's maiden name is McFarland). Although I never met the man, my mother did. Apparently there were family troubles and some bad blood among the McFarland clan. I've always been curious about learning more about my family but it's not easy since many died young and they didn't like talking about the past much (what do you expect from the Irish / Brits?).

Oddly enough my younger brother looked EXACTLY like Spanky when we were growing up. So much so that we would actually get stopped on the street and asked about it. My mom kept quiet most of the time because she didn't really know George McFarland and hated talking about her family.

I really should research George McFarland more and my family roots so thanks for lighting a fire under my bum!

7:12 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

John: Your comments are on the spot and your are not rough. I can still see more abominable versions that you can ever imagine.

When film chains were retired, they only kept video masters for Argentine films. Horrific version, unfortunately, because the films were extremely abused for years.

Many films are available in either horrible and/or incomplete versions.

This is the opening minutes of a classic comedy called JETTATORE (1938). You will not really note anything important. However, I reconstructed the soundtrack of the opening credits so the music will fit the surviving footage (something that it is usually impossible to do):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bziT49zlRLY

11:00 PM  
Blogger The Great Bolo said...

I assume 'Kimberly' refers to THE LITTLE RASCALS comedy shorts as movies, otherwise, I'm a bit lost in knowing what she means.

9:04 AM  
Anonymous Kimberly said...

Does "short movies" make more sense to you, bolo? I figured everyone would easily understand what I was talking about.

They played them endlessly on TV when I was growing up in the late '70s-early '80s so I got to enjoy them then.

6:25 PM  
Blogger East Side said...

I can't add anything to the Our Gang chat, but... When my mother lived in New York circa 1935, there was an organ grinder with monkey outside her apartment building every day. So yes, those guys really did exist.

7:00 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Bruce, the good subjects on the DVD still outwiegh the bad, so it's worth buying, despite the fumbles elsewhere.

Ron, my many thanks to you for that wonderful inside TV stuff. You know how I relish such!

Kimberly --- I'm surprised and delighted to hear from a Spanky relation! Thanks for checking in.

East Side, I'm still in hopes of an organ grinder and monkey showing up in my neighborhood. By all means, send any you encounter my way ...

12:13 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Here's a comment from a reader that I received via e-mail:

If the Little Rascals box set is as bad as you say it
is, you should consider contacting the consumer
protection division of the Los Angeles District
Attorney's Office. Genius Entertainment is based in
Santa Monica, which is in L.A. County.

If they are advertising this set as "restored" and
"digitally remastered" and it isn't, they could be in
violation of California's law against false and
misleading advertising. Note the phrasing. Even if
they are technically telling the truth about the films
being "restored and remastered" they are still in
violation of the law if that is misleading. They also
advertise this collection as "complete" which is not
true.

With an $80 retail price and a very recent release
date, this may be of interest to the D.A.'s Office.
Their consumer protection division is the largest in
the state. If they don't seem interested, I would
suggest you contact the California Attorney General's
Office, which also has a large consumer protection
division.

As you note in your article, this should be about more
than getting refunds or discounts for people who
purchased this package. Their should be an injunction
against them to prevent them from doing the same
sub-standard job on other old films that they have
acquired.

I hope you will pursue this.

Bay Gelldawg

6:09 PM  
Anonymous John said...

I have a Little Rascals box set on video. 21 Vols. It was put out by a company called Cabin Fever and I believe each episode is hosted by Leonard Maltin. Funny...I have not viewed them in years but just the other day I came home to find my wife watching one of them. Actually, she is the one that bought them way back cause she loved watching them as a kid. I did too. Anyway....the box says digitally remastered and restored. I'm not an expert by any means but the few episodes that I checked out since I found this post do look pretty good. Is anyone familiar with this set? I am just wondering if these are uncensored.

11:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently spoke to a Twenty-something woman who thought that the 1994 "Little Rascals" movie was the original.She'd never heard of the 30s shorts.I remember that I was very disappointed by the early 70s King World re-packaging, having expected to see them in the form I'd seen them a few years earlier.And a radio commentator seemed to think that King World was the ORIGINAL producer!

1:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess Our Gang joins Laurel and Hardy and W. C. Fields as comedians that are dead to most people. Various circumstances kept them out of circulation for almost a generation which may not be totally fatal for Fields (he appeals to adult sensibilities) but the others are dead dead DEAD.

