Alfalfa and the Little Rascals
This is an episode of one of my favorite E! shows,(in the pre-Kardashian era) Mysteries and Scandals. Hosted by A.J. Benza. Enjoy. For entertainment pruposes only.
Title card for the 1937 Our Gang comedy Rushin’ Ballet.
Our Gang (also known as The Little Rascals or Hal Roach’s Rascals) is a series of American comedy short films about a group of poor neighborhoodchildren and their adventures. Created by comedy producer Hal Roach, the series is noted for showing children behaving in a relatively natural way, as Roach and original director Robert F. McGowan worked to film the unaffected, raw nuances apparent in regular children rather than have them imitate adult acting styles.
In addition, Our Gang notably put boys, girls, whites and blacks together as equals, something that “broke new ground,” according to film historian Leonard Maltin. That had never been done before in cinema, but has since been repeated after the success of Our Gang.
The franchise began in 1922 as a series of silent short subjects produced by the Roach studio and released by Pathé Exchange. Roach changed distributors from Pathé to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in 1927, and the series entered its most popular period after converting to sound in 1929. Production continued at the Roach studio until 1938, when the series was sold to MGM, which produced the comedies itself until 1944. In total, the Our Gang series includes 220 shorts and one feature film, General Spanky, featuring over forty-one child actors. As MGM retained the rights to the Our Gang trademark following their purchase of the production rights, the 80 Roach-produced “talkies” were syndicated for television under the title The Little Rascals beginning in 1955. Both Roach’s The Little Rascalspackage (now owned by CBS Television Distribution) and MGM’s Our Gang package (now owned by Warner Bros. Entertainment) have since remained in syndication, with periodic new productions based on the shorts surfacing over the years, including a 1994 Little Rascals feature film released by Universal Pictures.
Unlike many motion pictures featuring children and based in fantasy, producer/creator Hal Roach rooted Our Gang in real life: the majority of the children were poor, and the gang was often at odds with snobbish “rich kids,” officious adults and parents, and other such adversaries. The series was notable in that the gang included both blacks and females in leading parts at a time when discrimination against both groups was commonplace.
Senior director Robert F. McGowan helmed most of the Our Gang shorts until 1933, assisted by his nephew Anthony Mack. McGowan worked to develop a style that allowed the children to be as natural as possible, downplaying the importance of the filmmaking equipment. Scripts were written for the shorts by the Hal Roach comedy writing staff, which included at various timesLeo McCarey, Frank Capra, Walter Lantz and Frank Tashlin, among others. The children, some too young to read, rarely saw the scripts; instead McGowan would explain the scene to be filmed to each child, immediately before it was shot, directing the children using a megaphone and encouraging improvisation. Of course, when sound came in at the end of the 1920s, McGowan modified his approach slightly, but scripts were not adhered to until McGowan left the series. Later Our Gang directors such as Gus Meinsand Gordon Douglas streamlined the approach to McGowan’s methods, to meet the demands of the increasingly sophisticated movie industry of the mid to late 1930s. Douglas in particular had to streamline his films, as he directed Our Gang after Roach halved the running times of the shorts from two reels (20 minutes) to one reel (10 minutes).
Finding and Replacing The Cast
As the children became too old for the series, they were replaced by new children, usually from the Los Angeles area. EventuallyOur Gang talent scouting employed large-scale national contests, where thousands of children tried out for one open role. Norman “Chubby” Chaney (who replaced Joe Cobb), Matthew “Stymie” Beard (who replaced Allen “Farina” Hoskins) and Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas (who replaced Stymie) all won contests to become members of the gang. Even when there was no talent search, the studio was bombarded by requests from parents who were sure their children were perfect for the series. Among these were future child stars Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple, neither of whom made it past the audition stage.
African-American cast Members
An original theatrical poster for the Our Gang comedy Baby Brother. The premise of this short has Allen “Farina” Hoskins (center) paint a black baby with white shoe polish so that he can sell him to lonely rich boy Joe Cobb (right) as a baby brother.
The Our Gang series is notable for being one of the first in cinema history when blacks and whites were portrayed as equals. The four African-American child actors who held main-character roles in the series were Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, Allen “Farina” Hoskins, Matthew “Stymie” Beard and Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas. Ernie Morrison was, in fact, the first African-American actor signed to a long-term contract in Hollywood history, and was the first major African-American star in Hollywood history as well.
