Pages

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hal Roach's Our Gang: The 25 Best Films From 1929-1938

I love the Little Rascals. They were one of my great cinematic joys from my childhood, besides all the monsters and adventurers that I took in on a weekly basis. No series before or since has quite captured the innocence of childhood better than Hal Roach's most indelible creation. Roach's genius was actually in depicting childhood as what it was, in all it's innocence and fun, much like he depicted the timelessness of friendship with Laurel and Hardy and the values of honesty and perserverence with Harold Lloyd. These were brilliant comedy creations that stirred my imagination, as they had for so many generations and I thought it would be fun to compile a list of twenty five essentials from the talkies period.


Some wrong headed individuals have believed some of these films to be offensive and possibly racist, but the series actually depicted race relations better than any other contemporary productions. The children were regarded as equals and existed with the same amount of hardships and ended up in the usual scraps with one another. Certain episodes contained some humor that may now appear dated, particularly A Lad And A Lamp(1933), with it's subtle racist undertones, but a stray episode done in poor taste does not represent the integrity of the whole series. Similiar criticism was also placed on totally inoffensive films like the wonderful Little Daddy(1931) and the hilarious, The Kid From Borneo(1933). Some people could not see past the color barrier and missed the point. Little Daddy was criticized for it's depiction of black youths living in poverty, seeming to forget that most of the children were living in the same economic conditions!


These kids were heroes to me growing up. All the leaders from Mickey Daniels to Jackie Cooper to Dickie Moore, Wally Albright and of course, Spanky Macfarland, all appealed to me and inspired courage and dedication. Stymie Beard was just about my favorite Rascal, always ready for a great comic line and double takes, matched only by Spanky. He probably brought me the most laughs of just about anybody in the gang. Of course, these kids were more than just laughmakers and I sympathized, and still do, with many of their plights. I felt the emotions of seeing the summer fading away and the dread of the returning school year. I teared up when Wheezer's dog was put in the pound and especially in The Pooch(1932) when Stymie learns of Petie's (thankfully!) false death in a gas chamber. The beauty of Our Gang is that in essence, they represented, literally, our gang. They were us, mirror images of ourselves, childhood reflections once lived, still living and wishing we could have lived. Our Gang is timeless escapism and will never age, even now, nearly 100 years after the series inception in 1922.


1.Teacher's Pet(1930)

If I had to pick just one Our Gang film to represent the series by, this would have to be it. Teacher's Pet is a highly nostalgic trip back into childhood and a period long gone. Few films have managed to capture the innocence of childhood and the sense of melncholy brought on by summer's end. The children are going back to school and are distrustful of the new school teacher, whose name is Miss Crabtree! She turns out to be a beautiful and kind woman portrayed by June Marlowe, and whom Jackie Cooper develops a crush on. Jackie, Chubby and Farina decide to bail on school by setting up a series of pranks to get themselves out. Jackie reveals the entire scheme to her when she takes him for a ride to school, unaware that she is the school marm. When she reveals who she is, Jackie is embarassed and the boys abandon the original plan when ice cream and a holiday is made in the classroom. Jackie is unable to face Miss Crabtree and goes outside under a tree to cry, when the teacher brings him some ice cream and Jackie admits that she's prettier than Miss Mcgillicuddy, the former school teacher that the children thought could not be replaced.
This is the film that propelled Jackie Cooper to stardom and it's not hard to see why, because he's terrific  in this. His humiliation and tears towards the final feel very real and make his character endearing and relateable. Marlowe sets the standard for the beautiful school teacher in the series and appeared in several follow-ups that were equally successful. There's not as many belly laughs in this one as there were in other series entries, but this is made up for by an emphasis on mood and feeling. The beauty of this picture is in it's surroundings and the emotions brought on by the scenery. If the essence of the series is based in the warmth and innocence of childhood and indeed it is, than this has to qualify among the very best.




