OUR GANG 1931

Helping Grandma...  Love Business...  Little Daddy...  Bargain Day...  Fly My Kite....  Big Ears....  Shiver My Timbers...  Dogs is Dogs

HELPING GRANDMA

With: Jackie, Farina, Chubby, Mary Ann, Stymie, Wheezer, Dorothy, Bonedust
New to the Gang: Shirley Jean Rickert
Notable adults:  Margaret Mann, Oscar Apfel, Del Henderson
Directed by Robert F. McGowan
Reviewed by JB

      STORY:  A two-bit chiseler tries to buy Grandma's general store on the cheap so he can sell it to a large chain.

Grandma      A loving parody of hoary old movie melodramas, Helping Grandma is one of the finest of all Our Gang comedies.  It is amazing how in just twenty minutes, they can play out the entire main story and still find time for tons of incidental business for all of the gang members.  Farina is in charge of the funny phone calls from customers.  Stymie tricks Wheezer and Dorothy into letting him sample all of Grandma's wares, including soap and a nice glass of gasoline.  Wheezer makes lovey-dovey eyes with Shirley Jean Rickert (she of the blond curls plastered in place on her forehead) and tricks Dorothy with the old "two for you, one - two for me" gag when it comes to sharing candy.  Chubby tries to convince the chain store people that Grandma's store isn't worth buying because times are tough:  "It's even getting me down - I used to be fat!".

     Grandma, as played by Margaret Mann, is the picture of sweetness until the final moments, when she gets to sock the villain on the nose, a gag that beautifully undercuts all the parody pathos that comes before it.  The villain, marvelously played by Oscar Apfel, is hissable indeed.  When Grandma cries about giving the store over to him, the most sympathy he can muster is "Quit yer snivelin' and sign those papers."  Wheezer's hammer on the head is too good for him!

     LeRoy Shield's musical themes, including the jolly "Candy, Candy" and the wistful "Prelude" (Grandma's personal theme) are perfectly synchronized with the various moods of the film.  Even more than in the Laurel and Hardy films, Shield's background music are important in setting the mood of the Our Gang films.  Some of Laurel and Hardy's funniest films, such as The Music Box and Going Bye-Bye!, had little or no background music.  But an Our Gang short without a non-stop wall of dance music on the soundtrack always feels incomplete.

SMALL TALK

"We all have our weak moments --- but that guy is permanent!"


LOVE BUSINESS

With: Jackie, Mary Ann, Wheezer, Farina, Chubby, Dorothy, Donald, Bonedust, Shirley, Pete the Pup
Notable adults: June Marlowe
Directed by Robert F. McGowan
Reviewed by JB

     STORY:  Miss Crabtree moves in with Jackie's family, and Chubby drops by to declare his love for her.

Wooing Miss Crabtree      Released after Helping Grandma but probably filmed before it (the opening titles feature the short-lived novelty of twin girls announcing the credits, just as in Teacher's Pet and School's Out), Love Business is the third and funniest short in the "Miss Crabtree Trilogy".  It contains some of the best dialogue of the entire series, from Jackie's reply to being told he is lovesick - "I'm a whole epidemic!" -  to Chubby's classic "Don't call me Norman - call me Chubsy-Ubsy."  Dorothy's habit of repeating whatever Chubby says could have become an irritating gag, but it was dropped right after this film, in which it pays off in a classic scene where she mangles Chubby's practiced words of woo, so that corny love stuff like "Can you hear the pleas in my whispers?" becomes "I can hear the fleas in your whiskers."  And then there is this great exchange:

CHUBBY: Hi, Pal-sy!
JACKIE: Well, what do you want?
CHUBBY: Oh, I was just passin' by, thought I'd drop in.
JACKIE: Well just keep passin' by til you get to the river and then drop in!

     The laughs don't all come from dialogue.  Mary Ann, who is apparently now Jackie's sister (it's all so confusing) gets to practice some new faces while feasting on mothball soup, while Jackie tries out several bizarre disguises to interrupt Chubby's "date" with Miss Crabtree.  In between Dorothy's mangled Chubbyisms, Chubby himself pulls off several reaction shots obviously based on the master of reaction shots, Oliver Hardy

GOOD OLD DAYS

Oh my.  Tickled by Jackie's crush on her, Miss Crabtree kisses him full on the lips!  These days, that would probably get you fired, maybe get you arrested and definitely get you an hour on Oprah.


