STORY: Breezy thinks going to school is pointless, and does
everything he can to get expelled.
Kendall McComas, hereby known as his
character name Breezy Brisbane, came from Mickey Rooney's Mickey
McGuire series where he was known by the less euphonious name of Stinky
Davis. Breezy was an obvious attempt at giving the Our Gang
series a new leading man in the tradition of Mickey Daniels and Jackie
Cooper, and a good choice he was too. Unfortunately for him,
Roach soon discovered an even newer Our Gang member who would quickly
the focus of the series - 3-year-old Spanky McFarland. A few
films later, Dickey Moore would be added to the cast as its leading
man, and Breezy would quickly be gone. A shame, because like
Jackie Cooper, Breezy made himself at home in the Our Gang world
immediately. Although Readin'
and Writin' is his first film with the Gang, he feels as
has been with them for years. In this one film alone, he also
contributes two deathless Our Gang catchphrases: his unforgettable
wiseguy farewell to Miss Crabtree "So long, Crabby!" and his internal
monologue mantra "Learn that poem... learn that poem."
The film, centered at
hearkens back to the classics Teacher's
Pet and School's
There's a nice bit of internal continuity
for a series not known for such things, in that, at "six years of old
age", it is Wheezer, Stymie and Dorothy's first day of
Naturally, that continuity is rendered meaningless by Miss Crabtree
asking them their names, when she has clearly met them before in the
series. With a three month hiatus between the last film and
one, all three kids are more confident in front of the camera, easily
working their way through dialogue routines they would have stumbled
over a year earlier. June Marlowe, as Miss Crabtree, seems to
have picked up a few things from her years with the gang, pulling off a
double-take that would make Jackie Cooper or Mary Ann Jackson
proud. Even the unsung gang members that have suddenly
appeared en masse
brim with self-assurance,
especially in the questions and answers section that is reminiscent of School's Out:
"Bobby, what is 2 and 1?"
"What is 3 and 1?"
"No, darling, I don't you think you understand. Now, if a hen laid an egg hear, and I laid two here..."
"Aw, I don't think you can do it!"
After Breezy ticks
off Miss Crabtree one
too many times, she gives him an ultimatum - recite the silly poem
Sherwood's mother has written, or be expelled. He chooses
expulsion. This leads to a forced climax in which Breezy,
being haunted by his conscience ("Learn that poem... learn that
poem...") comes crawling back and recites the poem in tears while the
class laughs at him, and Marmalade brings in a skunk, effectively
ending the school day. Despite this unconvincing finale, Readin' and Writin'
is a memorable
entry into the series, and a fine debut for the underrated Breezy
SO LONG, CRABBY!
This was June Marlowe's last film as the beloved Miss Crabtree. Born Gisela Goetten, Marlowe was a silent movie actress and model. She got the part of Miss Crabtree by pure luck on a chance meeting with director Robert F. McGowan, and wore a blond wig for the part of at the suggestion of Hal Roach. She was featured with her natural brunette hair in Laurel and Hardy's first feature PARDON US. Marlowe had a relatively undistinguished movie career, but will always be remembered for her work in the Our Gang series. Although she only appeared in a few films with the kids, her sweet portrayal of Miss Crabtree makes her the first adult character fans will think of when they remember Our Gang. As Hal Roach said: "She was not a great actress; you just liked her, and that was enough."
MELODIES OLD AND
In the background music, directly after the Our Gang theme
Days" comes a LeRoy Shield piece that brings back memories of my
childhood every time I hear it. Titled "Little Dancing Girl",
was used so often
in Our Gang films, it was burned into my brain as a child as I watched
The Little Rascals on television. Instantly identifiable for
jaunty piano solo, "Little Dancing Girl" is my favorite piece of Shield
"What's your father doing?"
LEARN THAT POEM,
LEARN THAT POEM
"The Daffodil Poem"
(by Sherwood's Mother, as recited by Sherwood)
High up grew a daffodil,
I couldn't hardly reach her
Said I to me I think I will
get it for my teacher
I clumb to get the daffodil
out on a limb so thin
I tumbled down like Jack and Jill
and skinned my little shin
And here's the pretty daffodil
I brought to my new teacher
I love her dear and I always will:
I'm awful glad to meetcha!!
midgets dressed as babies
are stealing the jewelry at a rich woman's charity party for children,
but only Stymie seems to realize it.
