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Our Gang  




Hal Roach, 1932.  Directed by Robert F. McGowan.  Camera:  Art Lloyd.  With Dickie Moore, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, George "Spanky" McFarland, Kendall "Breezy Brisbane" McComas, Donald Haines, Jackie Lynn, Georgie Billings, Carlena Beard, Bobbie "Cotton" Beard, Douglas Greer, Bobby Mallon, Dickie Jackson, Dorothy DeBorba, Marcia Mae Jones, Edith Fellows, Jackie Williams, Mildred Kornman, Lillian Rich, Hooper Atchley, Gordon Douglas, Harry Bernard, Charles McMurphy.

Dickie and younger brother Spanky witness an unpleasant breakfast scene on Saturday morning.  Their flint-hearted father has forgotten Mother's birthday, for the second year in a row; she's hurt, and to add insult to injury, he refuses to pay for a dress she has ordered C.O.D.  Mom runs to her room, crying, and Dickie determines to get enough money to buy her a gift.  He and Spanky find a beautiful dress (a "late 1922 model") in a second-hand store for $1.98, but they have no idea of how to raise such a gigantic sum.  Stymie suggests that they do as his minister did at church:  bake a cake, put prizes inside it, and sell slices by advertising surprise gifts in every piece.  The kids set out to bake a giant cake, making a shambles of the kitchen and ending up with a strange-looking confection, full of "prizes" like a mousetrap, suspenders, an old shoe, and a scrub brush, which Spanky and Jackie dumped into the batter when no one was looking.  An irate customer who paid his ten cents complains to Stymie and starts throwing cake; a melee ensues, just as Dickie's father comes home from work.  He chases the kids away and gives Dickie a terrible spanking for what he's done.  Then Mom arrives home and Dick explains why he did it, giving her the birthday present.  Pop has a change of heart, and next morning goes to church with his family, as Mom proudly wears the old-fashioned dress her son worked so hard to buy...and a pair of wobbly shoes the storekeeper threw in for free.

Another of McGowan's sentimental stories from this period, Birthday Blues happily spends most of its time on solid gag material, leaving the maudlin moments to opening and closing scenes.

The key segment of the film is baking the cake.  Dickie and Stymie try following directions, but they take everything literally.  When the cookbook says "whip an egg," they assign Jackie Lynn to whip an unsuspecting egg just as one would do a naughty pet.  "Roll in flour" is a signal for Pete the Pup to gyrate on the floor amid a layer of the white stuff, while another instruction, "set on stove and stir," prompts Stymie to seat himself on the oven while mixing the batter beside him.  He's got to stay there till he's "well done."

An indescribable sound effect, something like a tired foghorn, is used to represent the perpetually bulging cake that comes out of the oven like a volcano when all this handiwork is through.  Stymie tries to ignore it, and frosts the gigantic cornerstone-looking dessert to serve his impatient customers inside.  As he cuts the first slice, he finds some of the bonus gifts baked into the cake, including a hot-water bottle, and exclaims, "This is a surprise!"

The homemade-cake sequence has its origins in a nearly identical segment from Ten Years Old.  During this period, the depths of the Depression, in one economy-minded expedient, the Roach plant was reworking whole blocks of silent film material intact.  Charley Chase was doing it, Laurel & Hardy were doing it, but none so heavily (or successfully) as Our GangSpanky had its roots in Uncle Tom's Uncle, Choo-Choo! in A Pleasant Journey, The Pooch in Love My Dog, Hook and Ladder in The Fourth Alarm, Birthday Blues in Ten Years Old, Free Wheeling in One Wild Ride, and A Lad an' a Lamp in Chicken Feed.  That's seven comedies in a row representing sometimes literal remakes of Pathé shorts.

Contrasting with the bright, funny cake-baking mid section of Birthday Blues is the downbeat nature of its framework sequences.  When Pop callously dismisses the fact that it's his wife's birthday, she tells him, "It hurts," and he snaps, "You're just like a kid; next you'll be crying for Santa Claus."  The mood here is sad and bitter, and Dickie goes to see his sobbing mother in her bedroom to tell her that he's going to give her a birthday present.  As in some other sequences of this kind involving adult actors, neither the dialogue nor the performances are much more than pedestrian, yet they hit just the right note for young viewers, letting them know instantly whether they should like or dislike each character, and serving to propel the kid-related action that consumes the better part of the short.)

At the end of the film, Dickie's father angrily takes the boy over his knee to give him a good whipping, not bothering to ask why he had so many kids in the house making this mess.  Then Mother arrives and takes the boy aside to inquire why he would do such a thing.  When Dickie says it was to earn money to buy a present, Pop is appropriately embarrassed, and in a triumphal moment of rekindled love, Mother says, "John!" and he murmurs, "Lillian!"  Thus, in thirty seconds' time Father changes from an irascible, unpleasant grouch to a loving father and husband.  Next morning, he tells his son, "Dick, my boy, that was a great lesson you taught me yesterday—one I'll never forget.

