STORY: The Gang (and their various pets) are caddies at a
Divot Diggers is the first Our Gang short directed by
McGowan since 1933's Wild
His approach is noticeably different from that of Gus Meins, who took
over the series in 1934 with Hi'-Neighbor!
Whereas Meins's films tended to be well-plotted, with gags often moving
the story forward, in Divot
goes for multiple gags based on a single situation, as in films like Hook and Ladder
(the Gang as fire
fighters) or Choo-Choo!
(the Gang on a train). This time, the Gang are pushed into
service as caddies when the real ones go on strike. From that
simple situation, McGowan and the gag writers simply fill up the two
reels with as many gags as they can based on golf - nearly everybody
who worked for Hal Roach played the game - and end it with a chimp
commandeering a lawn-mowing tractor and the gang plummeting down a hill
on a runaway section of fence.
This McGowan film,
coming right near the
end of Gus Meins's reign (Meins would direct only one more film) is as
good as place as any to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of both
styles. Often less concerned with story than with giving the
funny things to do, McGowan's films could occasionally feel empty
because of weak gag material that played out against a near-nonexistent
Yet in his best shorts, especially in the pre-Spanky days, McGowan
allowed all of his young cast members to shine, even if some of them
only got a quick reaction shot or a single funny line. When
gags were good, the story hardly mattered.
In Meins's films, the
story is usually
king, and were often so well-plotted that several were entertaining
even without many gags to speak of (The
First Round-Up). Events were more orderly in
work. But there was a tendency, actually started in the
post-Spanky McGowan films, to focus only on a handful of rascals, with
the others merely being background dressing. There were fewer
"little" moments on the sidelines in Meins's films.
Neither approach is
one, a great Meins short
being just as enjoyable as a great McGowan short. I confess
always preferred the loose, rag-tag feeling of McGowan's Our Gang
films, but at the same time, I have much admiration for Meins's
narrative-driven films. In the end, it's like comparing
and Hardy's BLOCK-HEADS to OUR RELATIONS, or the Marx Brothers MONKEY
BUSINESS to A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Sometimes you just needs
sometimes you also need a story.
Darla has blond hair in this film. It had been dyed
appearance in Laurel and Hardy's THE BOHEMIAN GIRL and had not washed
STORY: The Gang enter Darla in an radio talent contest, but Alfalfa has to substitute at the last minute.
Adding to the theory
that a director brings
his own style to Our Gang, we have The
Pinch Singer, directed by Fred Newmeyer. He
classic Harold Lloyd features, including WHY WORRY and one of the most
perfect comedies ever made, SAFETY LAST. But for the first of
three Our Gang shorts he would direct, he merely gets the job done
without putting his mark on the film or the series.
Still, with all the
singing and dancing, The
Pinch Singer can't help but be
agreeably diverting, and there are several neat gags, including the
ever-talented Pete the Pup ringing a gong with his tail.
singing "I'm in the Mood for Love" is always good for a laugh, as he
doesn't approach it as a song to be sung but more as a nuclear bomb to
be disarmed. The concentration on his face as he forgets his
place, mixes up the verse with the chorus, and generally beats the song
into a bloody pulp, is almost painful, but priceless just the same.
GOOD OLD DAYS
If blackface upsets you, avoid this film. Not only
Alfalfa dress in blackface early in the film, but one of the
spotlighted groups on the radio show is The Plantation Trio.
TAKE IT AWAY,
Once again, Marvin Hatley, composer of Laurel and Hardy's
and the deathless "Honolulu Baby" (which for once is not trotted out in
one of these musical shorts) can be spotted in an Our Gang film, this
time as the radio band's conductor.
STORY: The Gang do chores for an old woman to pay for breaking her
The third film to be
released in 1936, Second
directed by Gus Meins, is not only
the best of the year so far, but stands as one of Meins's best Our
Gangers ever. It would also be his last.
Fans of Our Gang will
tell you that
watching the films helps them remember their own childhood, and Second Childhood
makes this idea
explicit. The film begins with an elderly woman
waited on hand and foot by two overly cautious servants, and loathing
every minute of it. Her life is dull, routine and
Yet, the moment she meets Spanky and the Gang, things begin to brighten
up for her.