Following on the heels of Dogs
Dogs and Readin'
shows that the Our Gang comedies were still as good as ever.
addition of Breezy Brisbane took some of the load off of Wheezer and
Stymie, the wimpy but lovable Sherwood had come into his own in the two
previous films, and Dorothy's blank stares and explosive takes (she
does a great one at the sight of the fat
always good for a couple of laughs
each film. In addition, Free
Eats would mark the introduction of young George
better known as Spanky. Coming into the series at age three,
would soon become the center of the Our Gang world, remaining so
throughout the rest of the Roach series.
features one of the most interesting adult casts that can be found in
an Our Gang film. Billy Gilbert is the head of a bizarre
gang which includes Paul Fix - in drag! - and two midgets dressed as
the ugliest babies you will ever hope to see. Throughout the
film, the "fidgets", as Stymie calls them, systematically make off with
necklaces and pearls from the rich women at a charity party, while
Stymie tries to convince the rest of the gang that they are not what
they seem. There are few individual gags in the film, but
ride along nicely on the situations themselves, and the ever-amusing
site of the midgets pretending to be babies. Directed by
McCarey, brother of the more famous Leo, Free Eats may be an
Gang short, but it is a funny, unforgettable one.
GOOD OLD DAYS
In a fight to keep the "fidgets" from stealing from the safe,
fatter fidget pulls a gun. Young Spanky grabs it and spends
of the scene holding it, ready to fire. When he does, it
out to be not a real gun... but a trick cigarette case!
STORY: Breezy and the
Gang stage Uncle Tom's
Cabin, while his father
hides money in the wall and his baby brother Spanky hunts bugs with a
If the above
summary of Spanky
seems schizophrenic, that's because it is. As
Maltin and Richard Bann theorize in their excellent and exhaustive The Little Rascals: The Life and
Our Gang, the film may have been scheduled as a story
Gang putting on their version of Uncle
Tom's Cabin, but the discovery
of Spanky lead to a hasty rewrite. Thus, it is an average Our
Ganger, torn between several ideas, each one of them getting short
test footage is spliced
into the film, probably the opening scene where he babbles to a
confused Petey about the picture books he is looking at. The
scene shows Spanky to be an irresistibly cute little guy, but
it doesn't bear up to repeated viewings. It's like watching
movies of somebody else's kids - cute once, maybe twice, and then
you're looking around at the walls and hoping the phone will ring or
production of Uncle
is fairly good fun, though not hilarious.
Sherwood camps it up as Aunt
Ophelia, Dorothy's cough as Little Eva sounds like the roar of
a flatulent lion thanks to a home-made device Wheezer manipulates
Stymie is cajoled into playing two parts - Uncle Tom and
Wheezer, who looks remarkably like comic Bobby Clark (or modern day
comic Bill Irwin) introduces his character as "Mr. Marx".
asked by "Ophelia" if he is Groucho or Zeppo, he replies he is Harpo,
and chases "Ophelia" around the stage. Like all good Our Gang
stage productions, it features various foodstuffs hurled at the cast,
with the main victim being Breezy, who plays Simon Legree.
shorts, the problems of Spanky
understandable. Spanky McFarland was clearly talented and
wanted him in the shorts any way he could. Now he would have
find a way to better integrate this new member into the cast without
throwing off the balance of the stories.
According to the
Maltin-Bann book, Tommy
Bond is in the cast somewhere, possibly in the opening scene described
below. Bond would soon become an Our Gang regular, and after
leaving the series, would return again, this time as Butch, the most
famous Our Gang tough guy.
GOOD OLD DAYS
In the opening scene of Uncle
Tom's Cabin, a cast of kids is dressed in blackface and
picking cotton while miming to a spiritual playing on a phonograph
STORY: The Gang
create havoc on a train.
