Jackie has eyes for Mary Ann, but doesn't know
how to go about acquiring a "wife." Officer Kennedy first advises Jack
to try the caveman approach, but Mary Ann turns the tables and beats him up.
Then Kennedy suggests that Jackie wash himself, dress up nice, and bring her
candy. Just as he's carrying out this plan, a rival enters the
picture. Jackie accuses Speck of stealing his girl, and when they
square off, Mary Ann interrupts and insists that if they must fight, it
should be a duel, just like the storybook she's been reading. The two
combatants retire to practice their swordplay, and despite Jackie's fervent
attempts to call off the duel, it's soon under way. The swordsmen
slash everything in sight (car tires, laundry, barn doors, innocent
bystanders) except each other, and finally, Jackie announces that they're
going to finish the fight like men—with their fists. Here, Jackie
literally has the upper hand, and after a strong sock on the nose, his
opponent gives in. When Mary Ann confesses that she always liked
Jackie best, Speck punches her in the face! This starts Jack on
a rampage, and causes Speck to call for help from his pop, who tries to
break up the fight. Meanwhile, Jackie's spry old granny has been
watching, and comes leaping to the rescue to teach the interfering father a
thing or two. She pops him in the nose, and gives him a few swift
kicks, to the rousing cheers of the gang.
The First Seven Years is the first real
"winner" of the sound era, a delightful short that works in every respect,
and shows some evidence that the Roach production team was getting the knack
of making talkies. The intercutting of silent and sound footage is
barely noticeable here, and the use of sound effects (particularly the sound
of sheets ripping, in the final duel) is fairly convincing. The only
element still missing is music, both for the beginning and end titles, and
as background accompaniment during the film. However, this short is so
full of action and dialogue that the absence of a music score doesn't seem
The First Seven Years explores the
age-old situation of two boys competing for the affections of one girl, with
a variety of insightful touches to make it seem vividly real, a page out of
While Jackie pulls petals off a daisy, reciting,
"She loves me...she loves me not," and making eyes at Mary Ann, the young
girl pretends to be disinterested, sitting by herself and reading her books.
When she overhears Officer Kennedy pitching the caveman idea to Jackie, she
rejects the idea of being a piece of property to be acquired so easily, and
decides to beat up her predator. When Speck tries a more direct
approach, telling her, "Hey, you're a pretty neat lookin' chick," she spurns
his advances, claiming, "I wouldn't marry any man." Yet when
the possibility of a fight develops, Mary Ann changes her tune, and
enthusiastically agrees to allow the boys to duel over her, dressing herself
as a Fairy Princess to make the whole storybook situation come to life.
As for Jackie, he's too shy to take a blunt
approach to love, except when Kennedy eggs him on. He's much more
amenable to the idea of bringing her candy and acting polite, although he
feels some obligation as a red-blooded young boy to object at first to
washing his neck and ears just for a "dame." When it comes to dueling,
Jackie feels that discretion is the better part of valor—or more simply,
that if winning Mary Ann means getting himself killed, he'll do without Mary
The First Seven Years gives us other nice
glimpses into the world of childhood. At first, Jackie is ready to
pick a fight with Speck, but when the rival accepts his challenge, he hedges
by protesting that Speck is 9 and he's only 8. He enlists a reluctant
Chubby to report the fight to Officer Kennedy by reminding him that they
signed their names together in blood to be pals forever.
Best of all, when Jackie resigns himself to the
fact that he's going to die in the upcoming duel, Wheezer asks, "If you're
gonna get killed, can I have that knife?" Jackie hands over his pocket
knife, but warns that if the outcome is different, he'll want it back.
When the fight is over, he turns to Wheezer and demands the knife,
declaring, "I didn't get killed." "Aw gee," moans Wheezer, "I never
get a break!"
Adults play an interesting role in the doings of
this film. Kennedy the Cop apparently has nothing more pressing on his
mind than to stroll around the neighborhood and keep an eye on the kids.
He's happy to offer his advice to Jackie on winning a girl, but when the
caveman idea goes awry, he has to turn away to keep Jackie from seeing his
laughter at the resultant debacle.
When Jackie's mother sees him washing and
preparing to dress in his good suit, she asks why, and he explains that he's
dressing up to see his girl. "Well, you can see your girl in your play
clothes," she says firmly. "This suit is for Sundays." Parents
just don't understand these things. Later, in a final, desperate
attempt to avoid the duel, Jack calls to his mother to see if there are any
errands she wants him to do. "No, dear," she answers. "Mother
doesn't need you now. You just continue playing and have a good time."
It's no use. Luckily, Granny is a bit more on the ball, providing
Jackie with a Sunday suit his father wore years ago, and later coming to his
aid when Speck's father steps into the fight.
The key to success in The First Seven Years,
aside from Bob McGowan's surefooted direction and expert job of editing and
sound recording, is the performances of the kids, who make every line of
dialogue, every action, seem real and spontaneous. From Mary Ann's
diffidence and elaborate comic "takes" when she's accidentally struck by a
sword, to Speck's final whimpering for his pop, these superb young actors
create real-life characters who win our sympathy, our identification, and
Even more remarkable is the fact that these kids
repeated their roles in foreign language versions of the same short,
learning to speak the Spanish, French, and German dialogue phonetically!
With the advent of sound, Hollywood studios saw themselves losing their vast
export trade; Hal Roach, for one, had always made the largest share of his
profits from the higher rentals and volume abroad. Foreign
distribution of silent films had been a simple matter of translating and
reshooting the titles, but talkies couldn't even be dubbed at this time.
Faced with a major loss of income, coupled with
the 20 percent increment talkies added to production costs, Roach and other
producers solved the problem temporarily by hiring language tutors to coach
their stars through as many as four separate foreign editions of each film.
Highly impractical today, the idea made sense at the time, since Hal Roach
comedies weren't talk fests, and blackboards with phonetic dialogue could be
placed out of camera range to prompt the stars. Foreign actors were
engaged for the incidental roles and helped carry the body of expository
Roach explained in 1929, "The principals speak
on a word or two anyway, and the best part of a comedy is always a matter of
pantomime—actions and expressions. Besides, if they mumble a couple of
words in broken lingo it's usually amusing." Each scene was shot first
in English, and then immediately afterward in French, Spanish, German, and
sometimes Italian. This was an impressive feat for adult performs like
Laurel & Hardy, but for the children of
Our Gang who were still learning to read and write in English, it is
nothing less than astounding. But then, so were the kids.