by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For people of a certain age–meaning those of us over 50–there will perhaps be fond memories of watching after-school television reruns of the short film comedies from the “Little Rascals” series.
Packaged in the 1950s and culled from some of the best-known of the set from the 1929-1938 years, they were staples for young viewers for many years. Syndicator King World Productions edited some of the films in 1971 because of content, mainly dealing with racial stereotypes involving some of the young black children’s characters and plot lines.
Whether kids watching the shows, including the pre-edited ones aired from 1955 to 1971, or the altereed versions, were really much aware of the racial issues (or others deemed worthy of the scene cutter), is another matter.
In any case, such characters as Buckwheat, Alfalfa, Spanky, Farina, Darla, Stymie, as well as the famed Spot the Dog, were familiar icons to those of us who diligently watched the Little Rascals get into all kinds of comic misadventures after we got home from school.
What we also did not know was that the original name of the series was “Our Gang”, nor were we aware of the fact that the concept began in the silent film era in 1922 or that the movies were made under the auspices of the Hal Roach Studio.
Founded in 1914 when Roach received an inheritance, after he worked on the fringes of the relatively new film industry in Hollywood, the studio was located in Culver City. Roach made his big splash partnering with one of the great classic comedians of the 1910s and 1920s, Harold Lloyd, until Lloyd went out on his own in 1923. After that, Roach hit another goldmine with the team of Laurel and Hardy, who made many hit films from 1927 to 1940.
The Little Rascals spanned both the Lloyd and L&H eras with the Roach Studios, but the concept was sold to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1938 and produced entirely under the studio’s leadership for the remaining six years of the series’ run.
After he successfully revived his flagging fortunes by moving to television production in the late 1940s, Roach purchased the 1927-1938 run of Our Gang films from MGM and created the syndication package of 79 shorts under the Little Rascals moniker. Seeing Roach’s formula work, MGM then released its Our Gang comedies on television syndication, as well, starting in the late 1950s.
When Roach’s son, Hal, Jr. filed for bankruptcy for the family business, King World, a new outfit, purchased the Our Gang television rights to the Roach-owned episodes and put them back on the air in the versions described above. In 1994, Steven Spielberg’s production company oversaw a Little Rascals movie that was interesting to watch from the jaded perspective of a childhood devotee of the franchise.
One of the more interesting film-related photos in the Homestead’s collection is this snapshot that is simply labeled “Making a Movie “Our Gang” L.A. 1926.” Taken on location from the middle of a busy street in downtown, the image shows what maybe a member of the crew crouched in front of one of the young actors with a goat-led vehicle topped by an umbrella and a girl seated at the rear. A police officer, almost certainly an actor, is gesturing and speaking while a streetcar is stopped in the middle of the street and passengers have just disembarked. Meanwhile, a crowd of folks stands on the sidewalk observing the scene.
It is not definitive, but it does seem likely that the film being shot was Monkey Business, which was released on 21 March (a short could be rushed into the theaters pretty quickly in those days–there were five Our Gang films released in the first five months of 1926). The film was about a chimpanzee who escapes from the zoo and meets Farina, who has run away from home. Striking up a friendship (one wonders about race issues here), the two are the centerpiece of a plan by the rest of the gang to put on a show to make money for the group. But, the chimp has other plans and races away to be chased by the police and causing all sorts of mischief.
The freckle-faced boy with the gaping mouth is undoubtedly Mickey Daniels, who starred in the Our Gang series from its inception in 1922 and whose last film with the troupe was released in July 1926, the sixth of the year. Judging by the hairstyle, it seems clear the girl behind Daniels was Mary Kornman, who began her work with Our Gang in 1923. As to the officer, that may be Chester Bachman, a Roach Studio regular who appeared in many Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy features from the early 1920s to the 1940s.
Maybe there is someone out there who is an Our Gang/Little Rascals aficionado and expert who can verify which film this is? If so, leave a comment!