In the old South at the time of the Civil
War, Spanky is an orphan who earns his livelihood shining shoes on a
Mississippi riverboat. As an overseer disembarks with his
consignment of slaves, he mistakenly loses track of Buckwheat, who teams
up with Spanky. Upstream, the young pair incur the wrath of
Simmons, a crooked gambler, and flee to a nearby plantation, where
Spanky is reunited with an old friend, Marshall Valient, who is
preparing to march off to war. Valient commissions Spanky to
protect the womenfolk—especially
beautiful Louella—while the Southern forces are away.
Spanky organizes a kid army that sure enough
is pressed into action to defend the plantation against the attacking
Yankee regulars, led by the same sinister cardsharp Spanky encountered
on the river. With their makeshift implements the gang fortifies a
hill and tricks the Union Army in battle until Simmons is discredited in
front of his superiors, and Valient, who's been wounded, can be reunited
with Louella. The gang even makes friends with a Northern general.
Basically a burlesque melodrama of the Civil
War, the comedy in General Spanky is mild, and the slight
material is stretched rather thin at times. The plan was to
combine the charm and picturesque beauty of the Old South with a
satirical yet at times dramatic look at the Civil War, all mounted on
the story of a boy and his love-struck hero—but
it doesn't quite come off. None of these fairly disparate ideas is
explored fully—as a short subject would do—nor is any one of them
compelling enough by itself to rivet audience interest, so that coupled
with the film's leisurely pace there's no opportunity to get anything
On the heels of
Shirley Temple's successes in the plantation and Civil War-based Fox
The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel the previous year,
Hal Roach had decided
Our Gang might do well to defend the Confederacy, too.
The announcement in The Motion Picture
Herald carried the blurb: "If this turns out the way Hal Roach
thinks it will, you've got a new electric light name to challenge any
existing juvenile star. Good as he was in those merry short
subjects Spanky McFarland's got a lot of talent and winsomeness that can
only be brought out fully in a full-length feature with character
building and story construction. In putting Spanky into a big
feature production Mr. Roach really follows the logical development of
this grand youngster with audiences and show men. The deciding
factor was Spanky's personal appearance tour when he literally wowed
them! So here's his feature debut and it's getting every chance in
the way of production, etc. It's a swell comedy and a big role for
the little fellow!"
Well, it wasn't really Spanky's feature
debut. In addition to other features mentioned earlier, he had
most recently been lent out for the prestige Technicolor film The
Trail of the Lonesome Pine. The inference from the ad is that
Spanky's new feature would signal the end of "those merry short
subjects." Hal Roach has confirmed that this was indeed the plan.
Of course, it didn't work out.
With the market for expensive one- and
two-reelers beginning to thin as double features grew apace, Roach
wanted to test his already waning roster of short-subject stars in
Laurel & Hardy had made the transition some time ago. In an
extraordinary loss, Thelma Todd had just died, but her partner
Patsy Kelly was working successfully in Roach features.
Charley Chase's pilot feature for Roach, Neighborhood House,
was cut down to short-subject length for release (originally titled
Bank Night, pressure from the Bank Night corporation of America had
forced Roach to tone down the material and cut the film from its initial
Hal Roach wanted to move Our Gang into
features, too but the box-office response just wasn't solid enough to
warrant a second try. Mr. Roach explains, "Well, the idea was that
these kids had a play fort, then the Northern Army came along and
thought the thing was on the square, so they attacked. but the
audience wouldn't believe it, and so it just didn't work. The
comedy part of the picture, involving the kids, was all right. I
think it was Gordon Douglas who directed that part. but putting in
the other story, the North-South conflict, was a mistake, and it was the
dramatic part of the picture that slowed it way down. Besides, as
I say, it was unconvincing, too. So I was basically unhappy with
Interesting mainly as a curio, the first and
only Our Gang feature was a radical departure from anything Roach had
previously done with the gang. There hadn't been a single other
period picture in the series' history, and taking the kids out of their
back-yard element and dropping them into a feature film with a lot of
adults and adult problems proved an unsatisfactory experiment.
The film's simple and disjointed story,
without an exciting climax, dealt another blow to the test feature.
The film's director, Gordon Douglas, comments, "In those days, you
didn't have to have too much story in a two-reeler, but you had to have
a lot of story in a feature. Now today, a lot of features don't
have too much story—they're just set
up with people. but Hal Roach features in the early days suffered
from too little story, for that time; the audiences then wanted a
beginning, a middle, and an end."
Another vital difference between General
Spanky and the Our Gang shorts was one of attitude. On the one
hand, much of the acting by adults in the cast is condescending,
indicating an attempt to aim the film strictly at juvenile audiences.
At the same time, however, a romantic subplot is introduced, which then
as now was certain to bore any red-blooded child (not to mention most
adults, in this case).
When it is viewed today, the film is seen to
suffer from references to "slave masters," "pickaninnies," and the like.
Upon discovering that he's lost, buckwheat attaches himself to Spanky,
knowing that a slave without a master is likely to be shot.
Even with all this, General Spanky
has things to recommend it. The not-so-belligerent warfare is
amusing at times, and Spanky and Buckwheat make a fine team, causing
plenty of mischief and making a monkey out of screen "heavy" Irving
General Spanky is also a well-made
film. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best sound
recording of 1936, and production values are high. It's a
handsome-looking film, and it benefits from liberal use of Civil War
stock footage from such films as
Buster Keaton's famous feature
The location work, too, is convincing and
picturesque. With trees growing down to the water's edge, and its
stream winding round the bends, Jack Roach chose the Sacramento River to
capture the atmosphere of the Mississippi River and the flavor of the
Old South. Hal Roach's brother then chartered an old stern-wheel
steam boat, The Cherokee, and every morning for a week the cast
and crew answered early morning calls and gathered at 7:00 a.m. to begin
shooting while the steamer cruised up and down a scenic eight-mile
stretch, and a squadron of studio cars followed along on the riverbank.
Footnote: Hal Roach had first
contracted with MGM for Our Gang's feature debut in early 1935.
But it was for a script he wrote called Crooks Incorporated.
The budget was $250,000 and the cast included
Patsy Kelly, and
Charley Chase. Sadly, the film was never made.