LITTLE DADDY

With: Farina, Stymie, Jackie, Wheezer, Mary Ann, Chubby, Shirley Jean, Donald, Bonedust, Dorothy, Pete the Pup
Notable adults: June Marlowe
Directed by Robert F. McGowan
Reviewed by JB

     STORY: Farina is broken-hearted because his little brother Stymie is soon to be taken away to the orphanage.

      Little Daddy was not often shown on television because... well, I can't figure out why but it had something to do with its depiction of black people.  I wish somebody out there would tell me what it is.  The irony is Little Daddy features one of the most sympathetic portraits of blacks you will find in 1930s movies.  In the midst of all their troubles, which at the time not only included poverty but also segregation, racism and worse, the black folks in Little Daddy still keep their community together, congregate and pray at church every Sunday, and give what they can to the collection plate, even if it is only coat buttons.  Farina tends to his little brother Stymie's needs, cooking for him, making sure he takes his shower, and reading him Bible stories.  Allen Hoskins is superb in his portrayal of Farina as the older brother heartsick over the prospect of losing his younger brother.  Then again, by this time in the series, Hoskins was a ten-year veteran, so his beautiful portrayal of the character is not all that surprising.

     Highlights of this short include Farina's Buster Keatonish machinery that makes breakfast and the gang's Rube Goldbergesque "premature" golf course.  There's also Farina's prayer, in which he asks the Lord to watch over Stymie in the orphanage and to rub goose grease on his neck if he should get sick: "And maybe I'll do the same for You one day."  And don't miss Chubby singing "Asleep in the Deep" in a deep bass voice, dubbed by fellow Roach comedian Charley Chase.

     Lowlights include an overlong routine between Farina and Stymie based on Stymie's confusion over the words "Yeah" and "Noah".  Writer H. M. Walker was enamored with such routines, but the child actors were never able to pull them off convincingly.

     Little Daddy is a fine film, but lacks a real villain to make it an above-average Our Gang short.  The man from the orphanage is treated like a bad guy but is played as a decent fellow doing his job to the best of his ability.  He actually seems sincere in getting Stymie into a good home, and even after getting humiliated by the gang, he is still friendly and immediately receptive to Miss Crabtree's offer to be responsible for Stymie and Farina's welfare.  So it's not really satisfying to see him beaten, bitten and bared to his underwear by the Gang.  Compare this ending to the one upcoming in Fly My Kite and you will see what I mean.


BARGAIN DAY

With: Wheezer, Stymie, Farina, Jackie, Chubby, Mary Ann, Dorothy, Shirley Jean, Donald, Pete the Pup
New to the Gang: "Bologna" (Little baby that travels with Wheezer and Stymie - actor unknown)
Notable Adults: Tiny Sanford
Directed by Robert F. McGowan
Reviewed by JB

That's what I call a hat!     STORY: Wheezer and Stymie attempt to sell a wheelbarrow full of junk to a lonely little rich girl.

     Not a whole lot goes on in Bargain Day. The best moments come right at the beginning, when the gang helps an increasingly apoplectic Chubby try on several hats at a local shop.  Finally settling on an incongruous top hat, in which he looks very much like Winston Churchill, Chubby cries out "Now that's what I call a hat!"  In true Hal Roach fashion, the various reaction shots from the gang produce secondary giggles.

     After this promising opening, the film really goes nowhere.  There is an attempt at turning Wheezer and Stymie into a miniature Laurel and Hardy, but Stymie is not right for the part of mini-Stan.  Although a talented kid, and an incurable ham, Stymie was hampered by the gag writers, who weren't quite sure where they were going with the character.  At this early stage, he was given to puns that would make Chico Marx shake his head in embarrassment, and can make modern audiences wonder what the hell the kid is talking about.  It wouldn't be until the marvelous Dogs is Dogs that the Stymie character was nailed down.

     From the H. M. Walker Big Book of Burlesque Routines comes another tedious sequence in which Wheezer, Shirley Jean and Stymie get confused between "Watt Street" and "What street?". 

     Even though it is relatively uneventful, Bargain Day is not a bad film.  There were hardly any bad films at this point in the series, just some that didn't live up to the standards established by the best films, one of which would immediately follow Bargain Day.


FLY MY KITE

With: Farina, Jackie, Chubby, Mary Ann, Stymie, Wheezer, Dorothy, Shirley Jean, Pete the Pup
Notable Adults: Margaret Mann (Grandma), James Mason, Mae Busch
Directed by Robert F. McGowan
Reviewed by JB

      STORY: Grandma's son-in-law wants to kick her out of her house, and and steal her valuable bonds. 

