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Our Gang  




MGM Hal Roach, 1936.  Directed by Fred Newmeyer, Gordon Douglas.  Camera:  Walter Lundin, Art Lloyd.  With George "Spanky" McFarland, Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, Harold Switzer, Jerry Tucker, Flaette Roberts, Eugene "Porky" Lee, Rex Downing, John Collum, Dickie De Nuet, Phillips Holmes, Ralph Morgan, Irving Pichel, Rosina Lawrence, James Burtis, Louise Beavers, Hobart Bosworth, Carl Voss, buddy Roosevelt, Walter Gregory, Willie Best, Jack Daugherty, Robert Middlemass, Henry Hall, Hooper Atchley, Karl Hackett, Frank H. LaRue, Ernie Alexander, Jack Hill, Ham Kinsey, Jack Cooper, Slim Whittaker, Harry Bernard, Alex Finlayson, Harry Strang, Richard Neill, Portia Lanning.

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 really going.

On the heels of Shirley Temple's successes in the plantation and Civil War-based Fox features 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 features.  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 length).

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 it."

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 Pichel.

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 General and D.W. Griffith's Abraham Lincoln.

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 Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly, and Charley Chase.  Sadly, the film was never made.

The Little Rascals
The Life and Times of Our Gang
by Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann
Crown Trade Paperbacks, New York, 1992