Children of Paradise

How to watch Hal Roach's Our Gang comedies and why
by Michael Atkinson  posted November 20, 2008
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It's a final frontier for cinephilic reevaluation—old Hollywood shorts? About and for children? Forgotten even by scholars of early comedy but so familiar to Americans from decades of kiddie-programming TV reruns that we remember them like we might uncritically recall our own early-childhood front lawn shenanigans and playground mini-dramas? The Our Gang river of two-reelers running from 1922 into the 1940s remains today both a touchstone and cinema non grata, graceless populist factory product that lives on deathlessly as culture and yet is officially neglected as art.

Finally being released more or less in toto on DVD under the Little Rascals moniker, the Hal Roach-produced, mostly-Robert McGowan-directed shorts—their focus an amorphous collection of poor neighborhood children living in the Depression-era outlands of Los Angeles County—are the most innocent comedies ever made, deliberately free of archness, professionalism, maturity, adult wit, and narrative ambition. Which is why they are still mesmerizing and relentlessly funny, in resonant ways contemporaneous shorts featuring Laurel & Hardy, Thelma Todd, and Charley Chase are not; the Our Gang films are so reckless and distractable and childlike that they feel like comedies made by kindergartners. In the first sound years, the attainment of continuity, exposure, composition, and sound recording was virtually amateurish, and it’s quite plain to the eye that such considerations were subjugated to the requirements of capturing the children living the scenarios’ gritty, absurd moments as if they were life and death, and reading dialogue as if they were play-acting to themselves and had been captured by accident.

The central achievement, the one we know best and the one to which the DVD box restricts itself, is the 80 shorts made in the decade from 1929 to 1938; the series genuinely blossomed with the coming of sound and the petulant timbre of preadolescent voices, and just as genuinely wilted once Roach sold the franchise to MGM 10 years later. (This remastered DVD-ing is doubly pertinent to baby boomers, as the 20-odd-minute films we thought we knew so well were always hacked down by at least a quarter to cram two into a half-hour time slot.) At this date, it’s impossible to deny the shorts’ visceral richness as comedy culture—the characters, even when formed around crude stereotypes like Buckwheat (Billie Thomas) and Chubby (Norman Chaney), live in four full dimensions and leave permanent heel prints in your memory. Presuming you’ve been there, consider Stymie (Matthew Beard) for a moment: his blind kindness, his bottomless hunger, his capacity for hope in the face of perpetual orphanhood, his penchant for entertaining indolence, his heroic sense of righteousness. This is a real boy—when has an adult gathered such pathos and depth in a Hollywood film?

What’s more, as a comedy dynamic Our Gang was dizzyingly fecund; instead of a fool-and-straight-man duo, or a Marxian quartet of conceptually distinct and irreverent spirits, we get an organic, workaday mob, a teeming band of unpredictable kids held together by brotherhood, battling against adult systems, and feverishly nesting (all those clubhouses!) in the absence of parental care. This characterization was sharper the earlier you went, when Wheezer (Bobby Hutchins) was the series' primary voice of joie de vivre, and the quickly shot films were dominated by a sense of genuine risk. Gradually with the years and changes in the cast, the movies became less spontaneous and more conventional, in the familiar way of nascent pop music forms like punk, evolving from seat-of-the-pants intuitiveness to commercial production, from the combustible Wheezer to the comfort-zone schemer Spanky (George McFarland, who as a post-toddler was the most irresistible rascal of all), from the homely, combative authenticity of Mary Ann (Mary Ann Jackson) to the doe-eyed idealized figure of Darla (Darla Hood).

The Our Gang films were neorealism in utero, and we may have no better filmic expression of the Depression. That is, not the schoolbook history of the decade but the Steinbeckian reality of its wide dusty streets, its collapsing social fabric, its literally threadbare wardrobe, its adult citizenry too wracked with pragmatic dread to pay attention to their children. Just as you can learn about life in postwar European middle-class apartments from the various New Waves of the '60s, so can you feel the heft and grime and worry of the real Depression in Roach’s shorts. (That includes the matter-of-fact use of blackface and other post-minstrel-show conventions, which have been much discussed elsewhere.) Certainly, nowhere else in American film culture is there such an intense and extended meditation on the verities of domestic poverty; here, used farcically but always also poignantly, the fact of children scrounging for food and shelter is sometimes the narrative foreground, but is more often, rather amazingly, the background to other scenarios. The holes in sweaters, the mooning over unobtainable food in bakeries and butcheries, the gruel the kids must eat in orphanages seemingly less out of Dickens than out of Jacob Riis—even in the later set-bound shorts dominated by Spanky and Alfalfa (Carl Switzer), life was lived on the edge of gone-to-seed farms, amid urban tenements, and in crowded one-room schoolhouses. Sometimes the kids had parents, and occasionally these tall, strange, officious aliens were even comfortably bourgeois, but often the gang members didn’t even seem to have homes, and the single rich kid in the area was always a smug, villainized capitalist right out of Upton Sinclair. Hardly a single short from the decade’s first years can go by without an incident or mention of corporal punishment, dealt out for baldly unjust reasons. (“Chubby, did your father tan you again?” the lovely schoolteacher Miss Crabtree sunnily asks of the fat boy who doesn’t want to sit down, in 1930’s School’s Out.) The impossible promise of a rich lady descending to adopt one of the Gang always lingered, and the prospect of the crew’s wild and iconic dog Petey getting impounded and gassed was never far from view.

