Like the rest of the Hal Roach library, the 80 Our Gang talkies have not been cared for, to put it mildly. That’s why it’s heartwarming to see what tender loving care can do with the original negatives and 35mm materials even after decades of neglect. The images are clean and clear, and so is the sound. ClassicFlix has done the seemingly impossible by making these films look and sound nearly perfect. The before-and-after comparison footage on the disc is a revelation.
Hal Roach’s enduring comedy series, better known under its reissue name The Little Rascals, debuted in 1922, when movies were silent. Seven years later, when it was clear that talkies were here to stay, the producer nudged all of his stars (Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, and the Our Gang kids) into talking pictures. The first season, 1929-30, revealed all of the pitfalls and challenges of this formidable change.
The eleven two-reelers compiled here aren’t representative of the series that most people remember. There’s no sign of Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla or Buckwheat; instead, we see series veterans from the silent era who are outgrowing their roles (like Allen “Farina” Hoskins and Joe Cobb) and meet relative newcomers like Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins and Mary Ann Jackson. We also get our first look at future star Jackie Cooper.
The pace of these talkies is slow and the use of sound is awkward, hesitant at best. (A pint-sized prizefight in Boxing Gloves plays out in total silence.). Yet there is an overriding charm and innocence to these shorts that saves the day. I remember watching them on television when I was not much older than the kids on-camera and falling in love with them. I also developed a lifelong fondness for the bumbling slapstick of Edgar Kennedy as “Kennedy the Cop.”
I’ve enjoyed revisiting these early sound efforts, warts and all, and I still respond the way I did when I was a boy. I’m disarmed by the serious story elements in Small Talk, which casts the kids as orphans, and I love the pie fight that climaxes Shivering Shakespeare. I marvel at the way Farina delivers comic dialogue as if he’d been doing it his whole life. It’s easy to see why Jackie Cooper became a bona fide star in his own right..and I have an abiding affection for Norman “Chubby” Chaney, who was brought on board to replace rotund Joe Cobb.
Seen through 21st century eyes there are uncomfortable moments involving Farina, who joined the troupe in place of Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison. In A Tough Winter the Gang is joined by Stepin Fetchit, the performer whose name became synonymous with “negative Black stereotype.” In fact, Fetchit (real name Lincoln Theodore Perry) was making fun of that stereotype, out-lazying any real-life person known to exist. He’s so slow he can only deliver his dialogue in an unhurried drawl. He was a bona fide star in the early days of talkies, although the mere mention of his name sends out shock waves. Watch him at work and decide for yourself if he’s funny.
I can only applaud ClassicFlix for its herculean efforts and encourage you to support this definitive home-video release of The Little Rascals.