OUR GANG 1934

Hi'-Neighbor!...   For Pete's Sake!...   The First Round-Up...   Honky-Donkey...   Mike Fright....  Washee Ironee ...   Mama's Little Pirate...   Shrimps for a Day

HI'-NEIGHBOR!

With: Spanky, Stymie, Stymie, Tommy Bond, Cotton, Jerry, Pete the Pup
New to the Gang: Wally Albright (official), Scotty Beckett, Tommy Bupp, Marvin "Bubbles" Trin, Donald Proffitt, Jacqueline "Jackie" Taylor
Notable adults: Tiny Sandford, Charlie Hall, Harry Bernard (all annoyed by the Gang in one way or another)
Directed by Gus Meins
Reviewed by JB

      STORY:  When Wally's girl Jackie is impressed by a rich kid's miniature fire engine, the Gang resolve to build their own.

new kids     As can be seen from the "New to the Gang" listing above,  Hi'-Neighbor! introduced a whole host of new kids on the Our Gang block.  Although the first few minutes of the film showcase each gang member with his own little bit of business, the post-1931 formula had not changed: two or three members were showcased while the rest were portrayed as a collective entity, where background kids could be dropped and new ones added without changing the dynamics of the group. 

     Of course, Spanky and the ever-reliable Stymie continued to be the stars, now joined by Wally Albright, filling in the spot formerly held by Dickie Moore, and Scotty Beckett, in sideways baseball cap and raggedy clothes that look like they were donated by Jackie Coogan, playing Spanky's sidekick. 

     Both were excellent additions to the gang.  In his short tenure with Our Gang, Albright split his time between playing the Gang's leader and being the rich outsider who prefers hanging with the Gang to his own pampered existence, and was equally likable in both guises.  Scotty Beckett was essentially another Spanky, two peas in a pod, always thinking along the same track. They act like a Greek chorus in several of these films, critiquing the various actions of the gang ("He ain't doin' so good") and spotting the flaws in the Gang's plans.  Treated as the "little kids" by others only a year or two older, they prove to be smarter time and again.

    Hi'-Neighbor! is a good natured film built on situations and personalities and a smattering of gags.  The "firetruck", built to hold the entire gang with a platform on the back for Petey, is one of the classic images of the series, and the film ends on a gag that features this vehicle.  Rocketing down a steep hill, the vehicle passes through a a hedge before coming to a stop.  As can only happen in movies or cartoons, the hedge has somehow stripped the entire Gang of their clothes except for their underwear.  All except for Spanky, who looks at his fellow gang members and, not to be the odd man out, begins unbuttoning his own clothes before the film fades out.

     Gus Meins was already a veteran comedy director by the time he took over the Our Gang series.  As well as directing shorts in other Roach series (the Thelma Todd - Zasu Pitts series, The Taxi Boys), Meins had helmed many Buster Brown shorts in the silent days, working with "his dog Tige", later to be the first Pete the Pup.  Like Robert F. McGowan, Meins understood children and knew how to portray things from their point of view.  It's no coincidence that he would co-direct Laurel and Hardy's BABES IN TOYLAND the same year.


FOR PETE'S SAKE!

With: Wally, Spanky, Stymie, Scotty, Tommy Bond, Bubbles, Jackie, Carlena "Buckwheat" Beard
New to the Gang: Billy Thomas, Leonard Kibrick, Marianne Edwards
Notable Adults:  William Wagner
Directed by Gus Meins
Reviewed by JB

     STORY:  After failing to earn any money by mowing a lawn, the Gang trade Petey for a new doll for Jacquie's sick little sister.

       A sweet and compact short, For Pete's Sake! is typical of Gus Meins's Our Gang films - it has a smooth story that moves logically from one scene to another, with gags liberally sprinkled throughout. The Meins films lack the rough edges found in some of the earlier films, and are more consistent from short to short.  They may never reach the wild heights of earlier shorts like Free Eats or The Kid from Borneo, or approach the poignancy of Dogs is Dogs or The Pooch, but nevertheless some of the films from the "Meins Era" rank among the best of the entire series.

     William Wagner as the storekeeper who trades a doll for Petey and Leonard Kibrick as his bully of a son are both so good, they would return in the later short The Lucky Corner as the same characters.  Wagner plays the storekeeper with the kind of overdone hand and head gestures that may seem like overacting to adults, but are immediately identifiable to kids as the unmistakable moves of an unlikable weasel.  Leonard Kibrick is perfect as an irredeemable brat, one who will lasso away a sick girl's doll or practically choke a dog with his leash. 

     Carlena Beard returns as Stymie's little sister, only this time her name is not Cotton but rather Buckwheat.  This may strike some viewers as strange, since the other baby in this film, Billy Thomas, would later be the most famous Buckwheat.  He would have to wait a few more films before inheriting the role, and a few more films after that before he would firmly identified firmly as a boy! 

DOGS IS DOGS

While Petey terrorizes the storekeeper and his son, he tears apart a doll of Mickey Mouse, perhaps a gentle rib at Walt Disney.  In real life, Hal Roach and Walt Disney were on very good terms, and "Mickey Mouse" (or at least a monkey dressed like him) would appear the same year in Laurel and Hardy's BABES IN TOYLAND, along with a few bars of Disney's "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf", with Disney's blessing.

GOOD OLD DAYS

In a gratuitous racial gag, the Gang accidentally wind up with a black doll, but Pete rushes back to replace it with a white one.


THE FIRST ROUND-UP

With: Spanky, Scotty, Wally, Stymie, Tommy Bond, Tommy Bupp, Bubbles, Jacquie, Billy Thomas, Pete the Pup
New to the Gang: Willie Mae Taylor (Buckwheat)
Notable adults: Billy Bletcher
Directed by Gus Meins
Reviewed by JB

     STORY: The Gang go camping.

     The First Round-Up is a highly pleasant confection, but it's not all that amusing.  However, whereas the similar Bear Shooters from 1930 seems a little empty even as it is throwing limburger cheese and skunk gags at you, The First Round-Up manages to be engrossing and entertaining even if one wishes it had a few more solid laughs. 

     Stymie has a new sister Buckwheat, played by Willie Mae Taylor, and Billy "Not Yet Buckwheat" Thomas is still hanging around without any explanation as who he belongs to.  We can assume it's Stymie, but it's never mentioned.

     Billy Bletcher, who plays Wally's father, was famous for his deep voice, best heard in Walt Disney's Three Little Pigs in which Bletcher provided the voice of the Big Bad Wolf.

GOOD OLD DAYS

When the Gang ask Spanky and Scotty how they managed to get to the campgrounds first, they indicate that they hitch-hiked.  The thought of two four-year-old boys hitch-hiking their way to the faraway woods just brings up horrible images these days.


HONKY-DONKEY

With: Wally, Spanky, Stymie, Tommy Bond, Georgie, Willie Mae "Buckwheat" Taylor, Algebra the Mule
Notable Adults: Don Barclay, William Wagner
Directed by Gus Meins
Reviewed by JB

     STORY: Algebra the Mule causes trouble for Wally's driver Barclay.

     One of the funniest and loosest of the Our Gang films of 1934, Honky-Donkey asks us to accept the fact that the Gang has a pet mule named Algebra who runs wild at the sound of a sneeze and sits at the sound of a bell.  This premise is ingeniously established by the mini-carousel the Gang has built on an empty lot, a ride which depends on Algrebra's reaction to sneezes to put it in motion and Spanky's use of an alarm clock to make it stop.  Once we've accepted Algrebra's peculiar personality quirks, the film's gags pretty much write themselves.

Oh, gracious me!     Adding to the fun is Don Barclay as Wally's fussy and slightly effeminate chauffeur.  One of the best adult comedians to enter the Our Gang world, Barclay holds his own against the two great enemies of any actor - kids and animals.  Whether he is admonishing Spanky and Scotty ("Now, boys, was that nice?"),  Algebra ("That's my camisole... that's not digestible!") or a traffic cop ("Listen, cop, I'm on the verge of disliking you!"), Barclay never gets upstaged, letting the kids and the mule get their own share of laughs while using his face and his dialogue to snatch scenes right back from them.  The give and take between his own brand of comedy and the mini-comedy team of Spanky and Scotty keep this film bubbling.

   The second half of the film features Algebra chasing Barclay and Wally's Mom all over the house (naturally, they both let loose with some ill-timed sneezes).  It's emotionally satisfying to see the Gangers wreck yet another house and put Wally's uptight and over-protective mother in her place - chased by Algebra into the fountain on the front lawn.

