At breakfast one morning, Spanky's Dad
relates a newspaper story of long-lost pirates' treasure having just
been salvaged along the California coast. So the adventuresome
gang sets out to discover buried riches of their own, despite orders
from Spanky's mother that he not leave his room for disobeying her.
They happen upon an eerie darkened cave that promises mystery, and
the wide-eyed youngsters explore its deepest reaches, finally
stumbling into a fabulous subterranean room filled with towering
enormous footprints large enough to be buried in. Most
intriguing is a gigantic chest, and when Stymie climbs up to flip
the lock open, millions of gold coins, rubies, diamond-studded
crowns, and other gleaming jewels gush out like waters unleashed
from a dam, flowing about the room till the kids are literally
swimming through glittering wealth.
Reveling in their merry
triumph, Spanky shouts, "Well, men, should we take it all?!"
Weighed down with dripping treasure and glory, as they wobble and
clank back toward the room's secret entrance, their glee is checked,
their muscles tensed by the approaching deep bass voice sounds of an
awesome-looking medieval giant; it's his cavern domicile they've
just disrupted. With wickedly resounding growls, the huge
beastlike creature finds the tiny children easy prey, and sets out
to capture the appetizing intruders and hang them on meat hooks, one
by one. Blanching in fright as the others are captured, Spanky
is scampering from his doom when he's awakened from his predicament
by the gang's cries outside his window-they're anxious to go to the
cave. Bewildered, Spanky realizes the whole thing has been a
Wonderful and wonder-filled, Mama's Little
Pirate is one of the most unusual and disarming of all
Our Gang shorts, a minor classic of the comedy-thrills genre, and a
film whose surrealism leaves one lost in admiration.
Beautifully constructed, a mix of comedy and
ominous anticipation carries the film's first reel, serving as essential
build-up for the fantasy and (unrelieved) suspense one knows is surely
The charming breakfast-table scene at the
film's outset wastes little time propelling the story forward, but
tosses off a nice quota of gags, too. As Spanky listens open-
mouthed to his father's newspaper story, he heaps teaspoon after
teaspoon of sugar on his oatmeal. Finally realizing what he's
done, Spank furtively pours the whole mess into Pop's empty bowl,
announces he's finished, and scoots under the table and out the
door-anxious to be after the treasure. "That boy's a whirlwind
when he gets going," Pop says, as he digs into his oatmeal, stopping
short with a sudden sour look.
As a boy, Hal Roach knew Mark Twain.
He and his staff did conceive ideas for
Our Gang films from actual newspaper stories, and some newsworthy
event could have inspired Mama's Little Pirate, just as depicted in the
opening sequence. But
Our Gang films sometimes also show signs of an unconscious
patterning after Mark Twain's literary boyhood characterizations, and
one can't help but recall The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the chapter
that begins, "There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy's life
when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden
And so he does.
Still, angled a third way, the concept for
Mama's Little Pirate could have been suggested by the pure fantasy of
Laurel & Hardy's concurrent Babes in Toyland (also directed by Gus
Meins). Even if not, the studio-created cave sets certainly are
those used in Babes in Toyland, having been the underground dominion of
sinister "Barnaby " (Henry Brandon) and his army of Bogey-Men.
Coincidentally, Brandon would resurrect his
Barnaby characterization for Our Gang Follies of 1938, another
imaginative film again employing the dream contrivance as the pretext
for extraordinary fantasizing.
The fantasizing in Mama's Little Pirate is
abetted by some ingenious double-exposure photography. (There are
lots of costly optical transition wipes, too, adding to the technical
polish.) Told to stay in his room ("Aw, a fellah cain't do
nothin''), Spanky's devilish alter ego comes to life and stands next to
him arguing that mothers don't know anything about caves, and "If you
let her get away with it this time, you'll be henpecked the rest of your
life...Well, what are we, mice or men?" He's a man, it's decided
chin in hand, so out the window he goes.
Later, having listened to his alter ego and
regretted it, for a finale Spanky wakes from his dream and knocks his
trouble-causing double flat to even the score.
