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Our Gang




Hal Roach-MGM, 1938.  Directed by Gordon Douglas.  Camera:  Art Lloyd.  With George "Spanky" McFarland, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, Eugene "Porky" Lee, Darla Hood, Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas, Dickie Jones, Tommy McFarland, Harold Switzer, Darwood Kaye, Kenneth Wilson, Philip MacMahon, Annabella Logan, Georgia Jean LaRue, Ada Lynn, Josephine Roberts, Joe "Corky" Geil, Charles Flickinger, Raymond Raybill Powell, Billy Mindy, Frances Bowling, David Freeman, Patsy Currier, Gloria Hurst, Bobbie Hickman, Bill Cody, Jr., Henry Lee, John Collum, Tommy Braunger, Jimmy Sommerville, Robert Winkler, Betsy Gay, Bobs Watson, Philip Hurlic, Henry Brandon, Wilma Cox, Gino Corrado, Winstead "Doodles" Weaver.

The Gang is staging a musical show in their kid-rigged cellar theater (customers get there by sliding down a coal chute).  Spanky's in charge, Darla's the female vocalist, and Buckwheat's the Stokowski-inspired band leader, but the kid patrons' rapt admiration is reserved for Alfalfa.  Announced as "The King of Crooners" to a gaga audience, Alfalfa strides onstage and bellows, "I'm the barber of Seville."  Spanky rings down the curtain to a chorus of catcalls.  Alfalfa's burned and explains that from now on he won't waste a voice like his on anything less than opera.

Quitting the show, he and companion Porky haunt an opera company until with mock seriousness Barnaby, the impresario, signs Alfalfa to a contract, effective twenty years later.  They check their watches.  As Alfalfa triumphantly returns backstage to flaunt his secure operatic future at Spanky, he's warned he'll wind up singing in the street for pennies.  Unruffled, Alfalfa settles back in an easy chair, and dreams the twenty years have elapsed:  he swaggers down a wintry Broadway and sees neon lights flashing his name wherever he looks.

Debuting in The Barber of Seville, his first lusty aria is greeted with boos, and overdressed kids in a side theater box mug sourly and begin heaving some convenient ripe vegetables on stage.  The curtain falls, and Alfalfa departs in disgrace, but the villainous Barnaby, now stooped and gray, won't relinquish the ironclad contract, and hands Alfalfa a tin cup to sin in the streets.  Plodding through the snow, braced against the weather, he and Porky happen upon prominent Club Spanky.  Just then the immaculately dressed proprietor arrives in a chauffeured Austin car and steps out to drop a coin in Alfalfa's cup.  "Why, Spanky!" Alfalfa exclaims.

Invited inside Spanky's plush cabaret, the dazed Alfalfa is treated to a fancy floor show and that King of Swing, "Cab" Buckwheat—both now rich and making "hundreds and thousands of dollars."  Alfalfa's encourage to croon, but when he finally tosses aside his pride and consents, in steps the leering Barnaby to drag him back to the streets.  By now, Alfalfa's screaming that he doesn't want to sing opera, he just wants to croon.  At that moment, the scene blurs woozily, Alfalfa awakens and realizes it's all been a terrible dream; he's still backstage at the gang's little production, and with renewed confidence he gladly returns to the show to sing (Bing Crosby's) "Learn to Croon" for a happy, off-key, "just murmur boo-boo-boo-boo-boo" ending.

Our Gang Follies of 1938 is a delightful change-of-pace film, perhaps the best of the mini-musicals, and with its huge cast, full orchestra score, elegant costuming, and richly dressed sets certainly the most elaborate.

The film's considerable production values and radical departure in format are pleasing, though puzzling, as is the question of why the studio made this glossy one-shot return to the two-reel format (Our Gang Follies of 1938 is the last two-reeler Hal Roach Studios would ever make).

One area of conjecture revolves around MGM's interest in acquiring or at least perpetuating Our Gang as one of the few remaining profitable series of live-action short subjects.  Possibly either the Roach studio wanted an impressive entry to boost the stock in its Our Gang  property for a high-grossing picture and wanted to participate in funding an ambitious short musical that would more than return Metro's investment at the box office.

The film's original titles tell a story in themselves.  Instead of the usual "Hal Roach Presents," this one picture only is introduced by the roaring "lion head" trademark and dissolves to a title reading:  "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Presents 'Our Gang Follies of 1938,' a Hal Roach Production."  And the leader at the beginning and end of each 35mm reel is labeled "Our Gang Follies of 1938/A Metro-Goldwin-Mayer Musical."  Usually the designation was simply "Hal Roach Comedy," and indeed subsequent one-reelers resumed this mode of identification, and also reverted to the "Hal Roach Presents" credit line.

For whatever reasons, Our Gang Follies of 1938 was produced and regarded as a special picture, and special production credits were listed:  S.S. Van Keuren as associate producer, Bud Murray as dance director, and Marvin Hatley as musical director.  (Incidentally, the charming theme song introducing the film is a different orchestration of one of Hatley's recurring themes throughout Laurel & Hardy's film Way Out West, entitled "Stagecoach Conversation.")