The key to this film
is Zeffie Tilbury
seemingly effortless performance as Grandma, and her instant rapport
with all the Gang members. She looks like she is honestly
enjoying herself, and so does the Gang. I say "seemingly
effortless performance" because in real life, the woman was blind and
needed to be helped around the set by handlers. Yet you
know it by this film.
As in Gus Meins's
best films, the story
progresses logically from beginning to end, with bits of business not
just adding to the fun but pushing the film along to its
conclusion. For example, at the start of the film, Grandma
objects to taking her latest round of pills. After
the Gang to do work in her yard, she hears Alfalfa singing "Oh,
Suzanna" and wonders if he is ill. When he explains that he's
just singing, she takes him and Spanky to the piano to show them how
the song really goes. During their three-part rendition of
Song, Spanky's slingshot gets caught on the corner of the piano bench
and eventually uncatches, smacking Grandma on her rear. Not
knowing what a slingshot is, she is fascinated by it, and, egged on by
Spanky, uses it to take out each and ever pill bottle in the house.
With the cast now
relatively small, Meins
finally has time to give other rascals memorable pieces of
business. Although Spanky and Alfalfa are the main stars,
Buckwheat and Porky get a fun gag with the water hose, Darla continues
her fascination with picking flowers, first seen in Divot Diggers, and
even little Dickie de Nuet gets to teach Grandma a valuable lesson on
"please" and "thank you".
Even with a "Grandma
on Roller Skates"
finale that is obviously done with a stunt man and process work, Second Childhood is
my favorite Gus
Meins Our Gang film, and one of my five favorite Our Gang films of all
GRANDMA: (sarcastic) I like your nerve!
SPANKY: (proudly to Alfalfa) She likes my nerve!
STORY: An Arbor Day pageant at the Gang's school.
second Our Gang short is
better than The Pinch
but still only rises to the level of pleasantly dull. The
Day Pageant is played relatively straight, the only gags being
Buckwheat forgetting his line and a small tree tipping over before
Darla can water it. One wonders if it was planned
or if McGowan, Meins or even James Parrott would have found a way to
gag up the proceedings. Even when midgets George and Olive
Brasno, who had appeared in the excellent Shrimps for a Day,
liven up the pageant with some "vo-de-o-do", they are quickly shuttled
off the stage. Why were they even brought in if they were not
going to be allowed to do anything? It's as if just seeing
was supposed to be entertainment enough.
In a nice bit of
McDaniel plays Buckwheat's mom, a role she played a year earlier in Anniversary Trouble.
Lawrence, one of Hal Roach's loveliest would-be starlets, plays the
the pageant. In the next film, she would officially become
Gang's new teacher.
STORY: Spanky and Alfalfa scheme to play hooky.
Times had changed and
Hal Roach was forced
to change with them. The market for short films was drying
and most of his big stars had either switched over the features (Laurel
and Hardy) or been let go (Charley Chase). The Our Gang
was almost phased out after Arbor
but MGM, who distributed the
Roach shorts, convinced the producer that there was still a place for
Our Gang on any movie bill. So Hal Roach kept the series
but in a new one-reel format.
The series also had a
new director in
Gordon Douglas. His first Our Gang short, Bored of Education,
would win an Academy Award, but he would certainly surpass this minor
effort in the next two years. In the Douglas era, the Our
shorts, now just ten minutes long, would be slick and quick.
Douglas would become the master of this format, capping off the Hal
Roach Our Gang era with a series of enjoyable, easily digestible
comedies featuring the Gang's most famous cast, listed above.
Education is essentially a remake
of Teacher's Pet,
but with no
time for the kind of loose tangents of
the McGowan era. With only one reel of film to work with,
and the writers had to set up the story and play it through as
economically as possible.
Alfalfa sings yet
another song, "Those
Endearing Young Charms". The novelty of Alfalfa's singing was
wearing off, so Bored
introduces a trend of gagging up the
songs with special effects. This time, Alfalfa has
swallowed a balloon stopper, which makes a wheezing noise at the end of
Rosina Lawrence plays
the new teacher, and
even gets her name in the film's title card. Projecting the
essence of niceness, she was the new generation's Miss
Roach tried hard to make her a star, but she never really caught
on. In her later years, she would marry John McCabe, famed
and Hardy biographer and co-founder of The Sons of the Desert.