2. Pups is Pups(1930)
The centennial film of the celebrated series and the start of the finest season in the series history, that which ran from 1930-1931. Pups is Pups is light on plot, but brimming with heart and honesty, tied around the simple love of kids and pets. There's real charm in this short as we see the gang simply engaging in taking care of their pets on a sunny afternoon, preparing to take them to a pet contest. Of course, the gang does not bring the typical pedigree animals, opting for mice, turtles and pigs, which result in expected hilarity when they get loose and run amok. The heart of the picture is really Wheezer and his puppies, which he controls with a whistle. Watching them play hide and seek is genuinely cute and certainly when the puppies go missing and reunite with the happy child at short's conclusion, it feels so warm and genuine, it's doubtful it was  scripted. The humor is warm and fun, particularly a running gag with first-time Rascal, Dorothy Debora, jumping into a mud puddle, only to get scolded by older brother, Jackie Cooper as Chubby keeps score on a nearby fence!

3. Hi' Neighbor!(1934)\

One of the archetypal episodes of the series, involves a snooty rich kid(Jerry Tucker) who arrives in town with a brand new fire engine. Wally Albright challenges Jerry to a race, except taht he dosen't have a fire engine! Of course, the boys decide to build one and pull together parts from everything they can find, building a truly amazing vehicle that can fit all of them(we're talking like 20 kids here, folks) and end up winning the race! The beauty of the fire engine the gang designs is that it actually looks like something a child could  create and i'm sure many attempted to do so after the release of this picture. It's great fanciful fun and contains several great moments, particularly with young Spanky who told to get off of Jerry's fire engine, replies, "Don't rush me big boy!"
His scene with Stymie and giving him the same wheel when building the fire engine always manages to make me laugh and i'm assuming it does for alot of people. The gang's determination is felt by the audience and served as great inspiration for many off screen adventures growing up. The focus on a group getting things done and a close community are all but lost in modern cinema and that's a shame.



4. Free Wheeling(1932)

One of the finest structured Our Gang comedies, revolves around the nearly bedridden Dickie Moore, who is forbidden any excitement by his overprotective mother. Along comes his best friend, Stymie, whom invites his friend to take a ride in his mule driven taxi! Dickie goes along, neck brace and all, and of course, things go awry. The mule becomes drunk and escapes and soon the taxi is "free wheeling" down the highway and through all manners of obstacles, including a baloon man, a police officer and a flock of birds! In the process, Stymie is able to cure his friend's stiff neck by simply twisting it and proves to Dickie's parents that all he needed was clean air and fun.
This film is a perfect example when certain boneheads argue the film's race standpoints. Despite, Stymie's poor upbringing and the depiction of his mother as a laundrywoman, the contrasts serve a purpose and are far from demeaning. Stymie is a poor child, but is carefree and having fun, while his rich friend, Dickie is confined and not allowed to have any excitement. The issue is never about color, but about friends branching out past the color and class boundaries. It's ultimately Stymie who helps his friend and is the hero and the amazing rapport that him and Dickie Moore share is believable and not surprisingly, they were friends in real life as well.
The comic conclusion is one of the most exciting of any Hal Roach comedy and is quite memorable, as Stymie's taxi careens and goes wild down the busy highway. The back projection isn't always believable, but that dosen't keep it from being exciting and this film is great at curing boredom.




5. Fly My Kite(1931)

The conclusion of the outstanding 1930-31 season is also one of the warmest and yet, corniest of all Rascal classics. The plot is reminiscent of that old "mortgage on the farm" trope used in many a melodrama, but it works beautifully here. Margaret Mann, who had also played the Grandma in the wonderful, Helping Grandma(1930) that same season, is about to be kicked out by her selfish son in law(James Mason-not that James Mason!) and his awful wife(Mae Busch in a small, but nasty role). The kids come to her aid and battle the villain, while a discovery is made that Grandma has several old bonds that are now worth a fortune! Unfortunately, they are tied to a tail of a kite that Chubby is now using! A frantic race occurs at the end, where the gang and Grandma are able to retrieve the bonds and live happily ever after.
It's melodramatic, yes, but it works on wonders on very little. The truth is that we love these kids and the scenes of the children crying as Mann is being told that she has to vacate her old home, or genuinely heartbreaking. Mason is a real oily villain and we cheer the Rascals slapstick attack on him, even if it does include being dragged through broken glass!
This was the final Our Gang short for several series regulars, including Chubby Chaney and Mary Kornman. Most poignantly, it was also Allen "Farina" Hoskins final film with the gang. He was always one of the best loved rascals and was with them for over a dozen years. One of the most poignant Rascal films of all.




