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Sunday, September 13, 2009

THE OUR GANG COLLECTION -- DVD review by porfle

Back in the 20s and 30s, the downright funniest movie shorts came from that bustling hotbed of comedy genius, Hal Roach Studios. One day in 1922, Hal had the idea of putting a bunch of everyday kids together in front of the camera and letting them act natural, with a minimum of scripting and direction. This resulted in the beloved and wildly successful series, Hal Roach's Rascals (or "Our Gang", after the title of their first film), out of which came some of the most popular child actors of all time. A few, like Jackie Cooper, continued their acting careers into adulthood, while most lapsed into obscurity after their brief stardom.

In 1938, Roach sold the series to MGM, and a brand new era began in the Rascals' saga--one which might be referred to as "The Unfunny Years." These 52 MGM shorts, which make up the Warner Archive's 5-DVD set THE OUR GANG COLLECTION, are irresistibly fascinating to me not for their great performances or comedy content, which are in short supply, but for two other reasons altogether. One, they're the shorts that I grew up with first, so they have a deep nostalgic value to me. These things are just ingrained in my memory, and watching them again is like reliving the past. And two, they document the decline and eventual demise of Our Gang and their classic series.

Most of these slickly-produced shorts have little or none of the simple humor, spontaneity, or natural performances encouraged at Roach. Indeed, the ones that aren't pale imitations of the earlier films are either preachy "teach the kids a lesson" sermons ("Don't Lie", "Time Out For Lessons") or plotless music and dance reviews intended solely as novelty shorts or WWII morale boosters ("Doin' Their Bit", "Melodies Old and New", "Calling All Kids"), with the Gang often lost amidst a sea of anonymous showbiz kids and cringe-inducing production numbers.

"Ye Olde Minstrels" is the first of these practically plotless musical novelties. In this case, the Gang gets all worked up about helping the Red Cross and decides to put on yet another show, this time with the help of Froggy's uncle who's an old-time minstrel man. After a couple minutes' obligatory exposition the big show is in full gear, on a big stage with elaborate costumes and sets and a bunch of other faceless child performers.

A precision (well, not quite) dance number is followed by some creaky old vaudeville patter from Spanky, Froggy, and Mickey, and then Froggy's uncle finishes the show with a blackface song and dance routine to which the audience responds with raucous applause. It's all really quite awful, and about as far as you can get from those charmingly makeshift shows the Gang used to put on in their old barn. The later WWII clunkers with their tired military gags, racist jokes, and almost masturbatory patriotism, are even worse.

One by one, key players in one of the Gang's most revered line-ups--Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Buckwheat, and Porky--fall by the wayside due to advancing age, making way for less talented or appealing kids to replace them in these increasingly entertainment-free MGM productions. The loveable Darla Hood bites the dust after the laughing-gas comedy "Wedding Worries", and veteran laugh-getter Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer's last gasp is "Kiddie Kure", with guest star Thurston Hall. The quintessential bully, Tommy "Butch" Bond, makes several menacing and memorable appearances as Alfalfa's two-fisted romantic rival before stepping aside for the considerably less appealing Freddy "Slicker" Walburn.

Porky's disappearance breaks up his beautiful team-up with Buckwheat, who, as it turns out, is the only member of this particular group to make it to the bitter end in the fittingly-titled fizzle, "Tale of a Dog" (1944). Arguably the most popular and well-known Our Ganger of all time, George "Spanky" McFarland, holds out against encroaching puberty until "Unexpected Riches" marks his swan song. Without a doubt, Spanky and Alfalfa were two of the most genuinely talented and skilled comic actors in the Gang's history, and despite the bad scripts they were given to perform in later years, they brought a vitality and watchability to these shorts that were sorely lacking after their departure.

Froggy, the homely, bespectacled kid with the deadpan delivery and steamboat voice, appeared in "The New Pupil" and "Waldo's Last Stand" before becoming an official Gang member in "Kiddie Kure." Froggy was actually a pretty talented and funny kid when he wasn't over-directed and had good material to work with. Unfortunately, as the series grew progressively less funny, he was saddled with the unenviable task of delivering joyless, leaden punchlines (usually nonsensical quotes from various aunts and uncles) intended to end humorless stories with a "laugh."

Taking Darla's place as "the girl" was Janet Burston, whose brief debut was a hilariously bad rendition of something called "Tippy Tippy Tin" in "All About Hash." Critic Leonard Maltin pretty much excoriates Janet in his essential history of the series, "Our Gang: The Life and Times of the Little Rascals", but I think she was a talented singer and dancer and was cute as a button.

Again, it's the material that does her in--the depressing "Family Troubles" finds her running away from home in tears because she's not getting enough attention, then getting "adapted" by an older couple who decide to teach her a lesson by treating her like a galley slave. But in the shameless WWII flag-waver "Calling All Kids", her song-and-dance number "I Love a Man in Uniform" is bubbling with personality and fun. So you can count me among the small group of fans who think that Janet was actually an asset to these shorts rather than an element in their decline.

Easily the most famous of the latter Gangers was the future Robert Blake, known here by his real name, Mickey Gubitosi. Maltin's book rightly points out Mickey's artificial acting style, which is obvious from his very first appearance as a junior Ganger in "Joy Scouts" and is evidenced by broad, practiced gestures, hammy expressions, and overly declarative line readings. Still, he's a cute kid and I like him.

In later years Blake told of how he blustered his way into a leading role by being able to deliver lines that another kid actor couldn't, and ended up helping to support his family with his acting wages. So it's no surprise that little Mickey Gubitosi can be seen selling every line and gesture with everything he's got--the little guy's doing what he can to put food on his family's table and clothes on their backs! There would be plenty of time for subtlety and craftsmanship later in his acting career. Anyway, it's interesting to watch the future "In Cold Blood" star (and tabloid mainstay) ham it up as a precocious tyke.

This Warner Archive Collection DVD set is a major event for Our Gang fans. All 52 original uncut MGM shorts are here, and save for a rough patch here and there, the picture quality is fine. There are no extras--not even a menu with a funny picture on it or anything--but that's the point of the Warner Archive's no-frills policy of putting obscure and/or hard-to-find fan favorites on DVD that would normally be collecting dust in their vaults.

I honestly don't know if these shorts will appeal to people who didn't grow up with them and now look back on them with fond nostalgia. Several of the earlier ones--such as "Aladdin's Lantern", "Men in Fright", and "Clown Princes"--retain much of the charm of the Hal Roach shorts, and even some of the inferior ones still get by on the personalities of Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, and the rest. But most of the latter entries in this collection have little conventional entertainment value and appeal only as strange, puzzling artifacts of their era and retro-camp novelties.

As such, the worst of them boast almost the same perverse fascination as films such as REEFER MADNESS and GLEN OR GLENDA? The world in which the filmmakers at MGM place Our Gang is ultimately a dour, humorless place dominated by glowering authority figures (whom we're supposed to respect) and rigidly upstanding citizens. There's a joyless, almost ghostly unfunniness hanging over this dreary MGM backlot world as the "Our Gang" series meanders toward its ignominious end, one from which I, both out of nostalgia and a strange kind of curiosity, find myself unable to look away. To me, this is genuinely fascinating stuff. It's just the kind of thing ERASERHEAD's Henry Spencer might watch when he isn't staring into the radiator.

Buy it at the WB Store

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