      The last Our Gang film for Farina, Jackie, Chubby, Mary Ann and Shirley Jean, Fly My Kite sends them out on a high note with one of the most satisfying shorts of the entire series.  A companion piece to Helping Grandma, Fly My Kite is another parody of melodramas, but with tongue planted even more firmly in cheek this time around.  The mood is quickly set when, in the middle of reading an exciting comic book to the Gang, Grandma is startled by a backfiring car and falls backwards out of her rocking chair!  Not only does is this gag immediately reprised, and is still funny the second time, but Grandma also warms up with a few cartwheels before sparring with the Gang.  The stunt work is obvious and yet thoroughly convincing at the same time.  It can't possibly be Margaret Manning, but it sure looks like her. 

     As played by James Mason (no, not that James Mason), son-in-law Dan is an oily weasel, as despicable an Our Gang villain as they come.  In the middle of his conversation with a broken-hearted Grandma, he grows weary of Grandma's tears and pleas and blurts out " You're broke, you're old and you're useless!".   So when the Gang realizes he is after some important bonds, they unleash an industrial-sized can of hurt on him, including kicking him in the shins, dragging him across a yard over broken glass and rusty nails, pelting him with rocks, and electrocuting him.  And every second of it is worth savoring.  Unlike the social worker in Little Daddy, this guy deserves everything he gets and more! 

     Look quick for Mae Busch as Dan's hard-hearted floozy of a wife who wants Grandma's house for herself.  Busch was most famous for her many portrayals of women, most often wive, who made Oliver Hardy's life a living hell in the Laurel and Hardy comedies.

     Losing so many cast members after this film hurt the series a bit, although, as it always did, Our Gang quickly recovered.  The Our Gang films managed to be consistently entertaining no matter which set of kids were in them, but it would not be until the late one-reelers of Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Butch, Buckwheat and Porky that you would find a group of rascals as individually distinctive and filled with personality as the ones featured from Boxing Gloves through Fly My Kite


BIG EARS

With: Wheezer, Stymie, Dorothy, Donald
New to the Gang: Sherwood Bailey
Directed by Robert F. McGowan
Reviewed by JB

     STORY: Wheezer tries to keep his parents from divorcing.

      With a huge chunk of the usual cast now gone, Our Gang had only two real stars: Wheezer Hutchins and Stymie Beard.  All they had in support was cute, curly-headed Dorothy DeBorba (always good for a popeyed closeup), and a few secondary players like Donald Haines and Sherwood Bailey.  Although this same cast, along with some talented adults, would soon star in one of my favorite Our Gang shorts, Dogs is Dogs, it was nevertheless obvious that the series needed a few new star cast members along the lines of Jackie Cooper or Chubby Chaney.

     Meanwhile, the writers put together Big Ears, a pure star vehicle for Wheezer.  He is excellent, giving one of his best performances, but a story is not really Our Gang material, and much of the film is uncomfortable to watch.  Overhearing his bickering parents talking of divorce, Wheezer seeks Stymie's advice.  After tossing off one excruciatingly bad pun (a divorce is an "accident", as in "That was da vorse accident I've ever seen!") and a gratuitous "cheap Scotsman" joke, Stymie convinces Wheezer to eat two cans of lard along with a goodly amount of soap.  The idea is that if Wheezer can get sick enough, his parents will rally to his side and stay together.

     Although it makes sense that two little boys would come up with this plan, the aftermath is not funny at all.  Hutchin's portrayal of Wheezer with a stomach ache is too realistic - a credit to such a young actor - but are we supposed to laugh at a child in extreme pain?  Worse yet, Stymie goes to the medicine cabinet to find a cure, offering Wheezer just about every bottle of whatever he can find.  Although  he wisely refuses most of it, the scene still hits too close to home.  The idea of Stymie drinking gasoline in Fly My Kite is funny because of the situation (he's tricking his pals into letting him try free samples of a store's wares) but the idea of a child drinking random drugs from a medicine cabinet?  Hal Roach specialized in good, intelligent knockabout comedy, but once in a while in a Roach film, you find yourself wondering "What were they thinking?". 

     The best commentary on this film comes from Pete the Pup, who ends the film with a loud wet raspberry aimed in the direction of Wheezer's unpleasant parents.


SHIVER MY TIMBERS

With: Stymie, Wheezer, Dorothy, Sherwood
New to the Gang: Jerry Tucker
Notable Adults:  Billy Gilbert, June Marlowe
Directed by Robert F. McGowan
Reviewed by JB

Pirate     STORY: Miss Crabtree and the Sea Captain hatch a plan to cure the Gang of their desire to become pirates.

