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Our Gang  




Hal Roach-MGM, 1936.  Directed by Fred Newmeyer.  Camera:  Art Lloyd.  With Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, George "Spanky" McFarland, Darla Hood, Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas, Eugene "Porky" Lee, Dickie De Nuet, Billy Winderlout, Jerry Tucker, Marianne Edwards, Sidney Kilbrick, Peggy Lynch, Harold Switzer, Dorian Johnston, Junior Kavanaugh, Dickie Jones, Jackie Morrow, Harry McCabe, Betty Cox, Rex Downing, Delmar Watson, Warner Weidler, George Weidler, Walt Weidler, John Collum, Bud Murray's Dancers.

A prize of $50 inspires the Gang's Eagles Club to find a singer who can win a radio station amateur contest that afternoon.  Auditions are held before a capacity kiddie audience in the clubhouse, with Spanky moderating and assistant Pete the Pup poised awaiting Spank's wink as the cue for striking a loser's gong, with a mallet tied to his tail.  One kid objects to being "hooked" so abruptly:  "I just already got started."  "Oh, no," Spanky delights in telling him, "you mean you just finished."

Darla is chosen as the prime candidate, despite Alfalfa's persistent efforts.  She is set to meet Spanky at the station later that day, but when the time comes, she's nowhere in sight.  Spanky goes to look for her, and in his absence, Alfalfa decides to perform in Darla's place ("I'll do it!"), singing her song, "I'm in the Mood for Love."

Listening back in the clubhouse, dozens of Our Gangers rush out to the local drugstore's battery of pay telephones, phoning in a ton of votes for Alfalfa, with the result that this dark-horse contestant (who was hooted off the clubhouse stage three times that morning) saves the day and wins the $50 prize.

Out of which probably had to be paid a whopping reimbursement for the drugstore phone calls.

If, as Truman Capote said, failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor, crooner Alfalfa feasted on a tasty mouthful in The Pinch Singer.  as a film, however, The Pinch Singer was fed too many sweets, and without the proper nutrients never grew into the kind of healthy comedy it might have been.

Of Our Gang's three radio contest shorts for Roach, The Pinch Singer is the weakest.  The music is sprightly and delightful but the kids perhaps too cute and story exposition notably deficient.  Most of the blame must go to Fred Newmeyer, here making his official debut as an Our Gang director (he was pulled off the first aborted version of the film Our Gang in 1922).

A boyhood chum of Bob McGowan's in Denver, Newmeyer was by this time a veteran comedy director, having worked for many years with Harold Lloyd, directing such classic films as Grandma's Boy, The Freshman and Safety Last.  He branched out into other feature films (once directing W.C. Fields) but by the mid-1930's was working on Poverty Row.  Having started his successful career with Hal Roach in the late teens, he now returned to Roach for a job, and worked on several Our Gang comedies, including the feature-length General Spanky.

What Newmeyer apparently didn't realize was that the stars of Our Gang, although extremely talented, were still children, requiring a special kind of direction to make their planned movements and dialogue seem spontaneous.  Bob McGowan, Gus Meins, and later Gordon Douglas mastered this technique of working with the kids, but Newmeyer did not, as evidenced by this two-reeler.

A great deal of the dialogue and gesturing is hopelessly contrived, much like the later MGM Our Gang shorts.  As Alfalfa and Buckwheat audition for the club, the kids laugh and cheer them in a forced, unconvincing manner—precisely the way a group of kids would act if someone told them to laugh on cue, without actually giving them anything to laugh at.  The camera repeatedly cuts to reaction shots of Spanky making broad, knowing gestures; when Buckwheat's whistling is exposed as a fraud (he's got Porky playing a phonograph nearby), Spanky says, "Hey kids, let's give Buckwheat a big, great big hand because he had us all fooled then!"  (Even a good director would have had trouble getting anyone to sound convincing with that kind of dialogue.)

Worst of all is the finale.  After Alfalfa has unexpectedly won the prize money, Spanky and Darla arrive on the scene.  Spanky is about to scold Alfalfa, but when he hears about the prize, he says, "Say, pal, I knew you could do that all the time.  Besides, I was just telling Darla, you're the best singer in the whole wide world..."  Alfalfa interrupts Spanky's hot-air speech by giving him a taste of his own medicine and ringing the audition gong he's concealed in his briefcase.  At this point what do the three kids do?  They lock arms, snuggle up together, and smile blissfully for the camera in an "aren't-we-cute" pose for the fade-out.  Apparently, Newmeyer missed an essential point of the series.  One need only look back to Mike Fright, from 1934, or ahead to the excellent and compact one-reeler Framing Youth in 1937, to see how this same material should have been treated.

Looking at the film out of context, it comes as a surprise that the gang doesn't immediately think of Alfalfa when they want a singer.  Although he is by now one of the Gang's main characters (sort of displacing Scotty Beckett, who'd just left the series), Alfalfa hadn't yet solidified his image as a "crooner."  It was in the coming year that Alfalfa's singing became a fixture of the series and an integral part of story lines.

Alfalfa's singing, and his sincere attitude toward performing, are equally interesting in this short.  His audition song is "On the Road to Californy," a folk song with his brother backing him up on accordion, creating the same enjoyable country-western feeling as the songs they did in earlier films; Alfalfa's love songs were to come later.  When he goes on the air to sing Darla's number, "I'm in the Mood for Love," he is uncertain, forgets words, loses the beat, and summons up a falsetto to reach half the notes.  When Alfalfa fails to conclude his unending number, the microphone begins to sink, forcing Alfalfa to stoop down with it to finish his song!  This innocence is a far cry from the super-confident crooner of  later Our Gang comedies, when Alfalfa knows he's funny and his character appeal varies inversely.

Several professional-school kiddie acts are seen in the course of the radio program.  One black-faced group called The Plantation Trio sings "Five Foot Two" ("Has Anybody Seen My Gal?").  A top-hatted troupe does "The Broadway Melody," led by a well-scrubbed young man belting out the theme from MGM's famous early-talkie musical.  An instrumental trio plays a saxophone version of a number written for an earlier Hal Roach All Star comedy, Mixed Nuts, while the song's composer, studio musical director Marvin Hatley, leads the on-camera orchestra (cued by an announcer who proclaims, "Take it away, Marvin!").  Earlier, Buckwheat mimes to a 78 rpm recording of "The Whistler and His Dog."

Music aside, The Pinch Singer demonstrates that the Our Gang kids were like any actors working in films—they needed a good director.

This was Darla Hood's third Little Rascals appearance.  She'd been christened "Cookie, Our Gang's Sweetheart," for Follies, but nobody'd call her that, using her real name, Darla, instead.

In another deplorable example of how cavalier TV editors and syndicators have sometimes slashed Our Gang films, The Pinch Singer almost never turns up intact on television or for other revival showings.  With all that's missing from expurgated prints, one might be led to believe the film is actually a one-reeler.  In the bargain, the original titles are usually obliterated too; the as-always interesting artwork on the main titles having shown a silhouetted radio tower with pulsating radio waves.

Finally, in 1981, when Taxi's terrible Danny DeVito married Cheers' barmaid Rhea Perlman, they set the tone for their life together by playing a tape of Alfalfa's warbling in Pinch Singer during the wedding ceremony.  Ah, true love.

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