STORY: Spanky and Alfalfa want Buckwheat and Porky's firecrackers.
Another quick and
easy story. Spanky
and Alfalfa get Buckwheat and Porky's firecrackers, but are called back
from recess before they can set them off. Porky takes care of
that with a magnifying glass, setting the firecrackers off in Alfalfa's
back pocket as he recites "The Charge of the Light Brigade" for Miss
Lawrence. "Cannons to the left of me (bang bang bang
bang!!!). It ends with Alfalfa cooling his backside in a
of water while the Gang (unconvincingly) laughs at his predicament.
One of the most
fascinating things about
these later shorts is the mysterious friendship between Buckwheat and
Porky. Because neither can manage to speak clearly, they are
twins who have developed their own secret language. Buckwheat
especially fun to listen to as he talks to "Banky" and
Somehow they always seem to understand him perfectly.
STORY: The Gang put on their version of Romeo and Juliet.
One of the most
beloved Our Gang films of
all time, Pay As You
remembered for its handful of classic
moments. That a film that is over in ten minutes can have a
"handful of classic moments" is what makes the best of the Gordon
Douglas films so good.
You Exit revisits the days of Shivering
Shakespeare and Spanky,
with the Gang putting on
their homemade version of a classic play. Because of its
running time, with no time for anything other than gags, Pay As You Exit may
be the best
film of this particular Our Gang genre. Classic
moments include Alfalfa eating onions to keep his voice in shape,
causing Darla (Juliet) to refuse to go on after the first scene, citing
"Onions!". That leaves Buckwheat to fill the role of Juliet,
after initially appearing as a Nubian slave ("Miss Duliet, your Pappy's
comin'!"). As soon as this new Juliet appears on yonder
the audience cries out "It's Buckwheat! Hooray for
Buckwheat!". Why this kid is universally loved by every kid
the audience is left unstated, but it just feels right.
it's his complete lack of ego. The world hustles and bustles
around him, and he is content to simply observe and occasionally report
his feelings to Porky. Buckwheat rarely had any ulterior
or any motives at all. Even when he was involved in a doomed
Spanky - Alfalfa scheme, he was usually roped into it. Hooray
Joe Cobb once again
returns to Our Gang as
the rather large "kid" who destroys the front row bench when he sits
down. Although he left the series officially after Boxing Gloves,
he hadn't ended his association with the series, often acting as Master
of Ceremonies for Our Gang's various live appearances.
In the 1980s, Saturday
Night Live's Eddie Murphy made the phrase "O'tay!" famous
his otherwise accurate and endearing impression of Buckwheat and his
unintelligible speech. But serious Our Gang fans knew that
"O'tay" was actually a Porkyism, said first in this film.
Buckwheat does get in at least one classic line in Pay As You Exit,
the great "My Homeo!".
STORY: Spanky and the Gang must retrieve a phony note from Miss
Some Gordon Douglas
Our Gang films seem
more geared toward children than for general audiences. Spooky
Hooky is one of them. It is essentially a
with the Gang getting frightened by various mechanical gags in the
empty schoolroom at night. This one was fine when I was a
but as an adult, it doesn't do much for me. Then again, the
Douglas films are often almost beyond criticism. Before you
even decide if you like a Douglas short or not, it's usually over.
The earlier Our Gang shorts could have been boiled down to ten minutes (and they sometimes were on television!). You certainly don't need Stymie's tale of how ham and eggs could talk in Dogs is Dogs, Chubby practicing his love words while Dorothy watches dubiously in Love Business, or the long, rambling conversation between Jack and Miss Crabtree in her car in Teacher's Pet. The stories of these films, such as they were, could have been told in one reel. But the stuff mentioned above is what fans remember most about the early films, and is what gave them their personality. In the tightly scripted one-reelers from 1936 on, there would be no time at all for such extraneous stuff. Douglas's job was to tell a complete story in ten minutes. He did it marvelously, and these later shorts contain much of the stuff of Our Gang legend. But with a cast this talented and likable, you may sometimes wish that there were time for frivolous, non-plot related side trips. The one-reelers are sometimes too professional, with the Gang coming off more as actors rather than real children.