OUR GANG 1936

Divot Diggers...   The Pinch Singer...   Second Childhood...   Arbor Day...    Bored of Education ...   Two Too Young....  Pay As You Exit...    Spooky Hooky

DIVOT DIGGERS

With: Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Porky, Darla, Harold, Pete the Pup, Jiggs the Chimp
Directed by Robert F. McGowan
Reviewed by JB

      STORY:  The Gang (and their various pets) are caddies at a golf club.

      Divot Diggers is the first Our Gang short directed by Robert F. McGowan since 1933's Wild Poses.  His approach is noticeably different from that of Gus Meins, who took over the series in 1934 with Hi'-Neighbor!  Whereas Meins's films tended to be well-plotted, with gags often moving the story forward, in Divot Diggers McGowan goes for multiple gags based on a single situation, as in films like Hook and Ladder (the Gang as fire fighters) or Choo-Choo! (the Gang on a train).  This time, the Gang are pushed into service as caddies when the real ones go on strike.  From that simple situation, McGowan and the gag writers simply fill up the two reels with as many gags as they can based on golf - nearly everybody who worked for Hal Roach played the game - and end it with a chimp commandeering a lawn-mowing tractor and the gang plummeting down a hill on a runaway section of fence.

     This McGowan film, coming right near the end of Gus Meins's reign (Meins would direct only one more film) is as good as place as any to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of both men's styles.  Often less concerned with story than with giving the Gang funny things to do, McGowan's films could occasionally feel empty because of weak gag material that played out against a near-nonexistent story (Bear Shooters).  Yet in his best shorts, especially in the pre-Spanky days, McGowan allowed all of his young cast members to shine, even if some of them only got a quick reaction shot or a single funny line.  When the gags were good, the story hardly mattered.

     In Meins's films, the story is usually king, and were often so well-plotted that several were entertaining even without many gags to speak of (The First Round-Up).  Events were more orderly in Meins's work.  But there was a tendency, actually started in the post-Spanky McGowan films, to focus only on a handful of rascals, with the others merely being background dressing.  There were fewer "little" moments on the sidelines in Meins's films.

     Neither approach is the right one, a great Meins short being just as enjoyable as a great McGowan short.  I confess I've always preferred the loose, rag-tag feeling of McGowan's Our Gang films, but at the same time, I have much admiration for Meins's narrative-driven films.  In the end, it's like comparing Laurel and Hardy's BLOCK-HEADS to OUR RELATIONS, or the Marx Brothers MONKEY BUSINESS to A NIGHT AT THE OPERA.  Sometimes you just needs gags, sometimes you also need a story.

LITTLE DANCING GIRL

Darla has blond hair in this film.  It had been dyed for her appearance in Laurel and Hardy's THE BOHEMIAN GIRL and had not washed out yet.  


THE PINCH SINGER

With: Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Buckwheat, Porky, Jerry, Marianne, Harold, Pete the Pup
Notable Adults: Marvin Hatley (Band Leader)
Directed by  Fred Newmeyer
Reviewed by JB

     STORY:  The Gang enter Darla in an radio talent contest, but Alfalfa has to substitute at the last minute.

     Adding to the theory that a director brings his own style to Our Gang, we have The Pinch Singer, directed by Fred Newmeyer.  He helmed several classic Harold Lloyd features, including WHY WORRY and one of the most perfect comedies ever made, SAFETY LAST.  But for the first of three Our Gang shorts he would direct, he merely gets the job done without putting his mark on the film or the series. 

     Still, with all the singing and dancing, The Pinch Singer can't help but be agreeably diverting, and there are several neat gags, including the ever-talented Pete the Pup ringing a gong with his tail.  Alfalfa singing "I'm in the Mood for Love" is always good for a laugh, as he doesn't approach it as a song to be sung but more as a nuclear bomb to be disarmed.  The concentration on his face as he forgets his place, mixes up the verse with the chorus, and generally beats the song into a bloody pulp, is almost painful, but priceless just the same.

GOOD OLD DAYS

If blackface upsets you, avoid this film.  Not only does Alfalfa dress in blackface early in the film, but one of the spotlighted groups on the radio show is The Plantation Trio.

TAKE IT AWAY, MARVIN!

Once again, Marvin Hatley, composer of Laurel and Hardy's theme song and the deathless "Honolulu Baby" (which for once is not trotted out in one of these musical shorts) can be spotted in an Our Gang film, this time as the radio band's conductor.


SECOND CHILDHOOD

With: Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Porky, Darla
Notable adults: Zeffie Tilbury
Directed by Gus Meins
Reviewed by JB

Oh, Su-Zanna!     STORY: The Gang do chores for an old woman to pay for breaking her 75-cent vase.

     The third film to be released in 1936, Second Childhood, directed by Gus Meins, is not only the best of the year so far, but stands as one of Meins's best Our Gangers ever.   It would also be his last.