Movie musicals of the 1930's were incredibly lavish, and for Our Gang's spoof to work (and it does) the film had to reach beyond a standard parody of backstage intrigue and temperament, and somehow approach the extravaganza and wonderful absurdity associated with thing like MGM's Broadway Melody.  The dream contrivance neatly sidestepped the credibility problem of why scruffy back-yards-kids are costumed to the teeth and romping around deluxe movie musicals sets, but then the problem became what kind of sets should they be?  Spectacular?  Fashionable?  Wild fantasy?

Since of the cast of more than one hundred all but the four members of the laughable Cosmopolitan Opera House are kids, it was decided that instead of duplicating a pretentious Warners or MGM musical set, Club Spanky would be designed to conform to what a kid's idea of a nightspot ought to be like, resulting in impressionistic backdrops and things like the decorations representing outsize dishes of ice cream and peppermint candy.

Refreshments served the kid patronage at Club Spanky are mostly luscious-looking ice cream cones, sodas, and sundaes topped with jelly beans, though instead of the genuine confections, which under the hot studio lights would've melted faster than any kid could've eaten them, these delicacies were actually mashed potatoes whipped up with cotton to look like the real thing.  This way, at least no one would eat the props.

Blending in with the larger than life atmosphere is Henry Brandon as the enjoyable menacing "Barnaby" (so named in the script, if not on the screen), repeating the lecherous character of the same name he'd created in Babes in Toyland, his first film, at age twenty-one.  His superb "Barnaby" villainy soon led to such sinister roles as Captain Lasca in Buck Rogers, and the evil Chinese mastermind, Fu Manchu, in the Republic serial Drums of Fu Manchu.

As counterpoint to Barnaby's Scrooge-like shenanigans, there are some bright and cheeky musical production numbers:  Spanky and Darla alternating choruses of "King Alfalfa" ("You may love the voice of Vallee/And think Bing's the swellest thing/But when it comes to crooning/Alfalfa is the King!"); Ella Logan's Scotch niece belting out "Loch Lomond"; "Cab" (Calloway) Buckwheat leading his orchestra through a  hot rendition of "Follow the Leader"; Darla, Porky, and ensemble performing the snappy song "The Love Bug Will Get You If You Don't Watch Out"; Georgia Jean LaRue and Phil MacMahon combining on two engaging tunes, "That Foolish Feeling" and "There's No Two Ways About It"; and then everyone joining in for the "Wedding March" smash finale, Dandies, all.

Finally, a review of the Our Gang Follies of 1938 shooting script points up some interesting things about Our Gang filmmaking.  Since this particular copy of the forty-one-page script was kept by the script clerk, it's replete with marginal notes concerning the continuity of attitudes, and positioning (particularly props) from one scene to the next:  whether Spanky's wearing a hat, whether Alfalfa's playing his concertina, what hand Porky's holding the atomizer in (for spraying Alfalfa's gifted throat)—all things we take for granted, until spotting a goof on the screen.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Our Gang scripts is the degree to which the nuance of emotions portrayed in facial reactions is already spelled out precisely on paper before shooting ever begins.  Directors McGowan, Meins, or Douglas knew pretty much what would work, and then went out and captured it on film.  Take for instance the following planned scene descriptions extracted from the script:


FULL SHOT—BACKSTAGE NEAR DOOR.  Spanky is pacing the floor in a dither.
VOICES (Off-scene):  We want Alfalfa!  We want Alfalfa!

Alfalfa is seen through the glass pane of the door as he arrives exterior on landing, smugly self-satisfied.  Spanky turns to retrace his steps and catches a glimpse of Alfalfa, does a delayed double take and dashes for the door gleefully.  Throwing the door open, he grabs Alfalfa and pulls him into the room, fairly bouncing with excitement and relief.  Porky enters and closes the door.

SPANKY:  Gee, I'm glad you changed your mind and came back.  Listen to 'em yell!  Go out there, boy, and croon for 'em—

Alfalfa, enjoying the situation, expands with satisfaction, and shakes his head with an oily smile.

Spanky urges Alfalfa on with a push.  Alfalfa pridefully, daintily removes Spanky's hands from his arm.

ALFALFA (Snootily):  Just a minute—
SPANKY (Reacts, injured, unbelieving, dumbfounded):  What's the matter?
ALFALFA (Definitely):  I told you before—my crooning days are over.

Spanky gives him a hurt, resentful look.

SPANKY (Quietly):  Oh!  So you still feel that way about it, huh?—Okay.

Spanky stalks out toward waiting dancers, off-scene.  CAMERA PANS OVER TO TWO SHOT—ALFALFA AND PORKY.  They exchange looks of smug enjoyment.

SOUND:  Off-scene, crowd calling for Alfalfa


Though one can find slight differences in the filmed scenes, they were shot virtually as scripted.

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