In 1934 there was a big change for Our
Gang. Not only had several cast members been dropped from the
series, but also director Robert F. McGowan, who had been with the
series from the start, stepped down. Gus Meins, who had
many films in Roach's other comedy series, took over the Our Gang films
and brought to them a consistency and professionalism that almost
guaranteed a satisfactory film each time. The series was more
streamlined, less inclined to take chances, but still just as enjoyable
as ever, especially with several new kids.
Among the more
prominent new cast members was Wally
Albright. Wally was similar to Jackie Cooper:
blond-headed All-American Boy, full of pep, a natural leader.
Although he only last for a handful of films, he made his mark on the
series in shorts like Donky-Honkey
and Washee Ironee.
Young Scotty Beckett
sideways baseball cap) was teamed with
Spanky, and together they provided many funny moments Our Gang, sitting
on the sidelines and commenting on the actions of the bigger kids
("They'll never learn."). Other Our Gang regulars, like
and Tommy Bond,
around, as well as, of course, Pete the Pup.
Trying to move all his stars from shorts to features, Roach produced an Our Gang feature film, GENERAL SPANKY, in 1936. The film, a period piece about the Old South, was a big disappointment, managing to overlook almost everything that made the shorts so wonderful. Roach learned his lesson and never made another Our Gang feature.
The Our Gang shorts steadily continued, however, but they were changing again with the times. The hearttugging stories of the early thirties faded away, replaced now by pure comedies and several "let's put on a show" shorts. The popularity of this latter type of film (beautifully illustrated by 1935's The Lucky Corner) convinced Roach to film yearly musical showcases: Our Gang Follies of 1936, Reunion in Rhythm and Our Gang Follies of 1938. Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, Spanky's new partner and the resident Our Gang's "crooner", usually stole the show in these mini-musicals.
other comedy stars now either off
the lot (Charley Chase) or moved firmly into features (Laurel and
Hardy), and short films losing their importance in the marketplace of
movies, Roach might have ended Our Gang, especially
with the failure of GENERAL SPANKY. But MGM, Roach's
convinced Roach that movie goers still wanted to see more Our Gang
stories and Roach agreed to keep the series going, producing a
series of one-reel films. Under the direction of Gordon
these later films, which are the ones
many people remember today, featured Alfalfa's off key singing and his
crush on the adorable but fickle Darla
Hood; a more mature
take-charge Spanky; and the indecipherable mumblings of Billie
"Buckwheat" Thomas and Eugene
"Porky" Lee ("O-tay!"), who took over as
the younger kids, a la
and Scotty. This group, like every
horde of kids before them, had enormous screen presence and an almost
uncanny ability to be funny. Alfalfa, in fact, grew into one
the most accomplished comedians on the Hal Roach lot and the sometimes
Laurel and Hardyesque dynamics between his dumbwitted trust in Spanky
("Well, what are we going to do now?") and Spanky's indomitable
optimism ("I've got an idea! Come on!") brought new levels of situation
comedy to the series.
reintroduction of former
unsung member Tommy Bond
also kept the series going strong
late in the decade. After a two year absence, he
was asked to come back to play the villainous Butch (usually traveling
with his oily pal, "Da Woim"), and Bond played it for all it was
worth. Put on this earth to terrorize Alfalfa (usually for
innocent transgression of the Laws of Butch), Tommy Bond's "Butch" was
a scowling, sneering characterization worthy of a Charlie Hall, Walter
Long or Dick Cramer. The addition of "Butch" to the cast
how the series, under Roach's guidance, could continually renew
itself. The Spanky and Alfalfa shorts were certainly
from the Stymie and Wheezer era - more formulaic with most of the rough
edges smoothed out - but they were solidly built, expertly executed and
above all still funny and charming.
In 1938, Roach folded his short films unit and sold Our Gang to MGM. As Spanky, Darla, Alfalfa and Buckwheat grew up, a host of new characters came along, including a young Mickey Gubitosi, who, as Robert Blake, went onto fame and fortune as TV icon "Baretta" in the 1970s, but achieved his highest level of notoriety in 2005, when he was found not guilty of murdering his wife. There was also Billy Laughlin, whose annoying ability to imitate Popeye somehow convinced MGM that he would be a perfect addition to the series as "Froggy". The simple storylines of the Roach years eventually became poorly acted morality plays with titles like Time Out For Lessons.
The MGM Our Gang shorts were not all bad, but they desperately needed Wheezer frolicking in bed with Pete the Pup, Dorothy or Mary Ann screwing up their faces into inscutable scowls, or Stymie or Jackie Cooper spitting out wisecracks and puns. MGM produced 51 Our Gang shorts, some good, some bad, some indifferent, and then in 1944, after 22 years and 221 films, Our Gang disappeared from the movie screen forever.