You have to be exposed to Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy as a very young child or you will never learn to enjoy them. Alas, I find that after along gap without Laurel & Hardy I have trouble enjoying them as much as I once did.

I remember seeing those shorts with a large audience and we all were roaring with laughter. No more, I'm afraid. I'm not as big a fan of Our Gang as some folks but the early ones and the silents are marvelous. They are a bit creepy in that the poverty, which was the norm for most folks,is a bit shocking and the depiction of abusive adults has too real an edge but some are genuinely creepy (the one fantasy sequence with the giant comes to mind) in a way I loved as a kid.

The later MGM produced (not just released by MGM as the Hal Roach product was at the time) shorts are deadly beyond belief and, of course, these are the ones that turn up on TCM.

Spencer Gill (opticalguy1954@yahoo.com)

12:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Still the best transfers of Our Gang sound comedies are the Cabin Fever editions on both VHS and DVD. There are 12 volumes on 6 DVDs as a set, and may still be found from time to time on eBay. These were taken from 35mm Library of Congress prints and all have original opening titles.

Luckily, I borrowed some earlier single Genius Entertainment Our Gang discs from a local library, and aside from some interesting newsreel clips and promos, the transfers were terrible compared to the Cabin Fever releases.

As a programmer for a local classic film series, I have found that there are several sound comedies in this series that are in the public domain--two which come to mind are "Schools Out" and "Follies of 1938"

Evan from Toledo

6:28 AM  
Blogger East Side said...

Regarding Anonymous' comment that Our Gang and WC Fields are dead to most movie viewers today... Assuming that most of us are baby boomers, I think we're the last generation to be aware of -- or certainly fans of -- certain actors (and musicians) whose original audiences were still alive. I really think that it ends with us. Can you imagine any member of Generation Y (or whatever letter it is now) enjoying, say, Jack Benny? I feel like we're the "witnesses" that are invariably interviewed by historians before they shuffle off earth.

11:12 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

"You have to be exposed to Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy as a very young child or you will never learn to enjoy them"

Truer words I've not heard spoken, Spencer, and yes, East Side, I too think it pretty well ends with us. I'd like to think those isolated TCM runs are finding new fans for Laurel and Hardy, but that can't amount to very much in terms of viewership. As for Our Gang and W.C. Fields, they just aren't on television at all anymore, it seems ...

1:04 PM  
Anonymous pat said...

I am 35 years old, and I am probably among the last generation to grow up watching "Little Rascals" on TV as presented by King World (and also the Janus Films TV prints of Laurel and Hardy shorts). I vaguely recall a show airing on Sunday(?) mornings on a local UHF station hosted by Matthew "Stymie" Beard and a female former Our-Ganger whose name escapes me. I believe Stymie was dead by the time I was watching the show, which was probably produced in the 1970s.

I was recently transferring my Cabin Fever "Little Rascals" VHS tapes to DVD before I heard about the new Genius set. After hearing your take on it, John, I'm glad I still have my VHS copies.

A website that has exhaustively researched, detailed info about every Our Gang film:

http://theluckycorner.com/

9:41 PM  
Blogger Theater Poster Exchange said...

Great article John. And what a travesty it is that all the Laurel and Hardy sound shorts have not been restored and released in a box set. Surely there must be a market for them as much as for the Popeye shorts or the silent Harry Langdon's that were recently released? But I fear with a downturned economy we may see more of the Little Rascals hack jobs.

5:54 PM  
Anonymous "r.j." said...

