Our Gang - The Early Days (1922 - 1933)

By John V. Brennan

     Baby boomers know them as The Little Rascals. Movie audiences of the twenties, thirties and forties knew them as Our Gang. By any name, Hal Roach's irrepressible group of fun-loving kids have amused and amazed us for over 80 years.

The Silent Years

     The idea of creating a series starring real children came to Hal Roach in 1922 as he was looking out his office window.  He became fascinated with a group of young boys fighting over a pile of sticks.  As he stood there laughing, he thought that if he could capture that natural youthful energy on film, he might have a hit.

     Roach always believed that the most successful comedians are childlike, and the Our Gang series took his theory one step further, making children themselves the comedians.  It soon became one of the most popular of all his series, and aside from Laurel and Hardy, it is the only Roach series that the general public is still familiar with.

joe     Roach comedian Charlie Chase, under his real name of Charles Parrott, supervised some of the earliest Our Gang shorts, but Robert F. McGowan eventually became the guiding director behind the series.  The silent Our Gang films featured a marvelously talented group.  Freckle-faced Mickey Daniels was the leader, and fat Joe Cobb, scruffy Jackie Condon, pretty Mary Kornman, smiling Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison and derbie-crowned Harry Spears rounded out the eclectic group.   Though this set of rascals has not been burned into the collective consciousness of those who grew up watching The Little Rascals on television (the silents were not included in the Film Classics TV package), the silent shorts are truly delightful and are a perfect example of the wit, warmth and pure fun that was the hallmark of Hal Roach films.

"Petey" - Pete the Pup

Petey     The silent films also introduced the eternal symbol of the series, Pete the Pup.  The original Pete was a movie veteran even before entering the Our Gang series, having starred in Harold Lloyd's THE FRESHMAN (1923) and the Buster Brown series.  The distinctive ring around the talented pitbull's eye came from his days as Buster Brown's dog, Tige, and was not a natural phenomenon - it was actually painted on with dye by the Buster Brown people and it would not come off!  Petey was not actually one dog, but a series of dogs, each with its own distinctive look (every few years, the ring would change to the other eye!).  Since Petey could be replaced every few years, he became one of Our Gang's longest lasting cast members, staying on through 1938.

 The Early Talkies

     By 1929, talking films were here to stay, and there was no doubt that Our Gang, its popularity undiminished after 8 years of being on the screen, would continue.  However, it took a while for the series to adapt to the new technology. The first Our Gang talkies were often awkward and slow.  Shorts could be too enamored by the novelty of sound (Small Talk, When the Wind Blows), or just plain weird (Boxing Gloves, a strange hybrid of sound and silent footage).  But after about a dozen films, the series found its footing again and maintained a remarkable consistency that no other Roach series could hope to match.  From Pups is Pups (1931) through Hide and Shriek (1938 - the last Hal Roach short), there are dozens of classics, an equal amount of great films, a large group of thoroughly enjoyable if average romps, and only a small handful of genuine misfires. This consistency can be attributed to Hal Roach, who always paid special attention to the series and handpicked many of the members, and to directors McGowan, Gus Meins and Gordon Douglas, the three men who helmed the majority of the films through the years.

    The early Our Gang sound films iof 1930 and '31 are almost all uniformly heartwarming and funny, and based on real situations audiences of the Great Depression could easily relate to.  They featured the Gang stuck in a world with mean step-mothers, irritable neighbors, heartless dog-catchers, shotgun toting chicken farmers, befuddled cops, and, once in a while, a kindly old grandma.  The Gang was always remarkably diverse, featuring white kids, black kids, Oriental kids, fat kids, skinny kids, tough kids, wimpy kids, rich kids, poor kids, young kids, older kids, dogs, monkeys, mules, the occassional goat...  always hanging tough together and rising above their troubles through their wit, spirit and creativity.  As Our Gang enthusiast Leonard Maltin has noted, the Our Gang shorts had more integration between races than the feature pictures being filmed in the same era.  Whereas in most feature films, black men were almost always porters or janitors, in the world of Our Gang, the black members, like Stymie and Farina, were always on an equal footiing with their white counterparts. Skin color meant nothing to the other kids.

