Written by Musgo del Jefe
Little Musgo came to Our Gang the way most of his Gen X generation did – through The Little Rascals on Saturday and Sunday mornings in the '70s. To add to my confusion, much of the same cast appeared in similar shorts under the name, Our Gang. I was a huge fan of these kids and my friends and I knew them all by first name – quite a feat for shorts that were 40-50 years old by the time we saw them. It was only later in life as I tried to collect these fond memories on video did I discover some of the long twisted history of this series.
Hal Roach started the series in 1922 as a collection of silent shorts. Sound was added to the series in 1929. Some of the early cast of children included Sunshine Sammy, Mickey, Mary Ann, Joe Cobb, and Farina. By the time sound arrived, the Gang had added Wheezer, Stymie, Chubby, Jackie Cooper and Pete The Pup. The beauty of these early films is the naturalism of the children's behavior. Much like the other Hal Roach shorts of the '20s – Laurel and Hardy in particular, the two-reel length (around 20 minutes) allowed for the stories to naturally develop and not feel hurried.
By 1938, Hal Roach had produced about 80 shorts. But economics were pinching the series. Laurel and Hardy had made the transition to feature length films but Our Gang had been relegated to one reel (10 minutes). The cast had continued to change over the decade as kids grew older and were replaced. By 1936, the cast settled in to what most people remember as the "core" cast – Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Porky and Darla, with Butch and Waldo as Alfalfa's rivals for Darla. Before Roach could end the series, MGM agreed to purchase the series from him and take over production. The 80 Roach sound shorts would become that package that most people know from TV as The Little Rascals. MGM would go on to produce 52 more Our Gang shorts between 1938 and 1944. These shorts are collected for the first time uncut on the five-disc The Our Gang Collection from Warner Bros. Archive Collection.
The first thing that strikes you when viewing these shorts is the general change in tone between the earlier Roach shorts and the MGM-produced shorts. The earlier films had young, cute kids in generally unscripted and natural situations. The production values alone made these seem like home movies of kids being kids. The MGM shorts here are very stylized. The camerawork is top notch and the sets look like they are trying to hard to look "natural". The dialog is presented by the actors as if it is being fed to them from off camera – it's awkward and unnatural. What really hits home when watching them in succession is that the focus has really changed. These shorts rely on the cuteness of kids often being in adult situations or interacting with adults instead of just peeking in on the children's world where adults are only an afterthought.
In "Party Fever" (1938), the boys compete for Darla's attention by running to win "Mayor For The Day". The ten-minute reel ends up being a forum for political party and election jokes. It's cleverly written for the most part, but here the children's acting doesn't bring home the satire. And part of the problem might have been MGM's insistence on keeping Spanky and Alfalfa as the main characters as they aged from 11 to 13 in the first couple years of the MGM shorts. The series had always relied on a new crop of cute younger kids around the ages of 7-9 to drive the stories.