In their adult years, Morrison, Beard and Thomas became some of Our Gang’sstaunchest defenders, maintaining that its integrated cast and innocent story lines were far from racist. They explained that the white children’s characters in the series were similarly stereotyped: the “freckle-faced kid,” the “fat kid,” the “neighborhood bully”, the “pretty blond girl,” and the “mischievous toddler.” “We were just a group of kids who were having fun, ” Stymie Beard recalled. Ernie Morrison stated, “When it came to race, Hal Roach was color-blind.” Other minorities, including Asian Americans (Sing Joy [George “Sonny Boy” Warde], Allen Tong [a/k/a Alan Dong], and Edward Soo Hoo) and Italian Americans (Mickey Gubitosi), were depicted in the series, with varying levels of stereotyping.
1922-1925: Early Years
According to Roach, the idea for Our Gangcame to him in 1921, when he was auditioning a child actress to appear in a film. The girl was, in his opinion, overly made up and overly rehearsed, and Roach waited for the audition to be over. After the girl and her mother left the office, Roach looked out of his window to a lumberyard across the street, where he saw some children having an argument. The children had all taken sticks from the lumberyard to play with, but the smallest child had the biggest stick, and the others were trying to force him to give it to the biggest child. After realizing that he had been watching the children bicker for 15 minutes, Roach thought a short film series about children just being themselves might be a success.
Our Gang also had its roots in an aborted Roach short-subject series revolving around the adventures of a black boy called “Sunshine Sammy”, played by Ernie Morrison. Theater owners then were wary of booking shorts focused on a black boy, and the series ended after just one entry, The Pickaninny, was produced. Morrison’s “Sunshine Sammy” instead became one of the foci of the new Our Gang series.
Under the supervision of Charley Chase, work began on the first two-reel shorts in the new “kids-and-pets” series, to be called Hal Roach’s Rascals, later that year. Director Fred C. Newmeyer helmed the first pilot film, entitled Our Gang, but Roach scrapped Newmeyer’s work and had former fireman Robert F. McGowan re-shoot the short. Roach tested it at several theaters around Hollywood. The attendees were very receptive, and the press clamored for “lots more of those ‘Our Gang’ comedies.” The colloquial usage of the term Our Gang led to its becoming the series’ second (yet more popular) official title, with the title cards reading “Our Gang Comedies: Hal Roach presents His Rascals in…” The series was officially called both Our Gang and Hal Roach’s Rascalsuntil 1932, when Our Gang became the sole title of the series.
The first cast of Our Gang was recruited primarily of children recommended to Roach by studio employees, with the exception of Ernie Morrison, under contract to Roach. The other Our Gang recruits included Roach photographer Gene Kornman’s daughter Mary Kornman, their friends’ son Mickey Daniels, and family friends Allen “Farina” Hoskins, Jack Davis, Jackie Condon and Joe Cobb. Most early shorts were filmed outdoors and on location, and featured a menagerie of animal characters, such as Dinah the Mule.
Roach’s distributor Pathé released One Terrible Day, the fourth short produced for the series, as the first Our Gang short on September 10, 1922; the pilot Our Gang was not released until November 5. The Our Gang series was a success from the start, with the children’s naturalism, the funny animal actors, and McGowan’s direction making a successful combination. The shorts did well at the box office, and by the end of the decade the Our Gang children were pictured on numerous product endorsements.
The biggest Our Gang stars then were Sunshine Sammy, Mickey Daniels, Mary Kornman, and little Farina, who eventually became the most popular member of the 1920s gang and the most popular black child star of the 1920s. Daniels and Kornman were very popular, and often paired in Our Gang and a later teen version of the series called The Boy Friends, which Roach produced from 1930 to 1932. Other early Our Gang children were Eugene “Pineapple” Jackson, Scooter Lowry, Andy Samuel, Johnny Downs, and Jay R. Smith.
1926-1929: New Faces and new Distributors
After Sammy, Mickey and Mary left the series in the mid-1920s, the Our Gang series entered a transitional period. The stress of directing child actors forced Robert McGowan to take doctor-mandated sabbaticals for exhaustion, leaving nephew Robert A. McGowan (credited as Anthony Mack) to direct many shorts in this period. The Mack-directed shorts are considered to be among the lesser entries in the series. New faces included Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins, Harry Spear, Jean Darling and Mary Ann Jackson, while stalwart Farina served as the series’ anchor.
Also at this time, the Our Gang cast acquired an American Pit Bull Terrier with a ring around his eye; originally named “Pansy,” the dog soon became known as Pete the Pup, the most famous Our Gang pet. In 1927, Hal Roach ended his distribution arrangement with the Pathé company. He signed on to release future products through newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which released its first Our Gang comedy in September 1927. The move to MGM offered Roach larger budgets, and the chance to have his films packaged with MGM features to the Loews Theatres chain.