6. The Kid From Borneo(1933)

Maybe not the most poignant or nostalgic of Our Gang classics, but in terms of sheer laughs, this one wins hands down. A hilarious case of mistaken identity as Dickie Moore and Spanky go to see they're Uncle George, whom they believe to be a wild man that their uncle has in a circus. He's harmless, but gets excited around sweets and it just happens that Stymie brought some candy! Thinking he's a cannibal, the gang run away, with wild man in pursuit.What ensues is a mad chase, as wild man goes after the kids and engage in several unforgettable vignettes. The standout for me has to be little Spanky's kitchen encounter with the wild man, where he explains himself to the supposed cannibal by saying that he might not taste so good, because his mom says he's spoiled! After a brief melee with the wild man, the parents eventually return home and believe that Uncle George is upstairs. This is particularly funny, since the Dad claims that the Uncle is a "big tramp" and goes to sock him, only to get beaten up by the Wild man from Borneo. It all ends with Spanky arriving with a roman candle and shooting it at the Wild Man, who proceeds to chase his parents outside as the youngster laughs.
Absolutely hilarious, it's unbelievable that something so harmless and innocent was actually considered offensive(!) and was not seen on television for a number of years! Happily, it became popular on home video and "yum yum, eat em' up!", the only thing the wild man says, became popular among my school chums. If you need a good laugh, this is the Our Gang short that really delivers.





7. Mama's Little Pirate(1934)

Always a fan of the genre of the fantastic since childhood, this particularly imaginative Our Gang short appealed to my young self. Brimming with adventure and fantasy, the story is about how Spanky and the gang have read about treasure hunts and decide to look for some treasure in a nearby cave. There they discover the home of a giant and vast riches. Unfortunately, the giant finds them hilarity ensues! The way this short is built is extraordinary, recalling King Kong(1933) in it's build up to the reveal of the fantastic giant. The sets and the props utilized in the giant's lair are really cool and add immeasurably to the sense of fun and adventure that the short strives for. Our Gang did not have many fantasy based films, as they were at their best depicting the everyday life of a kid. When they did make such excursions, the results were truly incredible and as this short proves, indelible.


8. Our Gang Follies of 1938

The best of the Rascals musical ventures, this was also the final two reeler made by the Hal Roach studios and was an oddity among the streamlined one reelers that the gang were making at the time. Alfalfa decides that he di done with crooning and wants to become an opera star(!) with Porky as his manager. Spanky warns him and promises that he will be back to crooning. Well, years pass and Alfalfa is promoted as a big Opera star, backed by Barnaby from Babes in Toyland(1934) himself, Henry Brandon! He has signed Alfalfa to a contract and promotes him as a big opera star.Alfalfa's big night, singing The Barber of Seville is a disaster and he and Porky are thrown out into the streets, forced to play in the gutter. They wander up the snow covered roads and discover that Spanky has his own club and that all their friends are immensely wealthy and happy. The nightclub is a wonderful creation, really looking like what a child might design such a place, complete with candy and ice cream shaped sculpture and a menu with nothing but sweets! Alfalfa wants to croon again, but Barnaby says he has to serve his contract forever. Luckily, it was just a dream and the humbled youngster goes back to crooning once more.
I was never too fond of such musicals growing up, but the energy and design is so charming that I couldn't resist. This was probably Alfalfa's best showcase for the series, as he had increasingly became the lead character. His reactions are very funny, especially when singing opera and earlier reacting to a tenor's crtique of his singing as "preposterous" by happily commenting, "You're not so bad yourself!"
It's a terribly cute episode and another winner in the seldom explored fantasy genre that the Rascals often excelled in and is the best of the musical episodes.




