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
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
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
Charley Chase was doing it,
Laurel & Hardy were doing it, but none so heavily (or successfully)
Our Gang. Spanky 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
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
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
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
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,
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.