Children acting like children, making mischief and finding themselves in goofy predicaments as they play with their pals, has been a foundation for endless and ageless humor. This is precisely what producer Hal Roach had in mind when he began making his Our Gang comedies in 1922. In these films, a hardscrabble conglomeration of boys and girls came together to amuse themselves and their audiences with prankishness and frivolity. The series was astoundingly successful and over the next 22 years, 221 10-and 20-minute-long Our Gang comedies were produced, with Roach re-energizing the series by adding carefully selected replacements as his pint-sized stars outgrew their roles.
Our Gang comedies were not completely original, having evolved from a series of "Sunshine Sammy" shorts produced by Roach in 1921 and 1922 and featuring Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison, a black child actor. Back in the 1920s, the majority of silent comedy shorts emphasized visual humor and pratfalls over plotlines; indeed, many comic one and two-reelers were surreal affairs in which a zany star moved from one unrelated predicament to the next. Our Gang films were different in that they were more story-driven, with the humor a byproduct of the everyday situations in which the children found themselves.
While seeking out the right mix of youngsters to star in the series, Roach emphasized character types over acting ability or experience. He was searching for children who were naturally funny, either because of their physical appearance or the manner in which they interacted among their peers or around adults, rather than those who could become characters on cue. His aim was to milk laughs from their instinctive behavior. At the same time, Roach wanted his Our Gang kids to be resourceful and tenacious. These were youngsters who needed no adults to show them how to enjoy themselves. In fact, Mickey Rooney, then at the beginning of his long Hollywood career, unsuccessfully auditioned for Our Gang in the late 1920s. It was Roach's belief that, even at his young age, Rooney was too affected to fit into the series.
The naturalness of the Our Gang kids could also be contrasted to the popular child stars of the day, including Jackie Coogan and Shirley Temple, who were tug-at-your-heartstrings adorable, starring in classics of children's literature or other material artificially contrived for the cinema. The Our Gang comedies were not set in faraway locales; indeed, the most exotic spots in which the youngsters found themselves were junkyards, ball fields, or makeshift backyard stages. They were not depicted as orphans to be teamed with an adult as Jackie Coogan was teamed with Chaplin's Little Tramp in The Kid ; neither were they polished miniature belters and hoofers who, like Shirley Temple, could wow one and all while vocalizing "On the Good Ship Lollipop" and tap-dancing with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
While Coogan played Oliver Twist, Little Robinson Crusoe, and A Boy of Flanders and Temple toplined Baby Take a Bow, Susannah of the Mounties, and Little Miss Broadway, the Our Gang titles were much more akin to a child's real life: Circus Fever ; Ask Grandma ; Helping Grandma ; Shootin' Injuns ; Your Own Back Yard ; Buried Treasure ; Telling Whoppers ; Baby Brother ; Rainy Days ; Wiggle Your Ears ; Fly My Kite ; Bedtime Worries ; Mama's Little Pirate ; The Awful Tooth ; Hide and Shriek ; and Practical Jokers. Quite a few emphasized the trials of education: School Begins ; Readin' and Writin' ;Playin' Hookey ; Fish Hooky ; Spooky Hooky ; Bored of Education ; Time Out for Lessons ; Teacher's Pet ; Teacher's Beau ; and School's Out. Others spotlighted pets: Love My Dog ; Cat, Dog & Co. ; Pups Is Pups ; Dogs Is Dogs ; The Pooch ; and Dog Daze.
The series debut was titled, appropriately enough, Our Gang. The original members were a mix of types: cute and lovable Mary Kornman; pretty Peggy Cartwright; freckle-faced Mickey Daniels, a true (albeit vulnerable) leader of boys, girls and pets; devilish Jackie Condon; good-looking, rough-and-tough Jackie Davis; roguish yet cheerful Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison himself, who at age 11 was the eldest in the group; and its littlest member, one-year-old Allen Clayton "Farina" Hoskins, who would be featured in 105 Our Gang comedies—more than any of his fellow players. The first of the Our Gang pets was a mule named Dinah; the most famous came to be Pete the Pup, a bulldog with a black circle painted around his right eye. Added to the group early on were such diverse types as fat Joe Cobb and all-American handsome Johnny Downs.