9. Bedtime Worries(1933)

The precursor to the situational comedy, this particular short appeared decades ahead of it's time. The plot involves a day in the life of Spanky's family, with parents played by Emerson Treacy and Gay Seabrook. They are a goofy sort, with Spanky often playing straightman, though he does have a good running gag with his pop about the definition of a shipping clerk. Spanky is about to sleep by himself for the first time and is fearful of the dark, emotions displayed quite vividly in the picture through the youngster's perspective. It's a universal fear that many could relate to as a child and is enhanced by the timely visit of a burglar, who passes himself off as Santa Claus to the child. The gang arrive to find a place for Pete the pup and recognize the man as a burglar and they fight him in a slapstick melee that also includes Spanky's father, who predictably gets the worst of it. The police finally arrive and Spanky says to the crook, "i'll come up and see ya sometime" parodying Mae West's famous quote.
A decidely underrated Our Gang short that is a wonderful glimpse into family life. It's a good parody and the parents are great, as is Spanky, the series great scene stealer. The child's nightime scares are well shot and still remain potent today, as this is one of the few 30s films that really hasn't aged a day.

                                  



10. Divot Diggers(1936)


The best golf comedy of all time and a masterpiece in slapstick mayhem. This was the final Our Gang short to be directed by Robert Mcgowan, who had made most of the gang's greatest films up until this point. The Hal Roach comedy staff were geniuses when it came to comic build and payoff and that's what this film is all about. The gang, including Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Porky and Darla, along with Pete the pup and Jiggs the monkey, are hired by some golfers to act as their caddies. That was a big mistake!
All manners of hijinks ensue ending with Jiggs the monkey commandeering a massive mower and plowing through the green, causing the kids to break through a fence which proceeds to take them on a sleighride down a steep hill, which disrupts many a golf game and ends with them crashing into a chicken coop!
A thoroughly happy and engaging little picture that is all about humor and nothing more. Gag after gag are unleashed in a veritable storm and unleashed on the viewer in waves of laughter.
It's all great fun and is worthy of reviewing again and again, even if you are not a fan of the past time. And if you are a fan, that should give sufficient reason to laugh more.




11. Dogs Is Dogs(1931)

Interchangeable with any on the top ten, this wonderful comedy contains the same heartfelt sentimentality that was all over the earlier, Pups is Pups. Wheezer again is the focus, a poor child living with an evil stepmother and a wicked stepbrother named Sherwood. Pete the pup is his loveable dog, of course, but is not even allowed inside the house! The children, along with his sister, Dorothy, are fed poorly and are spanked regularly. Wheezer's best pal, Stymie, sjows up to liven up the proceedings and provide some wise talk, particularly a great scene where he cons the bratty Sherwood into cooking ham and eggs after claiming that they can talk if cooked! Sherwood's dumb dog, Nero, eats some chickens and Pete gets the blame and after being chased around by a gun toting Billy Gilbert("WHERE IS THAT DOG??!!") for awhile, the poor pup is thrown into the pound. Luckily, Wheezer and Dorothy's aunt arrives and the children are informed that they can go live with their father, who has been very sick. They get new clothes and even Petie gets a new collar! The children are happy, but are going to miss Stymie, but their friend also has some nice new clothes and is seen sitting on the back of the car, ready for a new adventure.
A personal favorite, this is one of the most potent of Our Gang shorts. You really feel for Wheezer as he is constantly derided and bullied by his brother or spanked by his monstrous stepmother. The genuine warmth in evidence as he plays with Petie or converses with Stymie, make the picture so memorable. Stymie is at his comic best in this and him and Wheezer make a great comic team, as they had throughout the series.


12. The Lucky Corner(1936)

Actually filmed a year previous, but not released until the following season, The Lucky Corner is a wonderful, feel good romp that plays as a sequel to the also excellent, For Pete's Sake(1934). The same despicable father and son team of William Wagner and Leonard Kilbrick who had owned the toy store which previously got demolished in the last film, are now operating a streetside diner. They feel threatened by the tiny lemonade stand operated by Gus Leonard and the gang, who are forced to move, finding space with a kindly black barber who is friends with Gus and the gang. Unfortunately, it's difficult to get sales in so remote a spot, so the gang devise a mock parade and attract customers, much to the chagrin of the diner owners!
A real delight and the best example of the gang's status as underdogs and outsiders. Outside of the gang's own motley crew of children, they befriend the kindly old Gus, who works as a grandfatherly character, much like he had in Mush and Milk(1933) as Old Cap. The old black barber also befriends them and proves that in this series, there was no color barrier, no matter what some modern viewers believes. The problem the gang faces is that of greed and corporation, which is as recognizeable now as it was nearly 80 years ago. On a fun note, I really dug that scene with Buckwheat sliding on the giant ice cube!