Like the previous year's
Mama's Little Pirate wisely withholds what everyone's waiting to see,
allowing for the build-up of suspense to overtake comedy by the time the
giant makes his startling appearance and changes the pace of the film
As part of the well-designed anticipation,
one is led to suspect a giant's imminent presence by the huge furniture
and footprints; later thudding footsteps and deep beastlike mutterings
promise the worst. Our tense fears are realized when the towering
club-toting creature rumbles into the room, but even then the camera
cleverly discloses him only from the waist down, having to truck back to
reveal the hairy giant in full form-sort of a photographic unmasking.
Underscoring the mood of apprehension
through these sequences is some wonderful background music, these
particular themes seldom used in Roach pictures and reserved for the few
genuinely suspenseful two-reelers the studio made, like George Stevens'
brilliant Boy Friends comedy Air Tight. The nearly identical
thrill-music scoring there complements the visuals as nicely as in
Mama's Little Pirate.
Oddly enough, the ill-tempered giant's
threatening grunts and growls (he has no dialogue) are dubbed by
five-foot-two Billy Bletcher, who as Wally's father in The First
Round-Up is the object of a gag about his height. Bletcher's
sepulchral tones had also provided the huffing and puffing voice for The
Big Bad Wolf in Disney's Three Little Pigs the previous year.
In another size dichotomy, as the gang gazes
about the giant's quarters and wonders aloud who or what would own such
huge things, Spanky and Stymie answer each other with the line, "Well,
it certainly ain't no midget." Spanky McFarland's mother related
that the gang's tag-along infant companion in the oversize bonnet was
indeed a five-year-old midget who later caught on with one of the major
circuses as "The World's Smallest Man."
The contrast between the infant and the
giant is remarkable, and the gag writers knew it. Unaware he has
visitors, the giant is shown going about his everyday giant-type
business in the cave, and each time he picks up something like his huge
club, the infant-midget in that funny bonnet is revealed silently hiding
What gives the gang away though, is not the
"baby" pop ping up all over, but their own avarice when the loot stuffed
in Spanky's clothing begins spilling out from his hiding place and
attracts the giant's attention.
Summing up, one might say that the blending
of fantasy and reality was Hollywood's business; Hal Roach added comedy,
and intriguing things like Mama's Little Pirate are the result.
Henry David Thoreau wrote that the best of
all states is to be in dreams awake. And in few films are escapist
fantasy elements so vividly realized as in Mama's Little Pirate:
for a handful of minutes at least, it almost makes us believe in make
One contemporary filmmaker who believes in
make-believe, Steven Spielberg, wrote the story for, and produced, a
1985 feature film called The Goonies, about a bunch of adventurous kids
who wind up in a treasure-filled cave with a monosyllabic giant.
Though Spielberg never commented on the subject, it seems likely that
his inspiration was this
Our Gang short.
Random jottings: Perhaps one isn't
supposed to wonder why there was no continuity for Spanky's screen
mothers, but he must have had twenty of them over the years.
Claudia Dell (Smith) served the role attractively here, and again in
Anniversary Trouble, though by then she'd taken a new husband, Johnny
Arthur—of all people. The lovely
Claudia Dell had been
leading lady in the original
Destry Rides Again, and reportedly served
as the original model for Columbia Pictures' statuesque torch lady
Finally, Mama's Little Pirate makes use of
an undervalued comedy device that Hal Roach and his team of craftsmen
believed in, and used more frequently (and more successfully) than any
of their contemporaries: almost any gag can be extended, and the
laughter multiplied, by cutting away to another character's reaction to
it. Properly timed and edited, those reactions can make a gag come
to life. In fact, as often as not, the reaction gets a bigger
laugh than the gag that's provoked it!
Beautifully visual films like Mama's Little
Pirate are brimming over with raw comic business or setups that cut away
to vacant expressions in response, looks of glaring frustration,
wide-eyed apprehension, soul-deep resignation, deadpan looks, exchanges
of sick looks or pompous, knowing looks, and all often embroidered by
subtle gesturing. It's a magic form of silent communication that
at its best, and in its way, can be nearly as elegant as the literate
dialogue of even a film by James Whale!
That's why, as Spanky McFarland has said,
one seldom needed to bother studying scripts; with the advent of sound
most everything was shot in shorter takes, and lines of dialogue weren't
as essential as the comedy reaction or "take" (what the scripts dubbed
"taking it big," or "takems").