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!"
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
Laurel & Hardy's film
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
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
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.
TWO SHOT—SPANKY AND ALFALFA—PANNING.
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
ALFALFA (Definitely): I told you before—my crooning days are
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
Though one can find slight differences in
the filmed scenes, they were shot virtually as scripted.