Kids growing up in the '60s and '70s loved the silent era slapstick comedy ideals of the '30s and '40s. They embraced the anarchic flavor of Warners' Looney Tunes and the gleefully violent Three Stooges. They also loved The Little Rascals, a collection of Central Casting conceits personified by child stars of various color and creeds. Whether it was in the guise of "Our Gang", or "Hal Roach's Rascals", these precocious brats with a lower class leaning took silly innocent fun to recognizably juvenile levels. They became part of after school rituals and Saturday morning cereal blocks. They were considered wholesome and hilarious even with a level of racial questionability that would make Song of the South blush. Eventually, names like Spanky and Alfalfa and Buckwheat would transcend type to become kid vid icons. This doesn't mean that adults don't appreciate the gang's goofy charms. In fact, once you get past the less than tolerate takes on black life circa 1931, something like The Boys of Our Gang is a lot of fun.
This set, subtitled The Boys of Our Gang offers five episodes, as well as one "bonus" installment, resulting in 116 some minutes of antiquated comedic charms. Indeed, watching these shorts some 80 years removed from their making shows just how far we've come - both as a society and as seekers of level headed family entertainment. We are clearly not as prejudiced as some of the portraits here. It also obvious that we love our legitimate child stars. Even in a suspicious setting these kids can do no real wrong. The storylines showcased are as follows:
Little Daddy (1931) - Farina and the gang tries to keep little Stymie from being taken to the orphanage.
Birthday Blues (1932) - when his father won't buy his mother a gift, Dickie gets the gang to help him with a fundraising treasure cake bake.
Honkey Donkey (1934) - a rich kid invites the gang - and their ornery mule - to his fancy house, with disastrous results.
Fishy Tales (1937) - Alfalfa is in big trouble when he accidentally incurs the wrath of local bully Butch.
Pay As You Exit (1936) - the gang put on a production of Romeo and Juliet, offering a unique ticketing opportunity to get the local kids interested in the show.
Monkey Business (1926) - Silent - an escaped circus chimp runs amuck all over Farina's house.
Now this is more like it. These are the Little Rascals most of us grew up with, the Spanky/Alfalfa/Buckwheat ideal that became fodder for a generation of patented playground braggarts. These are the adventures and the comic capering we memorized and imitated, from the strangled singing voice to the one word mantra "O-TAY!" For us, the Rascals were nothing more than innocent fun, fellow young-uns carefree and cool enough to do what we dreamed not dare do. We didn't see the sloppy borderline hate crime portrayals. We didn't understand the sometimes mean, manipulative nature of the narratives. We didn't recognize the pandering and the commercialization, the blatant disregard for believability matched with a real lack of human insight. No, we just laughed when Buckwheat acted foolish, Spanky rolled his cherubic eyes, and when Alfalfa butchered yet another Tin Pan Alley classic.
Of course, since half of this DVD is made up of episodes from the Farina era of Our Gang, their inclusion throws one's appreciation off a bit. These earlier installments, focusing on the disenfranchised black child and various members of his extended (and pretended) family are some of the rarest - and it's easy to see why. Little Daddy is like walking into a bad black face vaudeville act, our hero running around his shanty Rube Goldberg shack with his eyes bugging out of his head. Little Stymie is along for the ride, but this is Farina's show to sully. Similarly, Honkey Donkey sees the boys entering high society, jackass in tow, and the results are ripped from a bad intolerant farce. Only Birthday Blues avoids the racial schism, instead focusing on the blatant abusive patriarchy of the day. When Dickie cries over his dad's cruelty, it's not so much sad as sickeningly true.
But once Alfalfa, Spanky, and their version of the Rascals show up, things get a little less suspect. Yes, Buckwheat is still the king of the stereotypical malapropism and his clothes and demeanor suggest something that, in 2011, would get you banned for life. Yet he is such a likeable sprite, and put in such ludicrous situations (with such sunny outcomes) that you're PC gag reflex is more or less quelled. As one of the best reasons for watching Pay as You Exit Buckwheat is a winner. Alfalfa also shines in Fishy Tales, utilizing the title notion to avoid getting pounded by Butch. Then the final silent bonus feature cues up and our very worst fears are realized all over again. Farina is again at the fore, and this time a trained chimp from the local circus breaks into his rundown wreck of a home, causing all kinds of outwardly racists moments remarks. Then a cop shows up and asks the most inappropriate question of the last 100 years. Sometimes, things are banned for unrealistic reasons. The explanation as to why some of these shorts have been buried away for decades is right there ricocheting between your better judgment and your home theater system.
Again, none of these shorts bear the "Little Rascals" or "Our Gang" label. Instead, they have some dated title page referencing them as "Hal Roach's Kids and Pets Series." Granted, this was an original working label for the concept, but it's unusual to see it here. Overall, the image quality is pretty good. The 1.33:1 full screen transfer offers dated, unremastered prints, but they've been kept up fairly well. There are scratches and dirt, as well as some occasionally editing flaws, but in general, they look better than one would expect.
Nothing new here. Dolby Digital Stereo offered a flat and tinny Mono mix split between two different speakers. The dialogue is often over-modulated and some of the sound effects are overemphasized for creepy comic effect.
Aside from the bonus short - Monkey Business - there are no other extras offered.
It's never easy to go back and revisit favorites from the past. More times than not, what inspired or engaged you all those years ago will seem flat and lifeless today. In the case of the Little Rascals, and collections like The Boys of Our Gang, the discoveries are even more disturbing. For all its inclusiveness and sense of childlike wonder, there were some evil ideas simmering just beneath the racial surface. Still, this is an enjoyable romp, one that deserves a Recommended rating. Decades ago, a blind eye was clearly turned toward some of the more troubling aspects of these short. Today, we can view them as cautionary examples...confusing and creepy cautionary examples.
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