     Fans of Our Gang will tell you that watching the films helps them remember their own childhood, and Second Childhood makes this idea explicit.   The film begins with an elderly woman being waited on hand and foot by two overly cautious servants, and loathing every minute of it.  Her life is dull, routine and joyless.  Yet, the moment she meets Spanky and the Gang, things begin to brighten up for her. 

     The key to this film is Zeffie Tilbury seemingly effortless performance as Grandma, and her instant rapport with all the Gang members.  She looks like she is honestly enjoying herself, and so does the Gang.  I say "seemingly effortless performance" because in real life, the woman was blind and needed to be helped around the set by handlers.  Yet you wouldn't know it by this film.

     As in Gus Meins's best films, the story progresses logically from beginning to end, with bits of business not just adding to the fun but pushing the film along to its conclusion.  For example, at the start of the film, Grandma objects to taking her latest round of pills.  After contracting the Gang to do work in her yard, she hears Alfalfa singing "Oh, Suzanna" and wonders if he is ill.  When he explains that he's just singing, she takes him and Spanky to the piano to show them how the song really goes.  During their three-part rendition of the Song, Spanky's slingshot gets caught on the corner of the piano bench and eventually uncatches, smacking Grandma on her rear.  Not knowing what a slingshot is, she is fascinated by it, and, egged on by Spanky, uses it to take out each and ever pill bottle in the house.

     With the cast now relatively small, Meins finally has time to give other rascals memorable pieces of business.  Although Spanky and Alfalfa are the main stars, Buckwheat and Porky get a fun gag with the water hose, Darla continues her fascination with picking flowers, first seen in Divot Diggers, and even little Dickie de Nuet gets to teach Grandma a valuable lesson on "please" and "thank you". 

     Even with a "Grandma on Roller Skates" finale that is obviously done with a stunt man and process work, Second Childhood is my favorite Gus Meins Our Gang film, and one of my five favorite Our Gang films of all time.

SMALL TALK

GRANDMA: (sarcastic) I like your nerve!
SPANKY: (proudly to Alfalfa) She likes my nerve!


ARBOR DAY

With: Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat,Darla
Notable adults: Hattie McDaniel, Rosina Lawrence, George and Olive Brasno
Directed by Fred Newmeyer
Reviewed by JB

     STORY: An Arbor Day pageant at the Gang's school.

     Fred Newmeyer's second Our Gang short is better than The Pinch Singer, but still only rises to the level of pleasantly dull.  The Arbor Day Pageant is played relatively straight, the only gags being Buckwheat forgetting his line and a small tree tipping over before Darla can water it.   One wonders if it was planned this way or if McGowan, Meins or even James Parrott would have found a way to gag up the proceedings.  Even when midgets George and Olive Brasno, who had appeared in the excellent Shrimps for a Day, threaten to liven up the pageant with some "vo-de-o-do", they are quickly shuttled off the stage.  Why were they even brought in if they were not going to be allowed to do anything?  It's as if just seeing midgets was supposed to be entertainment enough.

     In a nice bit of continuity, Hattie McDaniel plays Buckwheat's mom, a role she played a year earlier in Anniversary Trouble.  Rosina Lawrence, one of Hal Roach's loveliest would-be starlets, plays the piano at the pageant.  In the next film, she would officially become the Gang's new teacher.


BORED OF EDUCATION

With: Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Porky, Darla
Notable adults: Rosina Lawrence
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Reviewed by JB

     STORY: Spanky and Alfalfa scheme to play hooky.

     Times had changed and Hal Roach was forced to change with them.  The market for short films was drying up, and most of his big stars had either switched over the features (Laurel and Hardy) or been let go (Charley Chase).  The Our Gang series was almost phased out after Arbor Day, but MGM, who distributed the Roach shorts, convinced the producer that there was still a place for Our Gang on any movie bill.  So Hal Roach kept the series going, but in a new one-reel format. 

     The series also had a new director in Gordon Douglas.  His first Our Gang short, Bored of Education, would win an Academy Award, but he would certainly surpass this minor effort in the next two years.  In the Douglas era, the Our Gang shorts, now just ten minutes long, would be slick and quick.  Douglas would become the master of this format, capping off the Hal Roach Our Gang era with a series of enjoyable, easily digestible comedies featuring the Gang's most famous cast, listed above.

     Bored of Education is essentially a remake of Teacher's Pet, but with no time for the kind of loose tangents of the McGowan era.  With only one reel of film to work with, Douglas and the writers had to set up the story and play it through as economically as possible.

     Alfalfa sings yet another song, "Those Endearing Young Charms".  The novelty of Alfalfa's singing was wearing off, so Bored of Education introduces a trend of gagging up the songs with special effects.  This time, Alfalfa has accidentally swallowed a balloon stopper, which makes a wheezing noise at the end of every line.

