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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Our Gang --- Part Two

Rough edges were largely honed off Our Gang by 1935, the Rascals promoted to a level of comfort and stability denied their early talkie brethren. Much of what would eventually undermine the series at MGM began here. The Gang now ran lemonade stands and put on dance revues. Spanky was fussed over by Hattie McDaniel as uniformed domestic in a distinctly middle-class home (Anniversary Troubles) while prosperous parents Gay Seabrook and Emerson Treacy took him to professional photographer Franklin Pangborn in Wild Poses. Spanky’s well-fed appearance reflected a loosening of Depression grip. Stories no longer revolved around issues of survival. The He-Man Woman Hater’s Club and golf lessons supplied frameworks for comedy. Would Alfalfa sing in the annual Follies? There was still the ongoing threat of neighborhood bully Butch, but he wasn’t a patch on sinister forces that had once preyed upon the Gang. Their bucolic, on-location schoolhouse from earlier days was now replaced by a spanking clean edifice constructed on a Hal Roach soundstage. Classroom mischief was no longer calculated, just little misunderstandings resolved within a single reel's duration by Roach ingenue Rosina Lawrence. Harsh truths reflected in the early Our Gangs were now innocuous bromides where children were taught life’s lessons and adults no longer represented a threat. If anything, the grown-ups were too ineffectual. Spanky’s future with a neutered Johnny Arthur as father and presumed role model seemed anything but promising. By 1937, Our Gang was the last shorts group still ongoing at Roach, done with precision befitting a newly retrofitted feature manufacturer. Result was the likes of Two Too Young (Spanky and Alfalfa think Buckwheat and Porky are too immature to have firecrackers --- who were they to judge?) and The Awful Tooth (dentistry always an ill-advised topic for this series). There was little cause for regret when Roach finally sold his concept, kids, and the "Our Gang" name to MGM in 1938.

No use rehashing the later Our Gangs. Suffice to say they wheezed out by 1944. All the kids were left to fend for themselves. You’d think Metro could at least have kept them on as day players, helped with admission to a trade school ---something. Those bleak early subjects might have prepared older Rascals for what they’d face now. Books have been written about whatever became of, etc. Leonard Maltin and Richard Bann authored the best one. The fifties were barren ground for the gang before television release of the old shorts revitalized interest. An early 50's reunion of silent cast members on Art Baker’s You Asked For It TV series was eerily effective for the malaise it revealed among the group (Mickey Daniels slightly demented, per his child image). Viewers expecting a glimpse of the Gang they best remembered must have been disappointed, for the silent comedies had been out of circulation for years even then, and would remain so, other than mutilated excerpts on television’s The Mischief Makers, and a small handful from the Interstate syndicated package. We wondered what had become of the talking Rascals, but information along these lines was hard to come by, even as public curiosity peaked due to exposure in virtually every TV market. Everyone knew Alfalfa died in a knife fight over $50 (one kid at school maintained this was Pete The Pup’s fate as well). My interest was piqued when word came that Spanky was distributing home heating oil in Hendersonville, NC (still not sure about that one). Tabloids would report the surfacing of a Fatty or a Stinky, but as these were characters unknown to any period within the Gang’s twenty year run, one had to assume Fatty and Stinky were either liars or madmen. There was one surviving Our Gang member I did locate, and to my youthful wonderment, she stood right before me every day teaching sixth grade band …

My instrument was the clarinet, but Priscilla Call knew I was faking most of the notes, as I had no musical talent and less initiative to learn. Mrs. Call had taught band around the county school system for at least ten years. Before that, she attended a music conservatory. Her long past career as a child actress was known as well, but that was a forbidden topic among band students. The singing cowboy host of Charlotte TV’s Little Rascals Club
was rebuffed when he sought an interview, plus Mrs. Call had to deal with a persistent local myth that confused her with Our Gang’s Darla Hood. She was actually Priscilla Lyon during the Hollywood years, landing there by virtue of a Hal Roach sponsored talent show she had won back in Virginia. It was 1935, the Shirley Temple gold rush was on, and Priscilla’s mother figured on mining some of it. Eventually, the whole family landed in Culver City. The seven-year-old tested for Darla’s part in The Bohemian Girl, then decorated the chorus of The Our Gang Follies Of 1936. Priscilla tap-danced on a shine box in The Lucky Corner, and got feature work where she could. There were more aspiring moppets than buffalo head nickels, so competition was intense. She almost got to play Becky Thatcher in Selznick’s Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, but Ann Gillis prevailed. The Hollywood scene never appealed to Priscilla, so by the time she got out (in 1942), there would be no tears of parting. Most of the band kids left her alone about the Rascals, but Mrs. Call was aware of my overpowering (if not overbearing) interest in such things, and looking back on it now, I guess both of us knew that there would someday come a reckoning.