13. Glove Taps(1937)

The one reelers contained few of the subtleties of the classic two reelers, opting instead for a brisk pace and a concentration on slapstick. Among the best of this later period was Glove Taps, the quintessential look at standing up to the bully, with Tommy Bond making his first appearance as chief nemesis, Butch. Alfalfa is picked out by him to beat up, but Spanky declares that he needs some time to train. So, Spanky, Porky and Buckwheat train with Alfalfa and not to much success. The big fight occurs and it sends Alfalfa running in circles around the ring in fright. However, his pals Buckwheat and Porky have been following the fight and are able to knock out the bully through the boxing backdrop. Spanky gives a knowing wink and all ends well for Alfalfa.
Imitated many times over the years, this remains one of the best known Our Gang episodes, even if one can't quite place the title. It's one of those essential boyhood plots, as nearly anyone can relate to the plot of the bully and the schoolyard fight. Maybe it's not as politically correct today, but it's done honestly and is very funny and entertaining all the way and is one of the few episodes that one wishes could have been longer because it ends all too soon!


14. The First Round Up(1934)

In an effort to be living like "real" men, the gang decide to go camping, though they are not too keen on having the little kids, Spanky and Scotty Beckett tag along. The little kids turn out to be smarter than the older kids, arriving at the camping spot earlier, by hitchhiking, rather than a tedious two mile uphill hike. They also bring along proper equipment and food, which the older kids forgot. When it gets dark, the little kids show no fear and take fun in making spooky shadows, which frighten the other kids. A thunderstorm erupts and sends the kids packing for home, the camping trip was not what it was cracked out to be.
One of the funniest Our Gang comedies that reminds me of many camp-outs that I had with my friends and the Boy Scouts. The forgetfullness, the faux-tough behavior striking a chord that makes the short all that much more hysterical. Scotty and Spanky work beautifully as a team, trading wisecracks, with Spanky providing his best Oliver Hardy scowls at his often simple friend. The night scenes are appropiately atmospheric and the night  terrors are very well captured, as effective as they were in Bedtime Worries(1933). It's virtually impossible to believe that this was all shot on a soundstage since the look and feel is so evocative of a real camp-out experience. Of course, that's what good filmmaking is supposed to do, amke us believe.





15. School's Out(1930)

A perfect follow-up to Teacher's Pet, finds the gang nearing the end of the school semester and fearing that Miss Crabtree will not return the following school year. Many believe she will be married, so when brother Creighton Hale arrives, the gang immediately think that he is her fiance and they make up stories about her in an attempt to dissuade him from marrying her. They even steal his clothes when he goes for a swim in a nearby lake! When Miss Crabtree explains to the children that the man was her brother, they all break down, as does she, saddened by what the children ahve done. However, her brother arrives at the school, dressed in a woman's dress and the little kids, Wheezer, Stymie and Dorothy are all seen sporting his clothing, causing laughter all around.
Another really sweet and sentimental comedy that perfectly captures the realtionship between teacher and student. The kids really love Miss Crabtree and clearly everything has indeed worked out and Jackie Cooper is even trying to get a petition signed to end summer vacation, which the kids rightfully know is a bad idea, noting that the swimming hole and watermelon patches won't wait. There's some great comedy here, too, including a sequence that has to be one of the funniest in the series history, involving the kids giving ridiculous answers from a kid named Bonedust, who got them from a jokebook. My favorite, and probably the favorite for most of us classic horror fans, is Jackie Cooper's respnse to the question, "who is the hunchback of Notre Dame?" to which he replies, "Lon Chaney!"