     Rosina Lawrence plays the new teacher, and even gets her name in the film's title card.  Projecting the essence of niceness, she was the new generation's Miss Crabtree.  Roach tried hard to make her a star, but she never really caught on.  In her later years, she would marry John McCabe, famed Laurel and Hardy biographer and co-founder of The Sons of the Desert.


TWO TOO YOUNG

With: Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Porky
Notable adults: Rosina Lawrence
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Reviewed by JB

     STORY: Spanky and Alfalfa want Buckwheat and Porky's firecrackers.

     Another quick and easy story.  Spanky and Alfalfa get Buckwheat and Porky's firecrackers, but are called back from recess before they can set them off.  Porky takes care of that with a magnifying glass, setting the firecrackers off in Alfalfa's back pocket as he recites "The Charge of the Light Brigade" for Miss Lawrence.  "Cannons to the left of me (bang bang bang bang!!!).  It ends with Alfalfa cooling his backside in a bucket of water while the Gang (unconvincingly) laughs at his predicament.

     One of the most fascinating things about these later shorts is the mysterious friendship between Buckwheat and Porky.  Because neither can manage to speak clearly, they are like twins who have developed their own secret language.  Buckwheat is especially fun to listen to as he talks to "Banky" and "Alpapa".  Somehow they always seem to understand him perfectly.


PAY AS YOU EXIT

With: Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Porky, Darla
Special Gang Guest Star: Joe Cobb
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Reviewed by JB

     STORY: The Gang put on their version of Romeo and Juliet.

     One of the most beloved Our Gang films of all time, Pay As You Exit is remembered for its handful of classic moments.  That a film that is over in ten minutes can have a "handful of classic moments" is what makes the best of the Gordon Douglas films so good.

My Homeo!     Pay As You Exit revisits the days of Shivering Shakespeare and Spanky, with the Gang putting on their homemade version of a classic play.  Because of its short running time, with no time for anything other than gags, Pay As You Exit may be the best film of this particular Our Gang genre.  Classic moments include Alfalfa eating onions to keep his voice in shape, causing Darla (Juliet) to refuse to go on after the first scene, citing one reason: "Onions!".  That leaves Buckwheat to fill the role of Juliet, after initially appearing as a Nubian slave ("Miss Duliet, your Pappy's comin'!").  As soon as this new Juliet appears on yonder balcony, the audience cries out "It's Buckwheat!  Hooray for Buckwheat!".  Why this kid is universally loved by every kid in the audience is left unstated, but it just feels right.  Perhaps it's his complete lack of ego.  The world hustles and bustles around him, and he is content to simply observe and occasionally report his feelings to Porky.  Buckwheat rarely had any ulterior motives, or any motives at all.  Even when he was involved in a doomed Spanky - Alfalfa scheme, he was usually roped into it.  Hooray for Buckwheat indeed!

     Joe Cobb once again returns to Our Gang as the rather large "kid" who destroys the front row bench when he sits down.  Although he left the series officially after Boxing Gloves, he hadn't ended his association with the series, often acting as Master of Ceremonies for Our Gang's various live appearances.

SMALL TALK

PORKY: "O'tay!"

In the 1980s,  Saturday Night Live's Eddie Murphy made the phrase "O'tay!" famous with his otherwise accurate and endearing impression of Buckwheat and his unintelligible speech.  But serious Our Gang fans knew that "O'tay" was actually a Porkyism, said first in this film.  Buckwheat does get in at least one classic line in Pay As You Exit, the great "My Homeo!".


SPOOKY HOOKY

With: Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Porky
Notable Adult: Rosina Lawrence
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Reviewed by JB

     STORY: Spanky and the Gang must retrieve a phony note from Miss Lawrence's desk.

     Some Gordon Douglas Our Gang films seem more geared toward children than for general audiences.  Spooky Hooky is one of them.  It is essentially a "haunted house" story, with the Gang getting frightened by various mechanical gags in the empty schoolroom at night.  This one was fine when I was a kid, but as an adult, it doesn't do much for me.  Then again, the Douglas films are often almost beyond criticism.  Before you can even decide if you like a Douglas short or not, it's usually over.

     The earlier Our Gang shorts could have been boiled down to ten minutes (and they sometimes were on television!).  You certainly don't need Stymie's tale of how ham and eggs could talk in Dogs is Dogs, Chubby practicing his love words while Dorothy watches dubiously in Love Business, or the long, rambling conversation between Jack and Miss Crabtree in her car in Teacher's Pet.  The stories of these films, such as they were, could have been told in one reel.  But the stuff mentioned above is what fans remember most about the early films, and is what gave them their personality.  In the tightly scripted one-reelers from 1936 on, there would be no time at all for such extraneous stuff.  Douglas's job was to tell a complete story in ten minutes.  He did it marvelously, and these later shorts contain much of the stuff of Our Gang legend.  But with a cast this talented and likable, you may sometimes wish that there were time for frivolous, non-plot related side trips.  The one-reelers are sometimes too professional, with the Gang coming off more as actors rather than real children.

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