Hollywood was so devoted to economic escapism in the '30s that Roach’s cycle may have been the most politically daring sustained statement by any U.S. filmmaker of the period. Capitalism had clearly failed these Americans. It was, of course, a statement easily overlooked, given the Our Gang format and the average age of its cast. But today the films seethe with dismay at the spectacle of abandoned preschoolers and grade-schoolers begging and wearing rags and arranging their daily lives on their own, or getting stuck on the tracks beneath a moving locomotive, as a left-to-his-own-devices Farina (Allen Hoskins) did in Railroadin’ (1929), or, imagine, preventing a monstrous Billy Gilbert from shotgunning a dog by pitching raw eggs into his face like Dizzy Dean in a pennant race (another of Wheezer’s fearless moments, from 1931's Dogs Is Dogs). But the predominant spirit of Our Gang isn’t outrage, of course, it’s the pervasive, fire-forged, interracial camaraderie that comes from hard times and childhood devotion, an anti-Lord of the Flies reality that often verges on a kind of playground socialism. Even if the kids' cockamamie enterprises aimed at magically landing a chunk of Depression-era dough often engined the stories, risks and benefits were always shared, bullies and hostile grownups were faced down in a group, and no event on earth or in heaven was capable of inciting a betrayal between friends.

A circumstantial truth arises out of the way we watch the Roach series today—in the '30s and for ages before, children were in fact expected to occupy themselves and expand their own worlds without the supervision of adults. The freedom the "rascals" enjoy was slightly exaggerated for comedy’s sake, but what audiences in the day embraced as merely pleasant and adorable can seem shocking now. Today, kids who are not allowed to walk into an adjoining neighborhood until they are 10 or older, and who are driven to every rendezvous, and who are monitored by the GPS device in their cell phones, watch the Our Gang films in utter astonishment—you mean, they run through busy trainyards and no one objects? They build clubhouses alone, without someone's father to do the work? They keep chickens and dogs without parental permission? They dash through busy downtowns without raising an eyebrow? Filmgoers of my parents' and grandparents’ generations didn’t think any of the Gang members' exhilarating liberties were odd any more than did the random adults in the films. As I watched the movies on local TV as a grade-schooler in the '60s and '70s, they seemed only slightly removed from my experience, which consisted in summers of leaving my mother’s house at 8 in the morning and often not returning until 5:30, sharp at dinnertime or else. If you'd asked her where her seven-year-old was, she’d have shrugged, a response that today would get her arrested and her children thrust into state custody.

More and more then, Our Gang has taken on the nimbus of a lost paradise, a perhaps irretrievable time not so long ago when children dared to learn courage, discovered love and loyalty on their own grungy terms, spent days in the company of compatriots finding adventures no adult has proscribed. Fear meant fear then, not timidity, and self-reliance was a daily tribulation, against absurd odds. Modern man should not have to live without Our Gang anymore than we should be asked to give up Emerson or Humphrey Bogart or the Ramones. And yes, if I were to be inevitably asked, I would have to say: Wheezer is my rascal, the quintessential spirit of his age, neither a leader nor a dumb follower but just a boy, Stymie's most fervent comrade and a rogue patron of wild puppies and fishing ponds, the Antoine Doinel of the early century. Poor Bobby Hutchins died crashing his basic-training plane in 1945, but Wheezer will never fade. 


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Courtesy Genius Products/The Weinstein Company
Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas, Darla Hood and George "Spanky" McFarland
Photo Gallery: Children of Paradise


Hal Roach  |  television  |  DVD  |  Hollywood  |  comedy  |  silent film  |  The Great Depression  |  social classes


Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct