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.