Some shorts around this time, particularly Spook Spoofing (1928, one of only two three-reelers in the Our Gang canon) contained extended scenes of the gang tormenting and teasing Farina, scenes which helped spur the claims of racism which many other shorts did not warrant. These shorts marked the departure of Jackie Condon, who had been with the group from the beginning of the series.
1929-1931: Entering the sound Era
Starting in 1928, Our Gang comedies were distributed with phonographic discs that contained synchronized music-and-sound-effect tracks for the shorts. In spring 1929, the Roach sound stages were converted for sound recording, and Our Gang made its “all-talking” debut in April 1929 with the 25-minute Small Talk. It took a year for McGowan and the gang to fully adjust to talking pictures, during which time they lost Joe Cobb, Jean Darling and Harry Spear, and added Norman “Chubby” Chaney, Dorothy DeBorba,Matthew “Stymie” Beard, Donald Haines and Jackie Cooper. Cooper proved to be the personality the series had been missing since Mickey Daniels left, and was featured prominently in three 1930/1931 Our Gang films: Teacher’s Pet, School’s Out, and Love Business. These three shorts explored Jackie Cooper’s crush on the new schoolteacher Miss Crabtree, played by June Marlowe. Cooper soon won the lead role in Paramount‘s feature film Skippy, and Roach sold his contract to MGM in 1931. Other Our Gang members appearing in the early sound shorts included Buddy McDonald, Bobby “Bonedust” Young, and Shirley Jean Rickert. Many also appeared in a group cameo appearancein the all-star comedy short The Stolen Jools (1931).
Beginning with When the Wind Blows, background music scores were added to the soundtracks of most of the Our Gang films. Initially, the music consisted of orchestral versions of then popular tunes. Marvin Hatley had served as the music director of Hal Roach Studios since 1929, and RCA employee Leroy Shield joined the company as a part-time musical director in mid 1930. Hatley and Shield’s jazz-influenced scores, first featured in Our Gang with 1930’s Pups is Pups, became recognizable trademarks of Our Gang, Laurel and Hardy, and the other Roach series and films. Another 1930 short, Teacher’s Pet marked the first use of the Our Gang theme song, “Good Old Days”, composed by Leroy Shield and featuring a notable saxophone solo. Shield and Hatley’s scores would support Our Gang’s on-screen action regularly through 1934, after which series entries with background scores became less frequent.
In 1930, Roach began production on The Boy Friends, a short-subject series which was essentially a teenaged version of Our Gang. Featuring Our Gang alumni Mickey Daniels and Mary Kornman among its cast, The Boy Friends was produced for two years, with fifteen installments in total.
Jackie Cooper left Our Gang in early 1931 at the cusp of another major shift in the lineup, as Farina Hoskins, Chubby Chaney, and Mary Ann Jackson all departed a few months afterward. Our Gang entered another transitional period, similar to that of the mid-1920s. Stymie Beard, Wheezer Hutchins, and Dorothy DeBorba carried the series during this period, aided by Sherwood Bailey and Kendall “Breezy Brisbane” McComas. Unlike the mid-20s period, McGowan sustained the quality of the series with the help of the several regular cast members and the Roach writing staff. Many of these shorts include early appearances of Jerry Tucker and Wally Albright, who later became series regulars.
New Roach discovery George “Spanky” McFarland joined the gang late in 1931 at the age of three and, excepting a brief hiatus during the summer of 1938, remained an Our Gang actor for eleven years. At first appearing as the tag-along toddler of the group, and later finding an accomplice in Scotty Beckett in 1934, Spanky quickly became Our Gang’s biggest child star. He won parts in a number of outside features, appeared in many of the now-numerous Our Gang product endorsements and spin-off merchandise items, and popularized the expressions “Okey-dokey!” and “Okey-doke!”
Dickie Moore, a veteran child actor, joined in the middle of 1932, and remained with the series for one year. Other members in these years included Mary Ann Jackson’s brother Dickie Jackson, John “Uh-huh” Collum, and Tommy Bond. Upon Dickie Moore’s departure in mid-1933, long-term Our Gang members such as Wheezer (who had been with Our Gang since the late Pathé silents period) and Dorothy left the series as well.