16. Helping Grandma(1931)

A lovely short that has to be one of the most nostalgic of the lot. The charm of this one is in it's simplicity, as the gang help loveable Grandma, Marjorie Mann, who reprised her role in Fly My Kite,later that year. She runs a general store, which the older kids help out in and the younger ones go to for candy. It's the sort of place that's all too authentic, complete with flies and creaky wooden boards, a real trip back to the past. A greedy man named Mr. Pennypacker wants to buy the store for too cheap, competing with a chain store who has wished to buy to the property. After going out for a bit, Grandma leaves the kids in charge, and due to deliveries, it ends up that the smallest children, Wheezer, Stymie and Dorothy are left to run amok. Wheezer was told to just tell anyone that calls to call later and the men from the chain store happen to call during an argument with his sister over candy where he keeps asking for more. The chain store men misinterpret and raise the price. However, Pennypacker catches wind of this and tries to get Grandma to sign his papers quickly. Happily, they arrive in time and all is not lost, as Grandma has accidently signed a blank piece of paper and the old skinflint has nothing, but a pop on the chin from Grandma and a whack on the head with a hammer, courtesy of Wheezer.
This classic is peppered with many humorous vignettes, including Wheezer and Stymie's Abbott and Costello like banter as Stymie attempts to buy something but is unaware of what he wants. It was the first of the gang's "mortgage on the farm" plots and one of the best. Fast paced and with a sense of time and place that make it as delightful a comedy as a time capsule of the period.


17. Little Daddy(1931)

One of the least analyzed and unfairly forgotten of all Our Gang shorts would have to be this charming and warm film from the end of the terrific 1930-31 season. Taken out of the television packages because of what was deemed to be a racist look at black youths, this short is a classic example of censors missing the point. Yes, Farina and Stymie are poor and speak in dialect, but they are also positive characters that inspire sympathy and laughter based on they're shared warmth and humanity. Farina and Stymie work for a local minister and Farina is left to take care of his younger brother, after his father was arrested for violating prohobition. Stymie is to be taken into child service and Farina desperately attempts to keep his brother with him, the gang aiding him and eventually, Miss Crabtree agrees to watch over them and all is well.
Little Daddy is one of my personal favorites of the Hal Roach catalouge, a showcase to how far ahead of the times this particular series was. Farina's prayer to God to watch over his little brother is quite poignant and hsi cries when the Child Service man comes to take Stymie away seem pretty genuine. Farina also has some truly astounding labor saving devices that are fun to watch, including a very elaborate system to make breakfast that includes a pully system for seasoning food in the griddle and a chicken in a cage that lays eggs right into the pan! Stymie has some of his best moments in this short including some cute reactions to Farina's re-telling of Noah's Ark and some great one-liners. When Farina remarks that this is the last meal he will fix for his brother, Stymie remarks, "What do you want me to do? Bust out crying?"
A moving and sentimental short with several funny moments, this easily sits comfortably beside the best Our Gang classics and deserves a more wide audience.


18. The Pooch(1932)

The trials and tribulations of Stymie, little Spanky and Pete the pup as they search for food. They don't have much lucky, but finally are able to inspire pity in an old woman who finally gives them some food. Stymie has not been in well with the gang, because he stole a pie and they spread posters about him, claiming he has chicken pox! However, he becomes a hero after rescuing the gang's dogs from the dog catcher, which unfortunately causes the catcher to nab Pete, who is soon in the pound, about to be gassed. Stymie prays for the  five dollars he needs to free his dog and a timely windstorm causes a five dollar bill to land at his feet, which he promptly runs to take to the pound. However, the sadistic man claims he has already gassed the dog. Another man arrives and reassures the tearful child and says that his dog is not dead, revealing that gas was not in the kennel that Pete was placed in and soon the dog chases the villain with the gang in pursuit.
One of Stymie's best vehicles, this was actually a showcase episode for the youngster who expands far beyond his usual free-wheeling style. It's actually quite shocking and powerful when this normally self-assured, carefree rascal breaks down and cries, first when accused of stealing the gang's dogs and later when discovering that Petie has been gassed. He's terrific in this and proves himself as one of the greatest rascals, as does Spanky who is in his most adorable period. I just loved his cute pronounciations as Stymie and him think up a massive order at a streetside diner or when he breaks out in laughter tossing snacks to Pete the pup. This is a simply delightful short that is another personal favorite among the series all-time classics.






