My, how time flies. It was one hundred years ago that Hal Roach came up with the idea of putting ordinary kids together in a series of comedy shorts. The official name was Our Gang, but the titles often referred to Hal Roach’s Rascals. When he sold Our Gang to MGM in 1938 and had to devise a new name for the original shorts, they were officially rechristened The Little Rascals.
The films hold up extremely well. They were a mainstay of television syndication, which is how they were introduced to new generations of fans. Now they look and sound better than ever, thanks to the digital cleanup and restoration done by ClassicFlix. Their Centennial Edition DVD/Blu-ray set is a must-have, not only for the 80 sound shorts but for the ample bonus material, including three beautifully restored silent comedies. The digital clean-up of the early talkies is nothing short of miraculous, as you can see for yourself in before-and-after demonstrations.
Two aspects of the Our Gang saga stand out in my mind: first, Hal Roach seemed to have a Midas touch when it came to casting new kids to replace cast members who outgrew their roles (or overstayed their welcome). The original ensemble was gathered informally. Mary Kornman was the daughter of the studio still photographer Gene Kornman. Jackie Davis was the kid brother of Mildred Davis, Harold Lloyd’s leading lady. And Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison was already working at the studio with Lloyd and Snub Pollard. Yet over the next two decades, new faces and personalities settled into place and seemed like they’d always been part of the Gang—think of “Chubby” Chaney, Mary Ann Jackson, “Wheezer” Hutchins, Jackie Cooper, Dickie Moore, and so many others. When the series settled in place with Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Porky, Buckwheat and Butch Mr. Roach stopped looking for new talent.
The other potential hurdle that the series cleared without a hitch was was the arrival of sound. You’d swear that Mary Ann and Farina were veterans of the stage or radio from their canny delivery of dialogue right from the start. Remember, in the silent days the director could coach his young performers through every scene; now, the kids were on their own. They even managed to speak foreign languages—phonetically—as Laurel and Hardy and other Hal Roach players did, for separately-filmed French and Spanish replicas of their early sound shorts. You can see the few surviving examples in the ClassicFlix Centennial Edition.
When I was growing up I watched the Rascals on local television every day and unwittingly committed these comedies to memory. Lines of dialogue ring in my head decades later (“Don’t drink the milk—it’s spoiled.”).
I wound up writing a book about the series with my friend Richard W. Bann. It was issued in 1977 under the title Our Gang: The Life and Times of the Little Rascals. When we updated the book in 1992 we renamed it The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang just for the heck of it. It stayed in print for many years and sold more copies than our publisher ever dreamed it would. The same was true of the VHS home video release that I hosted in 1994. They were hoping to sell 100,000 copies in the first month; instead, they sold one million that month and went on to tally four million copies by the end of the year.
Dick and I weren’t surprised. We knew how many people took these films to heart just as we had in our childhood. I still show one short every semester to my class at USC and it never fails to win over today’s 20-somethings. That’s because these comedies were tailored to audience expectations and still deliver the goods. The Rascals are “have-nots,” or underdogs, and it’s easy to root for them in any situation.
Naturally, there are some episodes that aren’t appropriate in this age of political correctness, but the overriding message that the series sent out was that black and white kids found nothing unusual about playing together. The first kid Hal Roach hired was already working at the studio: Ernie Morrison, who earned the nickname Sunshine Sammy. He was replaced by Allen “Farina” Hoskins, who made way for Matthew “Stymie” Beard and Billy “Buckwheat” Thomas. Each one brought a distinct personality to the group and made memorable contributions.
Hal Roach Studios was also home to a wonderful comedian named Charley Chase. I first learned of him in Robert Youngson’s compilation features like When Comedy Was King. The more I saw, the more I became enamored of this gifted performer, who was also a talented writer and director. I became a proselytizer and still champion him at every opportunity. (I was happy to see that The Criterion Collection included a pair of Chase’s silent two-reelers directed by Leo McCarey in their recent release of McCarey’s Love Affair, courtesy of Serge Bromberg and LobsterFilm.)
Chase’s Hal Roach talkies were made available to television stations in the early 1950s but never caught on like the Rascals or Laurel and Hardy. But for some reason, his first six sound two-reelers were never included in the TV package and have sat on the proverbial shelf for ninety years…until now. Thanks to Kit Parker’s Sprocket Vault, all six are available on a new DVD called Charley Chase At Hal Roach: The Talkies Volume Four: 1929. Soundtracks no longer exist for two of the shorts, so copyright cutting continuities have provided the missing dialogue, which is reproduced as a series of titles onscreen.
I wish I could say that there are gems in this collection, but I enjoy just watching Charley in his prime. The Snappy Sneezer comes closest to hitting the bull’s-eye, and he is joined in two of the comedies by his best leading lady, the lovely Thelma Todd. The thought of discovering “new” comedies with Charley Chase in the year 2022 is almost too good to be true—but it is true, and it deserves your support.