SMALL TALK

"Thank you gigantically!"


MIKE FRIGHT

With: Spanky, Scotty, Stymie, Tommy Bond, Leonard, Pete the Pup
Notable Adults: Marvin Hatley
Directed by Gus Meins
Reviewed by JB

     STORY: The International Silver String Submarine Band (The Gang) compete for a spot on a radio show.

     Mike Fright is a film that pits The Gang against over-rehearsed and under-talented child performers, and concludes with the inevitable: the Gang wins.  One must wonder however if the kids doing the horrible versions of "Jimmy Had a Nickel" and "Little Grass Shack" knew they were bad and were playing it up for the cameras, or if they were actually what they seem to be - kids with little talent at singing pushed into a show biz career by their parents.  The one child with actual talent (aside from the Gang members) is the little guy who tap dances in a sailor suit, but his demeanor is completely phony - he's one of those kids who copied his moves from the adults he had seen on stage or in the movies, and you just know that every time he dances, he does so with the exact same moves and head tilts.

     Enter The International Silver String Submarine Band, who wail their way through "The Man on the Flying Trapeze", blowing away all competition.  Of course, this fight was fixed from the beginning: Hal Roach and company couldn't have found more off-key, out-of-time singers for the competition if they had tried.  But that doesn't take away anything from the Gang, whom, even with a handful of kids here whose names I will never learn, are still the most charming and exuberant children you'll likely ever see captured in a Hollywood movie.

     The adult cast is excellent, but the most interesting older figure is the piano player who never gets a closeup or a line.  He is Marvin Hatley, Roach composer responsible for such ditties as as Laurel and Hardy's theme "Dance of the Cuckoos" and "Honolulu Baby" from Laurel and Hardy's SONS OF THE DESERT.

SMALL TALK

GIRLS SINGING: Jimmy had a nickel, Jimmy had a nickel, Jimmy had a nickel...
SPANKY:  Who's this guy Jimmy?
SCOTTY: He's the fella that's got the nickel.
SPANKY: You're too smart.

MELODIES OLD AND NEW

"Good Old Days", the famous Our Gang theme song, does not appear in this film, which opens (appropriately for this short) with LeRoy Shield's "Little Dancing Girl" and ends with a reprise of the Gang singing "The Man on the Flying Trapeze".


WASHEE IRONEE

With: Wally, Spanky, Scotty, Stymie, Tommy Bond, Jerry Tucker, Jacquie, Willie Mae "Buckwheat" Taylor, Billy "Not Yet Buckwheat" Thomas
Directed by James Parrott
Reviewed by JB

     STORY: Mother wants Waldo (Wally) to play a violin piece for her party guests, but he has other ideas.

     Washee Ironee once again features Wally, named Waldo for this short, as the neighborhood rich kid who wants nothing more than to rough it up with the Gang.  This time, he gets into the middle of a football game which dirties his clothes just before Mother wants him to play his violin piece.  The Gang's attempts at washing the clothes fail miserably even though they import the local kid from the Chinese laundry to help.  After that, they give up and are just content to cause the usual unintended chaos amongst the hoi polloi. 

     The film is loaded with slapstick gags, much like Hook and Ladder from the year before.  Petey swallows Spanky's whistle and subsequently tweets instead of barks; a monkey throws pastries at the guests; soap bubbles float from the basement up through a ventilator and land in the strangest places at mother's party.  It is a surefire comedy, and, unlike Hook and Ladder, its gags have something strong to play against.

     Washee Ironee is Wally Albright's final Our Gang film.  Why his time was so short is unclear.  Perhaps he didn't catch on the way Hal Roach had hoped, or (my theory), the Spanky-Scotty relationship was so promising, Roach or McGowan decided the Gang didn't need a Jackie Cooper-type leader any more (call it "The Breezy Brisbane Syndrome").  In any event, Albright kept working, but his subsequent movie career was undistinguished.

     It was also the last of Tommy Bond's early Our Gang films.  He would return to Our Gang in its final years to play the greatest Our Gang villain of them all, Butch.

GOOD OLD DAYS

The section featuring the Chinese laundry kid, played by Yen Wong, is badly edited as if something offensive had been removed from the print long ago.  My copy is one of the restored prints issued on VHS.