1933-1936: New Directions
Robert McGowan, burned out from the stress of working with the child actors, had as early as 1931 attempted to resign from his position as Our Gang producer/director. Lacking a replacement, Hal Roach convinced him to stay on for another year. At the start of the 1933-34 season, the Our Gang series format was significantly altered to accommodate McGowan and convince him to stay another year. The first two entries of the season, Bedtime Worries and Wild Poses the latter of which featured a surprise cameo by Laurel and Hardy as babies, released in the fall of 1933, focused on Spanky McFarland and his hapless parents, portrayed by Gay Seabrook and Emerson Treacy, in a family-oriented situation comedy format, similar to the format later popular on television. A smaller cast of Our Gang kids – Stymie Beard, Tommy Bond, Jerry Tucker, and Georgie Billings – were featured in supporting roles with reduced screen time.
An unsatisfied McGowan abruptly left after Wild Poses. Coupled with a brief suspension in Spanky McFarland’s work permit, Our Gang went into a four-month hiatus, during which the series was revised to a format similar to its original style and German-born ‘Gus Meins was hired as the new series director.
Hi-Neighbor!, released in March 1934, ended the hiatus and was the first series entry directed by Meins, a veteran of the once-competing Buster Brown short subject series. Gordon Douglas served as Meins’s assistant director, and Fred Newmeyer alternated directorial duties with Meins for a handful of shorts. Meins’s Our Gang shorts were less improvisational than McGowan’s, and featured a heavier reliance on dialogue. McGowan returned two years later to direct his Our Gang swan song, Divot Diggers, released in 1936.
Retaining Spanky McFarland, Stymie Beard, Tommy Bond, and Jerry Tucker, the revised series added Scotty Beckett, Wally Albright, and Billie Thomas, who soon began playing the character of Stymie’s sister “Buckwheat” though Thomas was a male. Semi-regular actors such as Jackie Lynn Taylor, Marianne Edwards, and Leonard Kibrick, as the neighborhood bully, joined the series at this time. Tommy Bond and Wally Albright left in the middle of 1934; Jackie Lynn Taylor and Marriane Edwards would depart by 1935.
Early in 1935, Carl Switzer and his brother Harold joined the gang after impressing Roach with an impromptu performance at the studio commissary. While Harold would eventually be relegated to the role of a background player, Carl, nicknamed “Alfalfa,” eventually replaced Scotty Beckett as Spanky’s sidekick. Stymie Beard left the cast soon after, and the Buckwheat character morphed subtly into a male. That same year, Darla Hood, Patsy May, and Eugene “Porky” Lee joined the gang, as Scotty Beckett departed for a career in features.
The final Roach Years
Our Gang was very successful during the 1920s and the early 1930s. However, by 1934, many movie theater owners were increasingly dropping two-reel (20-minute) comedies like Our Gang and the Laurel & Hardy series from their bills, and running double feature programs instead. The Laurel & Hardy series went from film shorts to features exclusively in mid-1935. By 1936, Hal Roach began debating plans to discontinue Our Gang until Louis B. Mayer, head of Roach’s distributor MGM, convinced Roach to keep the popular series in production. Roach agreed, producing shorter, one-reel Our Gang comedies (ten-minutes in length instead of twenty). The first one-reel Our Gang short, Bored of Education (1936), marked the Our Gang directorial debut of former assistant director Gordon Douglas, and won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (One Reel) in 1937.
As part of the arrangement with MGM to continue Our Gang, Roach received the clearance to produce an Our Gang feature film,General Spanky, hoping that he might move the series to features as was done with Laurel & Hardy. Directed by Gordon Douglas and Fred Newmeyer, General Spanky featured Spanky, Buckwheat, and Alfalfa in a sentimental, Shirley Temple-esque story set during the Civil War. The film focused more on the adult leads (Phillip Holmes and Rosina Lawrence) than the children, and was a box office disappointment. No further Our Gang features were made.
After years of gradual cast changes, the troupe standardized in 1936 with the move to one-reel shorts. Most casual fans of Our Gang are particularly familiar with the 1936–1939 incarnation of the cast: Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Buckwheat, and Porky, with recurring characters such as neighborhood bullies Butch and Woim and bookworm Waldo. Tommy Bond, an off-and-on member of the gang since 1932, returned to the series as Butch beginning with the 1937 short Glove Taps. Sidney Kibrick, younger brother of Leonard Kibrick, played Butch’s crony, The Woim. Glove Taps also featured the first appearance of Darwood Kaye as the bespectacled and foppish Waldo. In later shorts, both Butch and Waldo would be portrayed as Alfalfa’s main rivals in his pursuit of Darla’s affections. Other popular elements in these mid-to-late 1930s shorts include the “He-Man Woman Haters Club” from Hearts Are Thumps and Mail and Female (both 1937), the Laurel and Hardy-ish interaction between Alfalfa and Spanky, and the comic tag-along team of Porky and Buckwheat.