Remarkably devoid of
decent gags and solid
laughs. It is simply not funny to present the Gang as a
collection of brats who pull hair, start fights and punch
Having said that, there are some points of interest:
(A) Spanky appears in the
opening credits, saying
"Hello, folks!" and giggling. Either Spanky was already the
popular rascal, or Roach was really pushing hard for him to become so.
(B) Sherwood's place
as Our Gang's sissy is
solidified when he happily exchanges clothes with Dorothy, wearing her
dress and bow. Perhaps playing "Aunt Ophelia" in the previous
film awakened something in him?
(C) In a strange disregard of
continuity (so what
else is new?), Dorothy
is not even presented as one of the gang, but as a young girl with her
mother on the train.
(D) Young Wally Albright
appears in this
film. He would later be one of Our Gang's leading men, most
memorably as the rich kid with the snooty chauffeur in Honky-Donkey.
(E) This is as good a time as
any to mention
character actor Otto Fries, one of Our Gang's Most Valuable
Adults. He was one of those Roach guys who played many
for all the Roach series. Among other Our Gang characters,
played Joe Cobb's father in Railroadin',
Donald/Speck's father in The
Seven Years, the nice social worker in Little Daddy, and
the detective in Free
Eats. In Choo-Choo!,
he plays a drunken
novelty salesman. A few years later, he played the elevator
operator in the Marx Brothers' A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, in which Groucho
calls him by his actual first name.
(F) During the course of this
Fries, as the salesman, is licked in the face by a bear. When
yells in fright, it is not his own voice on the soundtrack, but that of
After a day spent begging for
food, Stymie must get five dollars or else Petey will be gassed by the
After several disappointing Spanky-oriented shorts comes this wonderful
showcase vehicle for Stymie. Despite
Chaplinesque setup, The
like most recent Our Gang films in general, has a sunny outlook on
new optimism is evident by the women Stymie begs food from.
than treat him harshly, like many adults from previous films would have
done, both women are rather pleasant and easily give into Stymie's
charms. There would be fewer gun-toting farmers and evil
stepmothers on the horizon, although the film does have a nasty
dogcatcher who attempts to gas Petey, a jarring turn of events for such
a happy, fun little film.
The use of Spanky as
Stymie's sidekick is
inspired. It allowed Spanky to be showcased, but not to hog
footage. Even at this young age, he proved to be excellent at
dialogue, and his running conversations with Stymie are among the
film's highlights. As well, the cutaway shots of him running
after Stymie (Our Gang was still consistently using silent footage in
many of their action sequences) are funny and adorable.
STORY: The Gang run a makeshift firehouse and wait for a real fire.
A solid comedy based on a surefire premise, Hook and' Ladder features good dialogue, fine slapstick and elaborate mechanical gags. But there is a generic Mack Sennett quality to the film stemming from the non-exploitation of the talents and established characters of most of the players. With the exception of Dickie, Spanky and Stymie, all the other gang members come off as placeholders, characters written into the film just to have a gang. Breezy has devolved from the tough wiseguy who brings in a mule to school to a good little citizen who proudly tells the authorities "The paper said to help the fire department!". Sherwood was developing into a fun little character good for incidental business (and occasional cross-dressing), but he too is just another "fireman" filling out a bed. Dorothy smells a rotten egg and gets a face full of white powder and doesn't even get to do one of her patented takes. Wheezer, whose devilish personality has recently been replaced with no personality at all, isn't even here. And Bouncy? Who's Bouncy? In the shorts that came before, two or three kids would handle the main story, and other gang members would be highlighted in little vignettes, so that you got to know and love all the gang. At this time in the series, it was basically Dickie, Stymie and Spanky who took charge, and the rest of the gang might as well have been The Keystone Cops for all the individuality they show. This generification of the Gang would continue until the later Spanky and Alfalfa years, when the Gang was trimmed down to just a handful of characters, all of them with distinct personalities.
Dickey Moore, an appealing
kid, is now
the Gang's leading man, and, at least for this film, Spanky's older
brother. As fire chief, his main duties are making sure
snores like real firemen, and getting Assistant Chief Spanky to take
his worm medicine. He acquits himself nicely on both
Despite my criticisms above, Hook and
Ladder is a funny, fast-paced and creative comedy with
executed gags and witty dialogue.