19. Washee Ironee(1934)

A sort of variation on Free Wheeling, finds Wally Albright as a poor little rich boy who is forced to dress like Little Lord Faunterloy and practice violin because of his society mother. Viewing the gang playing a game of football outside, he longs to play with them and gets his wish, but ends up dirtying his clothes adn he has a recital that night! The gang rush to wash his clothes, Spanky even driving his goat drawn wagon, which he poses as an ambulance(!) to pick up his friend that runs a laundry, and in the process disturbing a traffic cop. Unfortunately, the gang shrinks Wally's clothes and instead substitute a lampshade for him to wear, much to his mother's chagrin. And did I mention that a monkey and Pete the pup are unleashed on a group of society matrons and that Spanky causes an epic car pile up at short's close?
Washee Ironee is a simply hilarious film filled with several clever sight gags including an early appearance by Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas as a bystander using two coke bottles tied together as binoculaurs to watch the football game. Portions of this were deemed offensive, which were the stereotypical talk of the young chinese boy, though it's perfectly harmless in context of the story. The conclusion is a riot complete with a pie fight and a surreal image of piled up cars looking like something out of Laurel and Hardy. Spanky remarks to the police officer on top of the pile, "I'll come up and see ya sometime!"





20. Mike Fright(1934)

The best of the Gang's radio show contests, Mike Fright is a study in contrast. The radio contest depicted in the short show all those well scrubbed, wanna be stars that seemingly every other Hollywood studio depicted and then the natural, ultra-likeable rascals, all without any pretension. It's a highly infectious short all the way with William Irving's neverending exasperation at the Gang's mischief, a constant source of amusement throughout. It was a wise choice for the kids to pick, Man on the Flying Trapeze, because it's still as infectious today as it was then and brings back fond memories of that wonderful screwball comedy, It Happened One Night, released that same year. An amazingly fun and spirited picture that is simply a delight.





21. For Pete's Sake!(1934)

The gang have to get a new doll for a very sick little girl, but it means trading Pete the pup to the father and son team of William Wagner and Leonard Kilbrick, who run the local toy store! Rather chancing to raise the money on their own, and decide to mow the lawn of an old man, only to foul things up. Finally, they are forced to trade Petie, but after accidently breaking a vase, they are without the doll. However, Petie has had enough and strikes back at the selfish father and son and wreck the store and the gang are able to get both the doll and their dog.
Great comic moments aplenty and the truly awful idea of trading Pete(!) have made this one of the most memorable Rascals films of the mid-30s. Scotty and Spanky are firmly established as a comedy team, seeming to always have one up on their older counterparts. Scotty laments throughout, "they'll never learn" and by film's conclusion, when all is well, shakes Spanky's hand and declares, "we learned them!"




22. Birthday Blues(1933)

A short that has to rank among the most hilarious ever produced in the series, Birthday Blues is unforgettable melodrama. Dickie Moore and Spanky's father have forgotten Mom's birthday, so the two try to raise money to buy Mom a present. Not having enough cash for a pretty dress they want to purchase, they are inspired by Stymie to bake a cake with prizes in it. The recipe is a disaster and the cake is sabotaged by the little kids who add all manner of things into the mix including soap and a mouse trap! When the cake is completed, it's an absolutely unforgettable creation with a sound that was imitated much throughout childhood, often to the displeasure of my teachers. The house is a mess and Dickie is in trouble by his Dad, but when the reason is discovered, the father has a change of heart and all is well within the household.
Brimming with inventive sight gags, including a humorous montage of the gang creating the humorous and monstrous cake and the creation itself (Stymie's reaction to the prize cake, "This is a surprise!") Spanky has some great lines in this as well, my favorites being when asked what prizes did he get form the cake, he reponds, "All I got was a belly ache!" and when browsing a shop window, suggests to his brother that they buy his mother a gun. When asked by Dickie, why she would need a gun, the youngster replies, "Shoot Papa!"