Jackie Cooper

Jackie     Jackie Cooper dominated the films of 1930 and '31 films.  Cooper, a good-looking, scrappy young lad, inherited the role of "gang leader", left vacant for a while by the departure of Mickey Daniels from the series.  Cooper was always good, but he was never better than in the "Miss Crabtree" trio of films Teacher's Pet, School's Out and Love Business, where he falls for his teacher (and who could blame him for falling for June Marlowe?).  In these three classics, he shows such a range of emotions, it is no wonder that other studios wanted him.  He is fondly remembered today not only for his work with Our Gang but also for his non-Roach features like SKIPPY, TREASURE ISLAND and THE CHAMP.  Cooper was also one of the few child actors from Our Gang that went on to a long successful acting career.  Film fans will remember him as grouchy Daily Planet editor Perry White in all four of the Christopher Reeves SUPERMAN movies.

Farina and Stymie

FarinaStymie     Another great early talent was the laconic and hilarious Allen "Farina" Hoskins, who had started as a toddler in the silent films.  Farina was a natural talent who knew how to give his lines just the right inflection.  Farina was as versatile an actor as Cooper and had an amazing ability to cry on cue.   When he grew too old to remain in the series, Farina was replaced by Matthew "Stymie" Beard, who earned his nickname by constantly being underfoot of director Bob McGowan ("Boy, that kid stymies me all the time!").  Stymie could handle jokes and wisecracks with the best of them, and consequently got some of the best lines and dialogue routines of the series. According to Stymie himself, the derby he wore actually belonged to his hero Stan Laurel. Avid Rascals fans can spot a grown up Stymie in television shows and movies of the 70s, such as THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY.

Wheezer, Chubby and Mary Ann

WheezerMary Ann    Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins was an adorable kid with a devilish smile that lit up the screen.  Some of the most enjoyable moments in the films of this period comes from simply watching Wheezer frolic in bed with Pete the Pup or seeing his face light up with honest admiration while listening to the latest rambling stories from his pal Stymie. Wheezer's best film, and indeed one of the best shorts Roach ever produced, is Dogs is Dogs.  Using a typically melodramatic plot (Wheezer battling an evil guardian and her spoiled brat of a son, and oh yeah, they hate his dog too), Dogs is Dogs, like all the great Our Gang films, combines humor, dialogue, pathos and pure slapstick, and concludes with a fairy tale ending that undoubtedly brought smiles to the faces of Depression audiences.

Chubby     Norman "Chubby" Chaney replaced Joe Cobb as the fat kid.  Chubby had an abundance of everything, especially comic talent.  Chubby's rotundity, combined with an innocent, babylike face, made him instantly lovable, and he seemed to have learned a great deal from Oliver Hardy in the art of facial pantomime --- Chubby was always good for a killer closeup.  Mary Ann Jackson, a befreckled tomboy, owned the best repetoire of facial expressions in Our Gang history. Her talents are shown to great effect in films like When the Wind Blows, The First Seven Years and the Miss Crabtree trilogy.

All Rascals Great and Small

     Hal Roach and his casting directors had an unfaltering ability to find just the right kids to add to the mix year after year, a talent evident not only in his choice of the "stars" but even in the lesser spotlighted youngsters.  The best gang members possessed a distinctive face, a knack for doing takes and doubletakes, and a remarkable facility for taking a tomato in the face without blinking an eye.  Roach and company had such discriminating tastes when it came to who would and wouldn't join the Gang that they actually turned away both Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple, not because they lacked talent, but because they did not fit into Roach's vision of the Gang.

Dorothy     At Roach, everybody learned from the success of Laurel and Hardy that you could double the laughs in a film by following a gag immediately with a funny reaction shot from someone else, and many Gang members seemed to be recruiited specifically for such shots.  Typical of these unsung, mid-level gang members was Dorothy DeBorba, the kind of Our Ganger who never had a story built around her, but who could steal a scene from a more seasoned member with a perfectly executed popeyed look or scowl.  Our Gang director Bob McGowan was an expert at coaxing great performances out of these kids, even for two second closeups.

SpankySpanky

    A three year old George "Spanky" McFarland arrived in 1932 and had so much natural charisma, even at that age, that Roach and McGowan refocused the entire series around him.  Eventually adding dozens of slang replies into the Gang lexicon ("Don't rush me, Big Boy", "You're tellin' me!", "And how!"), Spanky became the center of the Our Gang world almost as soon as he entered it, and continued to be through the forties.

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Copyright 2010, John V. Brennan