Taking advantage of a sunny spring day,
Our Gang is out running riot over a golf course. How they ever
got onto the country club is a mystery, but they're there digging divots
nonetheless. No one has a care in the world, and life couldn't be
sweeter. Buckwheat's the caddy, carrying doubles for Darla and
Spanky. When Spanky's ladling spoon "club" won't help him whack
his way out of a sand trap, he just picks up the ball and throws it
toward the pin while no one's looking. Walking to the green,
resourceful Spanky carefully takes the cover off his putter—a
long-handled hammer. Porky is carrying Alfalfa's bag, and he's
earnestly recording zeroes on his slate for each time Alfalfa fans on a
swing from behind the sand bunker he's buried in. Spraying
sand like a snow blower, but not the least upset by it, Alfalfa finally
lifts a lucky shot to the green, and gladly exchanges his pitching wedge
(a shovel) for his putting iron (a billiard cue). Chalking up and
taking aim from a prone position, Alfalfa lags his putt a wee bit short,
but cagey Porky guides the shot into the cup with a blast from his
trusty bean shooter.
Meanwhile, back at the clubhouse, the
caddies, protesting their low rates, walk off the course, leaving a
desperate caddy master to scout up some substitutes for the next
foursome anxious to tee off. Anyone will do. He settles for
even less, rounding up the gang when one of Spanky's slicing drives
upends the harried caddy master as he tries to cross the fairway.
These kids make an aggregation of bag toters like this unlucky
foursome's never seen, and their unorthodox caddying turns the golfers'
game into a frustrating shambles, all climaxed by a wild chase over the
golf course's rolling hills when Jiggs, the gang's pet chimp, takes
after the golfers in a runaway lawn-mowing tractor. No one is safe
in the chimp's path, including the gang, who lean on a fence at the
crest of the hill, breaking it down and turning it into a sort of sled
that whizzes them downhill, clearing the fairway of golfers and clubs
alike, knocking them high into the air and leaving the dazed duffers
sprawling in the sled's wake!
Busby Berkeley may have had his Gold
Diggers, but Hal Roach scored a bull's eye casting his kids as
Divot Diggers in this delightful short. The last
Our Gang picture directed by series mentor Bob McGowan, it's also
one of his finest and most enduring efforts, a happy movie brimming with
sight gags, carefree fun, heart, action, peppy background music—a film
in which forty laughs to a reel is par.
Disarming in its simplicity, Divot
Diggers is one of those ideal
Our Gang comedies that succeeds on several levels. It offers a
broad base of identification, even for those who never caddied as a kid
or played golf later on. This is basic visual comedy, made doubly
funny by frequent cutaways to close-up reactions of the gang.
In the film's opening scenes, there's
vicarious adventure in the gang's efforts to fashion their own
amusement. Somehow, they're having great fun playing lousy golf
all by themselves, and using makeshift implements ill-designed for the
purpose. Later, s the kids are recruited as inexpert bag toters,
you can watch from a different (safe and superior) point of view,
laughing at the golfers' abundant misfortune—because none of it is
happening to you!
As one flustered golfer tees up and
addresses the ball, Buckwheat's shoes squeak, Jiggs the Chimp starts
thumbing his lips and sputtering unintelligibly, and Baby Patsy pops a
balloon in the poor guy's ear during his backswing! Another member
of the group (character comedian Tom Dugan) finds that the monkey is
his caddy. On one hole, he wastes forty-six shots before
sinking his putt, and when he finally does, the ball pops out of its
hole, propelled by a frog resting underneath! At this, Dugan goes
berserk and breaks his putter over his knee. Following his
master's cue, Jiggs dutifully begins taking clubs from Dugan's bag and
cracking them in two.
It's likely Dugan had a hand in writing
Divot Diggers. Listed as a scenarist on the Roach payroll, the
Dublin-born actor also turned up in one of
Charley Chase's golf-related pictures, Poker at Eight.
Other possible contributors to the gag fest: Chase's brother James
Parrott, prolific supporting comic Charlie Hall, famed circus clown
Felix Adler, silent star
Harry Langdon, John Guedel (later the producer of
Groucho Marx's TV show), Carl Harbaugh (who coauthored some of
Buster Keaton's silent masterpieces), Frank Butler (later to win an
My Way), and, by two reports, Frank Tashlin, at the outset of his
career as a distinguished writer-director. With all this
gag-writing talent at Roach in 1936, no wonder Divot Diggers has
such a high laugh quotient.
Golf was a particularly inspiring subject
for the staff, growing out of an annual studio event explained by Hal
Roach: "Every year, more or less, we used to have a golf
tournament at the studio, and everybody played, no matter how bad.