Hey, John,
My father told me that in the 20's, when my grandparents' had a home on Long Island and would commute to the city, a theatre in Manhattan advetised for a "Live- in-person" appearance by The Our Gang troupe -- presumably that was the original group. Dad said he counted the days. To his disappointment, on the appointed day, the tour was cancelled -- maybe they were stuck out here doing re-takes, or something, or I think Dad said it was snowing somewhere, something like that.
Flash-forward to a good many decades later. I'm working in Culver City for a very famous nightclub, which I will not name. We were located on Venice Blvd very near the old MGM lot. One afternoon, I had a surfeit of paperwork, and some additional work I had to do, so I wandered down the street in search of a cup of coffee, not really knowing the area all that well. Go into a donut shop on Venice & Motor. No sooner do I order, than the counterman yells over my shoulder, "Hey Joe! What'll it be -- the usual?" A voice behind me answers, "Yep. The usual". Turn around, and freeze! A little man, swear to God, like 4 foot-tall, wearing a sombrero twice the size of his head, giving him an almost-deformed look. "My God!" I exclaim, "You used to be one of the Our Gang!" He smiles in recognition. "Yep", he answers. It was Joe Cobb, the original fat-boy of the silents. And there he was in the very neighborhood where a half-century before he had been shooting on half-vacant streets and dirt lots, near Roach. We talk of the Roach days, I tell him how recognizable the old street corners and landmarks and buildings in the neighborhood still are to me. He smiles in appreciation, nods in agreement. We talk about Charley Chase, and Stan & Ollie, and of course "The Boss". "And you're still here" I say, meaning in his old stomping grounds. "Still here" Joe says with a strange but obvious sort of pride. Maybe he couldn't believe it himself.
The argument regarding how much if any life may still be left to the old two-reelers, and the comedians we all grew-up and were raised on, is almost a moot-point I feel. When we were watching these things as kids, it was not that far-removed from the time they were made, and many, or most of the original creators were still alive, some still active. The world has changed so much since, and technology has advanced so far, I would worry more about any child who DID find these things appealing. The stuff now isn't half as good of course, but it's a different time. The wonderful Universal horror movies we all grew-up on would probably seem really "lame", almost ludicrous to the average nine year-old of today, I would think.
I'm somewhat reminded of the "tag-line" at the end of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn", and the brief dialogue Peggy Ann Gardner and Ted Donalson are having about their new baby-brother: "At least life will be easier for him," she says, "He'll never have to endure the hardships we did." "He'll never have the fun, either", Donalson reminds her.
Best,
R.J.

1:53 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Bill, with the economy being where it is, I'm not looking for many library titles on DVD in 2009, let alone Laurel and Hardy. Too bad.

RJ, that is a fantastic story about Joe Cobb. I'd understood he remained around the Culver City area and was a familiar sight there. Someone told me that Joe was even known to engage in impromptu downtown traffic directing from time to time.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

As a child/teenager, I greatly enjoyed "The Little Rascals," with my preference being the 1930-33 McGowan period (the very ones that "creeped you out"). Now that I'm well into middle-age, I find that the original silent gang - Sunshine Sammy, Jackie, Mickey, Mary, Farina, Joe - were undoubtedly the most appealing - and naturally funny - of the bunch. It's such a shame that most of the prints in circulation are such a strain to watch. I've been on pins and needles for a couple of years waiting for that Laughsmith release... sure hope it'll be out in time for the next Cinevent (where I usually spend my yearly entertainment budget in full).

1:05 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hey Michael --- I'll be at Cinevent. Hope to see you there!

2:32 PM  
OpenID mag9thepower said...

I am 23 years old and when I was really young at my local library they had some of the shorts of the little rascals on video and have always loved the shorts more so than the movie especailly since the recent dvd releases to see them. In fact generation y is more so involved in this since the releases on dvd. I always talk about these shorts to people who do not know about them and they want them now. There was so much the movie in 1994 did not use that is so much more involved and funny. Now all that needs release is the silent shorts from 22-29 i think
Good comments I can see that some generations are already with stories on the people and history of the series
Marcello

5:16 PM  
Blogger Erich Scholz said...

I'm not that old (in my '30s) but I grew up with the Rascals on TV. My whole family recited dialog from the shorts and even to this day, I'll find myself imitating a double-take that Spanky himself might've used.

Recently being exposed to the silent 2-reelers, I can say I've developed a new insight into the series. The '20s era silents are hilarious and I can't help but believe that anyone would find them funny...and no, I don't think they're racist at all. At all, especially if you consider the times they were made. Sure, Farina (and later Buckwheat) fulfilled the "pickaninny" stereotype -- but Sunshine Sammy was so obviously the leader of the Gang. And Roach didn't use blackface characters in the series. I don't think any major studio from the period was as progressive in their portrayal of African-Americans. But that said, I can understand how some younger folks would find some of the characterizations questionable. Not that I agree but I understand.

I recently showed my 5 year old nephew a few 16mm Our Gang shorts. He enjoyed them but was actually scared by a few scenes and begged me to turn it off. It's so easy to forget what can frighten a child...and what can impress them as well. I'm starting him off early in the hopes that at least one young person out there will remember Hal Roach and keep the shorts alive.

4:37 PM  

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