Roach produced the final two-reel Our Gang short, a high-budget musical special entitled Our Gang Follies of 1938, in 1937 as a parody of MGM’s Broadway Melody of 1938. In Follies of 1938, Alfalfa, who aspires to be an opera singer, falls asleep and dreams that his old pal Spanky has become the rich owner of a swanky Broadway nightclub, where Darla and Buckwheat perform, making “hundreds and thousands of dollars.”
As the profit margins continued to decline due to double features, Roach could no longer afford to continue producing Our Gang. However, MGM did not want the series discontinued, and agreed to take over production. On May 31, 1938, Roach sold MGM theOur Gang unit, including the rights to the name and the contracts for the actors and writers, for $25,000 (equal to $414,598 today). After delivering the Laurel & Hardy feature Block-Heads, Roach ended his distribution contract with MGM as well, moving to United Artists and leaving the short subjects business. The final Roach-produced short in the Our Gang series, Hide and Shriek, was Roach’s final short subject production.
The MGM Era
The Little Ranger was the first Our Gang short to be produced in-house at MGM. Gordon Douglas was loaned out from Hal Roach Studios to direct The Little Ranger and another early MGM short, Aladdin’s Lantern, while MGM hired newcomer George Sidney as the permanent series director. Our Gang would be used by MGM as a training ground for future feature directors: Sidney, Edward Cahn and Cy Endfield all worked on Our Gang before moving on to features. Another director, Herbert Glazer, remained a second-unit director outside of his work on the series.
Nearly all of the 52 MGM-produced Our Gangs were written by former Roach director Hal Law and former junior director Robert A. McGowan (also known as Anthony Mack, nephew of former senior Our Gang director Robert F. McGowan). Robert A. McGowan was credited for these shorts as “Robert McGowan”; as a result, moviegoers have been confused for decades about whether this Robert McGowan and the senior director of the same name at Roach were two separate people or not.
By 1938, Alfalfa had surpassed Spanky as Our Gang’s lead character; Spanky McFarland had departed from the series just before its sale to MGM. Casting his replacement was delayed until after the move to MGM, at which point it was arranged to re-hire McFarland.
Porky was replaced in 1939 by Mickey Gubitosi, later known by the stage name of Robert Blake. Tommy Bond, Darwood Kaye, and Alfalfa Switzer all left the series in 1940, and Billy “Froggy” Laughlin (with his Popeye-esque trick voice) and Janet Burston were added to the cast. By the end of 1941, Darla Hood had departed from the series, and Spanky McFarland followed her within a year. Buckwheat remained in the cast until the end of the series as the sole holdover from the Roach era.
Overall, the Our Gang films produced by MGM were not as well-received as the Roach-produced shorts had been, largely due to MGM’s inexperience with the brand of slapstick comedy that Our Gang was famous for and on MGM’s insistence on keeping Alfalfa, Spanky and Buckwheat in the series as they became teens. The MGM entries are considered by many film historians, and the Our Gang children themselves, to be lesser films than the Roach entries. The children’s performances were often stilted, with the fully scripted dialogue recited stiffly instead of spoken naturally. The stories were heavy-handed, with adult situations driving the action, and the films often incorporated a moral, a civics lesson, or a patriotic theme. The series was given a permanent setting in the fictitious town of Greenpoint, and the mayhem caused by the Our Gang kids was toned down significantly.
Exhibitors noticed the drop in quality, and often complained that the series was slipping. When six of the 13 shorts released between 1942 and 1943 sustained losses rather than turning profits, MGM discontinued Our Gang, releasing the final short, Dancing Romeo, on April 29, 1944.
Since 1937, Our Gang had been featured as a licensed comic strip in the UK comic The Dandy, drawn by Dudley D. Watkins. Starting in 1942, MGM licensed Our Gang to Dell Comics for the publication of Our Gang Comics, featuring the gang, Barney Bear, and Tom and Jerry. The strips in The Dandy ended three years after the demise of the Our Gang shorts, in 1947. Our Gang Comicsoutlasted the series by five years, changing its name to Tom and Jerry Comics in 1949. In 2006, Fantagraphics Books began issuing a series of volumes reprinting the Our Gang stories, mostly written and drawn by Pogo creator Walt Kelly.