Some viewers may find it hard to swallow the resolution of Birthday Blues, with Dickie's sharp-tongued, hot-tempered father suddenly seeing the light in a moment of spoken love rivaled only by Stan Freberg's famous soap opera spoof "John and Marsha."  Yet isn't this swift and total contrition the way we'd like to see it happen in our own lives?  wishful thinking?  Perhaps, but that's what films are all about.

Dickie Moore looks back today on the heavy sentiment of Birthday Blues, and comments that making the film was "very affecting.  I remember feeling tearful.  I didn't analyze it, I don't know why, I didn't articulate it, but I felt it."  Asked if he disliked the actor playing his mean father, Dick Moore explains, "No, he was a nice guy, I never thought that way.  Instead of going against the situation, you go with the situation. But it helped me in terms of relating in a  sympathetic way to the character I was playing.

Sometimes McGowan seems to be using the sentiment as counterpoint for gags, most often setting up punch phrases for plain-talking Spanky, as when he accompanies Dickie to find a suitable present for their mother, first suggesting cowboy boots and then a shotgun.  "Aw, what would she do with a gun?" Dickie asks.  The impudent Spanky fires back, "SHOOT PAPA!"

At theatrical or film-society revivals, this gag never fails to bring absolute screams of laughter...It's no little irony that eleven years later, the actor playing "Papa," veteran B western heavy Hooper Atchley, took his own life, using a gun to shoot himself in the head.

In a strange way, it points up one reason why Birthday Blues works so well.  Nobody can ever count on what's going to happen outside the theater, but inside, up on that screen, no matter how bad it looks for Dickie or his mom—and sometimes it's pretty grim—things are going to work out fine in the end.  It's a sure bet.  Every time you see the picture.

Birthday Blues features two child actresses who achieved notable success in films during the 1930s and 1940s:  Edith Fellows and Marcia Mae Jones.  Why didn't these two capable actresses stay in the series any longer than for one or two films?  Probably they were too old when they started.  In any case, it was no easy task to gain admission into the celebrated gang.  The supply far outstripped the demand.

The series was now ten years old, and it was well known around the country that Hal Roach made periodic changes and additions to the gang.  The studio would received close to a thousand pictures from hopeful parents every month, while hundreds more would try to crash the studio gates.  Studio statistics showed that approximately 10 percent of all these moppets would win studio interviews.  Less than 5 percent of those kids would get as far as Hal Roach's office.   A screen test followed only for those most exceptional aspirants, and many more failed than passed this test.  Each year perhaps four or five candidates would be given single picture "extra" contracts, but only one or two might have that special chemistry to become full-fledged Our Gangers.

Odds against joining Our Gang, and staying, were a million to one...but Spanky McFarland beat those odds.   From thousands of photographs Hal Roach singled out Spanky's, brought him to the studio from Dallas, Texas, and personally conducted the interview.  Success here led to a screen test, which showed Spanky's talent and camera appeal.  Next there was a probationary period (up to ninety days) to see if he could adapt to life on a sound stage, and whether he could get along with the rest of the Our Gang troupe.  If a youngster was camera conscious, or unnerved by the sound-recording equipment and intense lights surrounding movie sets, he'd never make it.

Spanky obviated the probationary period.  He completely disregarded filmmaking equipment and won instant acceptance from his peers.  What's more, he was a "quick study."  Adapting easily, he was the one in a million who really had what it takes.

From that point, success in Our Gang would depend on public appeal, and how long the lad's personality could remain untouched by audience adulation and gushing parents.  Hal Roach's staff did everything possible to shield youngsters from these two hazards, trying to isolate the kids from publicity blurbs, theatrical screenings, finances, fan mail, and the scores of Our Gang enthusiasts who'd crowd around the studio's magic portals every day.  If an Our Gang star ever discovered he was an Our Gang star, he might not be one much longer.  Roach requested that no one around the lot show favoritism to any Our Ganger, and parents or guardians had to consent to "keep hands off" during working hours, which included periods for schooling, recreation, and filming.

Stymie Beard explained that parents were there on the lot but segregated from the production unit.  "The only time we'd see the parents," he recalled, "is on that rare occasion when one of us would act up, and Mr. McGowan couldn't handle it.  He was usually pretty good at dealing with the situation; that's what made him such an amazing man with children.  We all loved him.  But kids are kids, you know how that is, and once in awhile we'd get out of line and have to be chastised.  Whenever that happened, he'd turn around and we'd hear him say, 'Bring the mother!'"

McGowan tried to keep the filming like a game, however, in which he was an active participant.  He would let the kids work out bits of material, both dialogue and action, for themselves.  They could interpret and play such sequences best of all, and the rough edges added to the believability and naturalness of the scenes.  There was a script for Birthday Blues, but it was for the benefit of the director and crew, not the kids.

Later, McGowan would coach Gus Meins and Gordon Douglas (who has a bit part in Birthday Blues) in the same principles, telling them that a director's technical proficiency meant nothing if he didn't have the confidence and friendship of his young charges.  They had to accept him, like the new recruits, as "one of the gang."  In this way, he could let them do just what they seemed to be doing—having fun as if there were no camera watching them.

And fun can be contagious.

The Little Rascals
by Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann
Crown Trade Paperbacks, New York 1992