It remains one of the most schizophrenic entertainments from a decidedly bygone era. From the nonsensical name changes - "Little Rascals", "Our Gang" - to its revolving door cast, Hal Roach's humorous children's shorts are as enigmatic today as they were 90 some years ago. Starting as silents, and then switching over to sound, they were one of the first mainstream Hollywood offerings which treated race with some manner of respect. Sure, the African American characters were so stereotypical that minstrel shows were offended, but these kids of color also existed on equal footing with their clearly Caucasian peer group. Odder still was the notion of focusing on poor and disenfranchised kids during a time when America was suffering through its own horrific financial troubles. By World War II, the two reelers were fading from moviegoers' memories. A couple of decades later and they became perfect syndicated TV fodder. Today, they are a novelty and a cautionary example of past prejudices marring an otherwise innocent bit of kiddy comedy, as these new DVD collections from Legend Films clearly shows.
This set, subtitled Classics and Hidden Episodes offers five episodes, as well as one "bonus" installment, resulting in 116 minutes of mind-boggling oddness. 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. We are also willing to accept an even more pandering dynamic from our diversions. Anyway, the storylines offered are as follows:
Big Ears (1931)- Wheezer's mother and father are talking divorce, so the little boy gets the gang to help him force his parents back together.
Lazy Days (1929) - Farina spends a hot summer afternoon being waited on hand and foot by his girlfriend Trellis while the rest of the gang prepares for a beautiful baby contest.
Free Eats (1932) - the gang heads over to a rich woman's home for a party, while a couple of dwarf criminals disguised as children try to rob the place.
Fish Hooky (1933) - the gang decides to skip school, not knowing that their kind teacher has arranged for a field trip to the local pier and amusement park.
Mush and Milk - (1933) - the gang are orphans in a horrible home run by a hideous hag, waiting for the day when their benefactor, Cap, gets his back pension and can take care of them properly.
The Fourth Alarm (1926) - Silent - the gang become honorary firemen and have their recent appointments tested when an explosives laden lab goes up in flames.
It's an odd experience, coming to the Little Rascals all these years after first experiencing their surreal combination of slapstick and strangulated social commentary. At their core, these shorts were nothing more than "kids being kids" - perhaps the first and only attempt by Tinseltown to offer children in realistic settings and authentic actions. These aren't super smart brats with snarky things to say about current popular culture. They're also not wayward urchins offered up for purely melodramatic or manipulative means. From donkey rides to a day spent down by the creek, this was Americana sliced solidly along class and color lines. While inclusive to a fault, characters like Farina, Stymie, and Buckwheat still trade on the tainted portrayals of blacks during the first four fifths of the 20th century. They wear tattered pieces of cloth in their hair and celebrate sloth (and watermelon) with uncomfortable abandon. As a matter of fact, one entire episode (Lazy Days) exists solely to turn a well known Rascal into an underage Stepin Fetchit.
Beyond the whole race dynamic, The Little Rascals also offer us conflicting views of the country in the late '20s and early '30s. We get domineering males practically beating their women into submission. Fathers in general are viewed as ineffectual or fiends while mothers are allowed to be either weak-willed and wanting or angelic and put-upon. Granted, this is all for a setting which shows the gang going out into the world and discovering it realities first hand, but it's so foreign to our current mindset that it plays like a broadcast from another planet. Also, be warned about this particular package. Spanky is only a baby here. Buckwheat, Alfalfa, Darla, and Butch the Bully are still several shorts away, and unfamiliar faces like Joe, Dickey, and Chubby are front and center. They are as endearing as their more famous replacements, but the whole schism does take a bit of getting used to.
Because of Spanky, Free Eats, Fish Hooky, and Mush and Milk are a lot of fun. There is definitely an ideal at play which goes a little something like this: when in doubt, cut to a shot of the portly little piglet of a boy doing something adorable and everything will be right with the world. Whether it's playing with a monkey or running down a pair of little people criminals, it is easy to see why he became one of the era's most endearing faces. As for the rest, Lazy Days will simply astound you. It is almost brazen in its "comin' massa" mannerisms. Because it's silent (and Legend Films offers no musical accompaniment, not even something stock or canned) The Fourth Alarm is less interesting. You need to hear the kids talking to get the full effect of the Gang concept. Finally, Big Ears is interesting for its discussion of divorce...but little else. The whole kids vs. parents proposition falls apart the minute it's obvious that the adults are nothing but idiots. The result is a presentation that's more halting than hilarious. Most of its works. The rest requires a different personal perspective, one that hasn't been relevant since the Jazz age.
First off, none of these shorts bear the "Little Rascals" or "Our Gang" label. Instead, they have some weird 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 - "The Fourth Alarm" - there are no other extras offered.
Cure kids acting adorable have always been a viable commercial commodity in Hollywood. From Shirley Temple to Macaulay Culkin, the late Gary Coleman to a myriad of media made child stars and teen idols, audiences apparently can't get enough of a cute underage face. In the case of this particular release, the Little Rascals hold up, if barely. There will be material here that warrants concern. There is also entertainment value o'plenty, enough to warrant a Recommended rating. Remember to take the racial facets with a big fat grain of time and place salt and you'll be just fine. Otherwise, you might suffer a severe case of whiplash at how cool/crude refreshing/reprehensible this all is. Hal Roach was a legendary king of comedy. The Little Rascals own a unique place in his domain. It's not always a pleasant place, however.
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