P.S. There is a new Petey in
town. His ring is now around his other eye.
was Sherwood "Spud"
Bailey's final Our Gang film. One of those underrated Our
players not often praised by fans, Sherwood was integral to at least
two classic Our Gang films: Dogs
is Dogs and Readin'
"I can't get the assistant chief's pants on!"
MORE SMALL TALK
"Remember, men: we're volume-teers. We don't get no
"What's that, no pay? How come?"
"I don't want any pay. Do you, Breezy?"
"Nuh-uh. All I wanna do is squirt water."
STORY: The doctor says Dickie needs excitement in his life, and a ride
in the Gang's donkey-powered taxi proves to be just the thing.
bright, cheerful comedy with
more of an emphasis on personality than on pure gags. Dickie
cast as the rich kid in town who is pampered against his will by his
mother. Some unnamed affliction makes Dickie unable to move
head (that is, when actor Dickie remembers character Dickie is supposed
to have a
stiff neck) and he is tended to by a round-the-clock nurse.
the doctor and Dickie's father feel the boy will only get better if he
gets our and "roughs it up" a little bit, but his mother adamantly
refuses to heed their advice. Enter Stymie, who offers him a
in the Gang's taxi, and, within seconds, cures his stiff neck by a
quick turn of his head.
Over the past few
films, the realism of the
Our Gang world has been giving way to a new sunny optimism and a
reliance on funny gimmicks (midgets, an
elaborate firehouse, the gang's cab). The runaway cab
this film takes the Gang out of the real world completely, thanks to
horribly obvious back projection work. It hurts this film
than it hurts similar bad effects in Laurel and Hardy's
County Hospital, but it is still
disconcerting to see.
Speaking of Laurel and Hardy,
Spanky now has his
own sidekick, cute little
Jacquie Lyn, whom Laurel and Hardy fans will remember from their
feature PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES. She would only be around for a
handful of Our Gang films.
"The Natural Broadcasting Sister. Tony Rollins
STORY: To buy a dress for his mother's birthday, Dickie holds a bake
amusing and touching comedy,
mostly for the gigantic square cake filled with prizes and baked
by the gang, a confection which is so unstable, it throbs and bubbles
to explode, and makes a noise best
transcribed as "Mweeeep-MMwowwwww". Birthday Blues also
between Dickie and Spanky, when Spanky suggests buying Mom a gun for
"Aw, what' would she do with a gun?"
The message behind Birthday Blues is
should be allowed to be kids. You could say that is the
of the entire series, and it is a message we too often forget in these
Yet another Beard joins the
Gang, this time
Stymie's young sibling Bobbie as "Cotton". And this
be Kendall "Breezy
Brisbane" McComas's last Our Gang film. He would return to
Mickey McGuire series to once again portray Stinky Davis.
GOOD OLD DAYS
When Stymie takes the recipe directions "Set on stove" a bit
literally, he wipe the sweat off his brow. With a flick of
hand, the sweat lands up on the wall in an ugly stream of black
can normally rationalize away racial gags in old movies, and the ones
Gang tended to be innocent, but this one is inexcusable.
STORY: Spanky thinks that Cotton has been turned into a chimpanzee by a
As I mention in my review of Birthday Blues, I can usually rationalize away racial gags in old movies, accepting them as simply part of the standard humor of the times. But in A Lad 'an a Lamp, I just have to give up trying. Spanky wishing Cotton was a monkey is innocent enough, but the line "All he needs is a tail" just doesn't fly these days. Stymie wishing for a watermelon once is fine, but repeating it over and over, along with wishes for fried chicken and that his daddy be let out of jail... Whatever happened to the gag writers who could come up with things like "The Ham and Eggs Story" for Stymie? What makes it worse is that the story is one big contrivance after another just so they can "turn" little Cotton into a monkey for some cute scenes with Spanky. There had to be an easier way to set Spanker up with Jiggs the Chimp. A later Roach short, Three Smart Boys, in which Spanky and Alfalfa think Buckwheat has been turned into a monkey, is much more plausible, without the disparaging racial overtones of the "all he needs is a tail" variety.