      An improvement over Big Ears, Shiver My Timbers is an average short that benefits from a loud, scenery-chewing turn by Billy Gilbert as the local sea captain given to telling tall tales to the Gang.  Stymie's puns are improving too (polar bears/pall bearers, veal cutlass - Chico Marx would have grabbed these in a heartbeat) and some of the film's best moments come when he engages Gilbert in rambling conversations.  Stymie is clearly the star of this short and gets most of the best lines.

     Except for Stymie, the rest of the gang is given little to do but run around the ship and hide during the second reel, as Gilbert and his crew give them a taste of real pirate life.  A great ship set, used later in Laurel and Hardy's The Live Ghost, plus LeRoy Shield's never ending supply of chase and suspense themes, also help put this one over, but just barely.  However, the shot of Petey in a pirate hat with a knife in his mouth is worth the price of admission.

SMALL TALK

"Aye, aye, Captain!"
"Don't you 'Aye Aye' me!"


DOGS IS DOGS

With: Stymie, Wheezer, Dorothy, Sherwood
Notable Adults:  Blanche Payson, Billy Gilbert
Directed by Robert F. McGowan
Reviewed by JB

     STORY: Waiting for their real father to return, Wheezer and Dorothy live with their evil step-mother and her prissy son Sherwood.Dogs

     One of the most intriguing aspects of Hal Roach films of the early 1930s is how well they capture the harshness of the Depression and the lives of the poor.  This is true in some Laurel and Hardy films, such as Below Zero and One Good Turn, and especially true of many Our Gang films.  Dogs is Dogs is like a miniature Charles Dickens novel, transported to Depression-era America.

     Unlike Helping Grandma and Fly My Kite, the sentiment and pathos in Dogs is Dogs is played relatively straight, and few studios aside from Hal Roach's could get away with it.  The key is the realism of the setting and the complete naturalness of Wheezer and Stymie.  They play against the caricatures of the step-mother (Amazonian character actress Blanche Payson), Sherwood's beautifully wussy mama's boy, and the gun-toting angry farmer (Billy Gilbert) who wants to shoot Petey. 

     As if we needed any encouragement, we are placed immediately on Wheezer's side when Payson spanks him not once but twice in the same scene.  Perfectly placed cutaway shots to Dorothy and Pete the Pup underscore the sadness of all their lives.  Even the shot of Pete with tears streaming down his face manages to be affecting and funny at the same time. 

     Although Wheezer is the nominal star of the short, once again it is Stymie who gets the most laughs.  Stymie's self-reliant, never-say-die attitude is solidified in a scene in which he finagles a fine meal of hams and eggs for him, Wheezer and Dorothy by employing a tall tale of how hams and eggs can actually talk.  Wheezer obviously knows Stymie is scheming and goes along with it; the delighted look on his face all during this scene hardly seems to be play-acting at all.  Dorothy is oblivious, and there is a sweet moment when it seems like she has forgotten her line and must be prompted by Stymie ("Say 'yes' "/ "Yes").  Sherwood, however, is so skeptical he allows Stymie to cook up the ham and eggs in order to prove they can talk.  There is too much classic dialogue to quote it all here, but the kicker features one of Stymie's most famous lines:

WHEEZER: Stymie, where'd you ever get this idea that ham and eggs could talk?
STYMIE: Well, I'se full of ideas when I'se hungry.
DOROTHY: Aw, I knew ham and eggs couldn't talk.
STYMIE: Well, they're saying hello to my stomach riiiiight now!

     The film manages to squeeze in two more memorable sequences after this.  First, Sherwood is knocked in a well by his own dog Nero, who seems to have had enough of this particular master.  When Wheezer and Stymie rescue him, he runs off to tattle on Wheezer.  Tattle on what, we don't know.  Along the way, Sherwood discovers Nero has killed a chicken, and to get back at Wheezer (again, for what we don't know), he tells the farmer that Petey did it.  When the farmer grabs his shotgun and begins firing at Petey, the Gang pelts him with eggs until a cop (the ever reliable Harry Bernard) can be located.

     If you are going to have a film with an evil stepmother, you might as well have a fairy tale ending.  Without ruining it, I'll just say that Wheezer, Dorothy and Petey live happily ever after, while poor Sherwood... well, you just can't help feeling sorry for the little guy.  Even when he tries to comfort his own mother, he gets yelled at.

     Dogs is Dogs is one of my favorite short films of all time, and represents Our Gang at its best.

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