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.
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.
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.