Babe (Oliver) Hardy and Bob McGowan and I used to play a bit of golf
out at Lakeside [Country Club], but Hardy was the best golfer around,
and he used to win the thing nearly every time and get the trophy.
We'd all play and have a good time. Once in awhile someone'd get
an idea for a picture from the thing. One year it would be
Charley Chase, another year
Laurel & Hardy, or the gang, and so on." The Chase outing is a
particularly delightful one called All Teed Up (1930),
Adding to the fun of Divot Diggers is
a lively incidental music score that enhances the film with its own
rhythmic pacing. Studio music cue sheets provide us with titles to
some of these jaunty tunes: "Cuckoo Waltz" (a Nathaniel Shilkret
composition), "Buckwheat's March," "Alfalfa's March" (composed and
orchestrated by Marvin Hatley), "Colonel Buckshot," "Miss Crabtree,"
"Sliding," "Slouching," "Dash and Dot," "Gangway Charley," "Riding
Along," "On a Sunny Afternoon," "We're Out for Fun," and "Flivver Flops"
(all written by LeRoy Shield). Some of these were library themes,
their names revealing their sources from earlier Hal Roach films
(Colonel Buckshot was a character in the 1930
Laurel & Hardy film Another Fine Mess), while many of the
compositions recorded for Divot Diggers were used as background
scoring for concurrent reissue of the
Laurel & Hardy comedy Brats, which had been musicless when
first issued in 1930.
Our Gang viewers will notice that Darla Hood has blond tresses in
this short. The reason is that her hair was bleached for her role
Laurel & Hardy feature
The Bohemian Girl. Originally Darla had been cast to play
Thelma Todd as a child; with Miss Todd wearing a dark wig, Darla was
a perfect choice for the role. The actress's death in early stages
of production caused a hasty rewrite of the film and the grown up.
So...brunette Darla became a blonde, at Westmore's Beauty Salon in
Hollywood, where she met
Shirley Temple, the only time Darla crossed paths with the actress
who had bid unsuccessfully for the
Our Gang leading lady role. Darla's natural hair coloring
hadn't been restored when Divot Diggers started filming.
Laurel & Hardy, Darla recalled, "They were so marvelous, Hardy was a
bit more serious, and reserved, but Laurel apparently just loved
children, and he'd always pick me up, and hold me, play games. I
remember one time I wanted to sit and make mud pies, and he sat right
down on the ground with me and helped me mold my mud pies! After
The Bohemian Girl, we'd take turns visiting each other's sets.
If the gang wasn't shooting, we could walk up real close and watch
Laurel & Hardy, or anyone on the Roach lot, as long as we behaved
ourselves, which we did now and then! Of course the back lot there
at Roach was the greatest playground any kid could ever have."
Darla had no clear recollection of Divot
Diggers, but did have some clear observations on the series itself:
"Our films were based on the kinds of activities kids would normally be
involved in anyway; the only thing is that the studio provided us with
the sets, props, costumes, and everything else to go with it all.
For the longest time, I wasn't even aware that I was being photographed.
I was so young it was like living in a dream world, and I hardly
remember the first few pictures I did, and I wasn't even aware that they
were movies. Even when I was making my screen test, they just kept
telling me, well do this and that, and I thought I was sort of
performing just for them. I didn't understand what a motion
picture camera was, or what it was doing in the way of recording my
Spanky McFarland agrees, again pointing up
Our Gang comedies' unstudied quality. "I was making pictures
before my memory process started, and before I could walk. It was
the only way of life I knew. For a long, long time I thought every
kid grew up making pictures. Before adolescence, I really didn't
think too much about being in the movies. I was actually eight or
nine years old before I realized all kids weren't in the movies, and I
never had any friends other than the gang. It wasn't like a
job—but it wasn't exactly like playing either." (In late 1935,
Collier's magazine asked Spanky his age. "Six," he said.
And how long had he been working in motion pictures? "Seven
years," answered Spank.)
Bob McGowan and successor Gus Meins
sometimes filmed the series in what amounted to a modified, supervised,
"candid camera" technique. Kids, like people, are most interesting
when they don't know they're being watched. Of course, Roach
staffers didn't conceal their filmmaking equipment, but its presence was
unstressed and its purpose downplayed as much as possible. With
proper direction, this method allowed the kids' true, ingratiating
personalities to shine through on film essentially unadulterated.
It enabled McGowan to capture the unacted innocence that was
Our Gang's hallmark; and it was precisely the loss of this feeling
that made the later films in the series seem so contrived and heartless.
Hal Roach's fundamental theory of comedy is
based on the innocence of children. Ultimately and always we care
about what we did as kids, what we would have liked to do, and what we
still would do if we could recapture that youthful innocence.