As the years passed and these kids outgrew their roles, they were replaced by other pubescent performers. Jackie Cooper (who was six and seven years old when he appeared in 15 Our Gang films) was a rare casting exception in that he was a show-biz veteran who had been performing on screen since age three. He later enjoyed an impressive (albeit brief) career as a junior Hollywood superstar, earning an Academy Award nomination in 1930 for his performance in Skippy. Other casting selections were more in the original Our Gang mold. Norman "Chubby" Chaney was a clone of Joe Cobb, while Jean Darling and Darla Hood were pretty-girl replacements. Engaging little Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins fit in nicely, as did Dorothy DeBorba, Scotty Beckett, Eugene "Porky" Lee and Tommy "Butch" Bond. Another Our Gang performer started out billed as Mickey Gubitosi. He eventually changed his name to Bobby Blake, and grew up to be Robert Blake, Emmy Award-winning star of the hit television series Baretta. However, the most renowned and beloved of the kids were a quartet of 1930s series headliners: Matthew "Stymie" Beard and William Henry "Buckwheat" Thomas (both captivating "Farina" successors), freckle-faced, creaky-voiced Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer; and pudgy, irrepressible George "Spanky" McFarland, arguably the most popular of all Our Gang actors. These youngsters are the best-known today, because the most enduring Our Gang comedies came during their years with the series and their films were talkies—the first non-silent Our Gang film was Small Talk, released in 1929—and are more likely to be screened on television. (Because ownership of the name Our Gang was held by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the series was renamed The Little Rascals when it first came to TV in 1955.)
One other special feature of the Our Gang films is that their casts were integrated—"Sunshine Sammy," "Farina," "Buckwheat" and "Stymie" were black—and all the children were allowed to act funny in equal measure. Back in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, African American characters in Hollywood movies were commonly and demeaningly stereotyped as lower class types, mammies and maids, train porters, and janitors who usually fractured the English language. In Our Gang films, children were children, whether black or white.
In 1938, the changing economics of the movie business resulted in a sharp decrease in the production of comedy shorts. That year, Hal Roach sold his rights to the series to MGM, and the quality of Our Gang films sharply declined. Of the 221 films in the series, a fair share from all periods was bound to be lackluster. Still, the series was loaded with what film historians and Our Gang experts Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann have called "imperishable comedy classics, full of heart and warmth." All those are from the 1930s. "If Our Gang had made only a dozen films like Dogs Is Dogs, Mama's Little Pirate, Hi-Neighbor!, Free Wheeling, The Kid from Borneo, Teacher's Pet, Bedtime Worries, Divot Diggers, Our Gang Follies of 1938, Glove Taps, Fly My Kite and Pups Is Pups, " noted Maltin and Bann, "the series would be worthy of comparison with the best short films of Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, and anyone else who's come before or since, in theaters or on television."
Only a couple of Our Gang alumni eventually went on to thriving careers in show business. Robert Blake won his stardom only after being booted out of high school and embracing drugs and alcohol. After his career as a child performer waned, Jackie Cooper endured a rough period as a young actor before becoming a television sitcom star, director and executive producer. Blake and Cooper were the glaring exceptions. After leaving the series, quite a few of the kids made some additional films or worked in vaudeville and on radio and television, only then to drift out of the industry. Meanwhile, the careers of others ended at the conclusion of their series stints.
Jackie Condon went on to become an accountant at Rockwell International, and Joe Cobb also worked there. Mickey Daniels was a construction engineer, Allan "Farina" Hoskins worked with the mentally disabled, and Jackie Davis became a doctor. William "Buckwheat" Thomas worked as a lab technician, and George "Spanky" McFarland toiled at a variety of odd jobs, eventually becoming a sales executive. The lives of other "Our Gangers" were brief and tragic. Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins served in the army during World War II, and then became an air cadet. He was 20 years old when he was killed during an instructional drill just after the war's end. Norman "Chubby" Chaney became much more than plump. As an adolescent, his weight ballooned to 300 pounds. He was afflicted with a glandular disorder, and died at age 18.
Sadly, the plights and fates of several Our Gang graduates reflect upon the often disastrous lives led by child stars who are unable to adjust to normal life away from the spotlight. Matthew "Stymie" Beard quit high school and ended up a heroin addict and petty criminal who did not rehabilitate himself until the 1960s. While featured in small parts in quite a few high-prestige Hollywood features of the 1930s and 1940s, including Going My Way, It's a Wonderful Life, State of the Union, A Letter to Three Wives and Pat and Mike, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer was no longer a leading light, and was just 31 when he was killed by a former business partner in a dispute over a $50 debt. While still a teenager, Scotty Beckett began leading a tumultuous life that was characterized by frequent lawbreaking. He died at age 38 of a fatal beating.
Ironically, Hal Roach, the comic genius behind Our Gang, outlived most of his youthful actors. He died in 1992, at the ripe old age of 100.
Bond, Tommy "Butch," with Ron Genini. Darn Right It's Butch: Memories of Our Gang, The Little Rascals. Wayne, PA, Morgin Press, 1994.
Maltin, Leonard. The Great Movie Shorts. New York, Crown Publishers, 1972.
Maltin, Leonard and Richard W. Bann. Our Gang: The Life and Times of the Little Rascals. New York, Crown Publishers, 1977.