That final morning in band found me gingerly approaching the lectern as Mrs. Call conferred with fellow musicians about an upcoming concert. I wonder if she had some inkling of the terrible consequence for answering my seemingly innocent question … Mrs. Call, Did you ever meet Lon Chaney, Jr.? Her response was a casual yes. When and where? was my next query. Oh, he was making some picture about a werewolf and I stood on the stage and watched, she said, as if that amounted to something less than the supremely momentous event in anyone’s life. My twelve-year-old euphoria must surely have alarmed her. Was Claude Rains there? Did you see Lugosi? Was Jack Pierce on the set to attend Chaney’s make-up? The questions were as rapid-fire as they were relentless. Within five minutes, I was relocated to a corridor outside the band room with the understanding that classes would proceed henceforth without benefit of my presence. In short, I was booted out of band. Later sightings of Priscilla Call, even in high school, were but fleeting. She’d see me in the hall, dart quickly around a corner, or beat a hasty retreat toward the classroom. I began to think of her as a faculty equivalent of the fabled Yeti, rarely glimpsed but definitely out there. It would be 1980 before we'd talk, and this was during her final illness. The two of us spent at least two hours going through scrapbooks and noting credits, many of which were unknown, even to her. She had been in a number of features in addition to the Our Gangs, and had quite a career in radio as well. Co-stars included John and Lionel Barrymore, Ronald Reagan, Tyrone Power, Shirley Temple, Claude Rains (as his daughter in Strange Holiday) --- a real galaxy of notables. Priscilla was the only Golden Age celebrity my town ever had, and I was privileged to be the one to finally take down her story. Other Little Rascals may have been more noteworthy, but this was our Rascal.


Blogger Booksteve said...

As to those "pretenders" who turned up with some frequency for a time, I always thought that perhaps they might have appeared in some OUR GANG knock-offs done by the cheaper studios. Hey, they would have been kids, right? How much do you remember from age 5? As far as THEY knew, they were making OUR GANG films! Maybe they grew up thinking that they'd been in a couple of OUR GANG films and couldn't figure out why they never saw themselves on TV so naturally they inflated their roles to tell friends. I could be wrong but it sounds logical, y'know?

12:46 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Reader Greg passed along some intersting comments via e-mail that I thought I'd share ---

You failed to mention the most frightening Our Gang character of all, and
that would be....

the cake in "Birthday Blues." The father in that story was another one of
the series' infamous adult sadists, but that groaning cake always skeeved
the bejesus out of me.

The creepiness (and the charm) largely disappeared from the series when
McGowan left. If the Grimm brothers had lived during the Depression, they
would have dug the Rascals.

Btw, I'm 32 yrs old, grew up south of Charlotte, and caught the very tail
end of Fred Kirby's VHF reign. He was doing his show on WBTV with Uncle Jim
Patterson at that time, and his "I Love the Little Rascals" song may have
been creepier than anything the actual series came up with.


Thanks, Greg, and also thanks to Booksteve --- I never really considered the possibility you suggested about the so-called Rascal imposters being associated with knock-off kid series. Certainly does sound logical to me...

10:32 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Another neat anecdote and further info concerning Alfalfa's fate received by e-mail from the reader below ---

Hi John- Just a little info you may (or may not) be interested in. I live here in the San Fernando Valley about 5 miles from the house Alfalfa was shot in. Occasionally, an interested friend will ask me to show it to 'em, and i drive by, but obviously it just looks like many other houses, to their disappointment (like they were expecting police cars to still be there or something) Guess you've already visited A few years back i was at a poster show in N.Hwood, and Butch was one of the celebs hawking their 8x10s and his then-new autobiography. The ballroom was crowded and hot, so i went out to rest on a bench and get some fresh air. Who should come out for a cigarette and sit down right next to me but Butch. I quickly gathered my thoughts, figuring I had about 8 minutes. I think I basically uttered, "So, do you think Alfalfa really had a knife?" (Smooth, huh?) he paused for a moment and said 'I dont think so. It's in the book". I lied and said," I know, I've got it. Great job." He warmed up a bit and said even though Alfalfa was a pretty arrogant kid at times, they were friends, and that he often felt sorry for him. He then added, 'the knife was found closed under him, and if you've just been shot, i dont think you're going to bother closing it on your way down" (paraphrasing). I got the feeling Butch just wanted a break, so I said, 'Nice talking to you, have a good day", or something. Just a little trivia for you. Best, Steve

Thanks, Steve!

3:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kay Linaker taught at MY school (as Kate Phillips), and she was free with tales of her Hollywood career.

4:45 PM  

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