Hal Roach maintains that the top comedians, from
Charlie Chaplin right through to Bill Cosby, have always tried to
capture that childlike feeling, and this is the basis of their great
Our Gang series used actual kids to communicate the same feeling;
this is why it was so important that the youngsters in
Our Gang come across as real kids—talented, personable kids just
An interesting parallel between Divot
Diggers and real life (some years later) involves Spanky, who in the
film boasts that he shot a seventy-four. "Seventy-four strokes for
eighteen holes?" "No!" says Spank. "That was just for the
first hole. But I cut it down to sixty-four for the second."
Well, over the years his golfing improved considerably, and since 1971
he has hosted the annual Spanky McFarland Celebrity Golf Classic in
Marion, Indiana, attended by sports and entertainment luminaries ranging
from baseball great Bob Feller to bunnies from Playboy magazine.
Entrants have also included pals
Jackie Coogan and Stymie Beard, who in 1973 characterized Spank as
"still the same, always in charge, doing everything for everybody,
running around saying 'Just relax, let me do it for you.'"
Tournament proceeds are distributed to charities.
Interlude: Director's Swan Song.
More than two years back, kindly "Uncle Bob" McGowan (as his press
notices called him) had relinquished his lengthy affiliation with
Our Gang. At the time he was tired, ill, but financially secure at
age fifty-one, and wanted to engage in other, less strenuous projects.
He remained at his home studio for a time, and between relaxing at the
Masquers' Club and Lakeside Golf Club, he managed to find time to direct
a funny Hal Roach All Star comedy, Crook's Tour, and
contributed gags to
Laurel & Hardy's Babes in Toyland. Then he accepted a
position with Paramount, writing, producing, and directing some
generally undistinguished features and shorts, including some one-reel
kid comedies featuring
W.C. Fields' nemesis, Baby LeRoy. One of these was called
Babes in Hollywood.
Accounting for the director's return to
Our Gang in 1936, the Divot Diggers pressbook dubiously
quotes McGowan as bemoaning, "I just couldn't stand being away from the
kids any longer. I couldn't have missed members of my own
immediate family more than I missed the gang. After working with
youngsters for twelve years it seemed strange to be telling adults what
to do and when to do it. As a matter of fact, every once in
awhile, I would catch myself mumbling baby talk to some big lumbering
actor, so I thought it was time to quit and return to my first and only
real love." If true, why was this film McGowan's last
Our Gang assignment? The answer is unclear.
Increasingly studio-bound under the
direction of Gus Meins, the gang was brought back outdoors by McGowan
for Divot Diggers. It's easy to admire his tight, tidy
direction—there's hardly a wasted moment in the film—showing that
McGowan's skills had not atrophied. What's most striking is that
Divot Diggers doesn't overlap with any other known McGowan work,
and boasts some original touches besides, all serving to indicate that
he'd recharged his batteries for a fresh start. More's the pity he
didn't continue his association with the gang at this point.
He worked infrequently after 1936. Hal
Roach recalls that "after Bob left us he did practically nothing.
He was just worn out." McGowan's inactivity probably explains why
he didn't mind when his (less talented) nephew Anthony Mack used the
name Robert A. McGowan to write the new series of
Our Gang comedies over at MGM.
Later, together with other Roach graduates
like Fred Guiol and
Bebe Daniels, McGowan did return to Roach off and on in the 1940s to
help produce feature films and those awkward "streamliners" for the
studio, including two mediocre
Our Gang-derivative features in color: Curley (1947),
also known as The Hal Roach Comedy Carnival, and Who Killed
"Doc" Robbin (1948).
In 1952, McGowan, cameraman Art Lloyd, and
grown Our Gangers Mickey Daniels, Jackie Condon, Farina Hoskins, Joe
Cobb, and Johnny Downs were reunited for a poorly staged episode of Art
Baker's television program You Asked for It. A slapdash
affair, it didn't begin to exploit the possibilities of an
Our Gang reunion, but was a nostalgic treat nonetheless.
Three years later, in 1955, McGowan died of
cancer in Santa Monica, at age seventy-two.
Hal Roach remembers Bob McGowan as "a very
delightful kind of guy to know and be with. I made a vacation trip
to Europe with him once, and we had loads of fun. Bob had a great
sense of humor. He always called me 'Boss.' After each
picture he'd come up and say, 'Well, Boss, what do we do next?'
Box was always a top director, head and shoulders above most others in
the business. He was great on the silent pictures, and when sound
came in he had trouble for awhile because he couldn't talk to the kids
off-scene while he was directing. It was tough on him, but he
adjusted. Overall, though others like Gus Meins and Gordon Douglas
were very talented, I'd have to say Bob was the best director the gang