MAMA'S LITTLE PIRATE

With: Spanky, Scotty, Stymie, Jerry
New to the Gang: Billy "Buckwheat": Thomas (finally!)
Notable Adults: Tex Madsen, Joe Young
Directed by Gus Meins
Reviewed by JB

     STORY: Spanky and the Gang go hunting for treasure, and get more than they bargained for.

Giant     The first of two consecutive films to enter the realm of fantasy, both of which are excellent examples of how times had changed.  The Our Gang films from 1929 through mid-1933 were grounded in reality, sometimes harsh reality, with the Gang's never-say-die attitude pitted against the grittiness of the neighborhoods, houses and alleys they lived and played in.  In the old days, when the Gang hunted for treasure, their exploration took place in the dirty basement of an abandoned building where they meet a decrepit crazy person (Moan and Groan, Inc.).  In Mama's Little Pirate, they explore the expansive cave sets of Laurel and Hardy's BABES IN TOYLAND where they meet a mythical giant. 

     Mama's Little Pirate is a visual and aural treat with neat effects, those wonderfully crafted sets, a non-stop LeRoy Shield soundtrack (with some new tunes) and a perfectly believable giant, played by Tex Madsen and voiced by, who else, diminutive Billy Bletcher.  There are gags, including some good ones involving Billy Thomas, who is now finally and forever Buckwheat, but the laughs are merely punctuation for the fantasy elements.

     Joe Young, as Spanky's father, was Robert Young's older brother.  The resemblance is obvious and even stronger in the next film.


SHRIMPS FOR A DAY

With: Spanky, Scotty, Stymie, Buckwheat, Leonard, Jerry, Jacquie
New to the Gang: At this point, I can't keep track!
Notable Adults: Clarence Wilson, George and Olive Brasno
Directed by Gus Meins
Reviewed by JB

    Shrimps STORY: Two adults wind up in an orphanage when their wish to become children again goes awry.

     One of the most memorable and inventive shorts of any Our Gang era, Shrimps for a Day is also one of the few to delve completely into the world of fantasy (in the end, the Giant of Mama's Little Pirate was just a Spanky dream).  Revisiting the world of orphanages and mean caretakers from earlier films like Mush and Milk, Shrimps for a Day adds a magic lamp to the mix that allows two likable adults to experience what the Gang's life is like under the thumb of mean old Mr. Crutch at the Happy Home orphanage, which rival's Mush and Milk's Bleak Hill for drudgery.

     The film is a beautiful mix of comedy, characters and music, and features the talented midget duo of George and Olive Brasno as the "child" versions of Dick and Mary, the adults who are magically turned young again and accidentally taken to the orphanage.  In one of the sweetest scenes of the entire series, young Dick finds bed space between inseparable pals Scotty and Spanky, who are both sound asleep.  They two boys experience some involuntary muscle ticks, and then suddenly turn over and wrap their arms around Dick.  However, even in their sleep, they sense something is wrong and begin hitting and slapping him until he is forced to make his way out of bed, leaving a contended Scotty and Spanky holding each other.

     Mr. Crutch is marvelously played by Clarence Wilson.  He successfully straddles the line between drama and comedy so that even as you hate him, you can't help but like him.  He berates and belittles the kids while at the orphanage, but when they all travel to a swanky party histed by the Happy Homes owner, Crutch is as obsequiously sweet as can be.  While stepping off the "bus" (a cage on wheels, really), one of the orphans gets his revenge by stepping on Crutch's foot, knowing that Crutch cannot do anything about it.  As Crutch winces in pain, the kid let's loose with an "Am IIIIIII sorry!" in a voice dripping with Our Gang sarcasm.

     Mr. Crutch suffers even further when the two "kids" get changed back into adults and tell the owner how badly the old buzzard treats the orphans.  Not only is Crutch fired from his post, but Spanky uses the lamp to turn him  into a pint-size mini-Crutch and the film fades out just before we see get to see Spanky beat the snot out of him.

     Shrimps for a Day completed Gus Meins first year directing Our Gang, and a fine year it was.  Seven solid shorts from Meins with another good one directed by James Parrott, a new star in Scotty Beckett, and some of the most imaginative stories yet to be seen in the series.  Our Gang was certainly in good hands.

SMALL TALK

"Ooh thez?" (Buckwheatese for "Who says?")   

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