23. Beginner's Luck(1935)

The Rascal's explore the very personal side to kids in showbiz and in particular, the stage mother and of course, with the utmost hilarity. Spanky is being groomed to be a major star by his mother who makes him recite Julius Caesar and explains that he will be the nezt John Barrymore or Clark Gable. When asked what they have that Spanky dosen't have, Spanky replies, "a mustache!"
Spanky is fed up with his mother and tells the gang when he enters a talent contest to boo him off stage so he won't win. However, after finding sympathy for a shy little girl who actually needs the prize money from the show, but fails because of stage fright (in a very wonderfully put together scene to display the child's fear) Spanky decides not to bomb his performance. However, the gang did not get the message and fire loads of peas at him and catcalls. This dosen't hurt him much though, because he becomes a hit with the crowd, though his mother is quite embarassed and tries to put and end to it, only to lose her dress and dignity in the process! Spanky wins the prize anyway and we assume his stage motehr has become more humble in the process.
Another masterpiece in the rascals canon, contains many of Spanky's best moments and a subject that was due for parody, concerning  the origin of the series. One can only assume that most of the mannerisms of Spanky's mother must have been cribbed from actual experience! This episode also contains the debut of one of Our Gang's best loved characters in the form of Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, who plays a "cowboy from the mountains" to which a pompous Spanky replies, "Ha! From the drugstore!"



24. Readin' and Writin'(1932)

A vastly underrated short and the last of the schoolhouse series with Miss Crabtree(in her final role as teh beloved schoolteacher) follows a smart aleck kid named Brisbane who would rather be a street car conductor than President and wants to find a way to be expelled from school. He gets inspiration from a blacksmith who tells him about a kid he knew who had done all nammers of pranks to get him kicked out. Brisbane copies the act, which includes placing tacks on seats, telling the youngest kids to say rude things to the teacher("Hi Crabby!" Stymie remarks with a wave) and even brings a mule into the classroom! Brisbane is expelled unless he can recite a flowery poem in front of the class, but would rather be free. However, his freedom has a price as he realizes he is all alone and soon his conscience catches up with him and tearfully, he returns and claims that he wants to be President and reads the poem in front of the class, having learned his lesson.
Readin' and Writin' is another highly nostalgic short, highlighting a vastly changing period that first began with Teacher's Pet(1930). Breezy Brisbane is a tough little guy, but is actually a good kid and his tearful rendition of the poem is actually very touching. The scenes with the lad sitting by himself by a lake or wandering the woods are especially poignat and strike just the right chord with viewers.




25. Our Gang Follies of 1936

The fun of this short is in the gang's enthusiasm for staging their own backyard stage show, while very elaborate, still appears to be in the realms of something that children could create. Very gifted children that is! Spanky and the gang stage a musical revue in an old barn and charge admission("we won't break ya!") and give a heck of a fun show including Spanky as Fred Astaire, Alfalfa crooning for the first time("Glad that's over with!") a spooky segment where the boys dress as skeletons in a graveyard and most terrifying of all, the boys all in drag as the Florry Dorrys!
A really engaging and surprisingly rewatchable effort with plenty of comic punch, notably with Buckwheat who has to contend with a moneky backstage that constantly gets into mischief and a young Porky, who has a ball fouling things up. This was Darla's first Our Gang comedy and she quickly steals the show with her own number and has the honor of being crooned to by Alfalfa, which will not be the last time.




So there you have it, the 25 essential Our Gang classics. Certainly there are more than just 25 great episodes in this series and there are many more gems that I would be more than glad to write about, but i'll leave that to you. Hopefully, this list will serve it's purpose of getting the uninitiated into the series and sharing it with others and maybe for those who already know and love the Rascals, this will help them get reacquainted.
The Our Gang shorts produced by Hal Roach are timeless. They serve as mirror reflections of ourselves and what we wish we could be. They are full of hope and optimism, even in a world that was draped in a depression, which is just as true now. No matter what manner of adversity, the gang always came out on top as heroes and all were welcomed to share the fun and joy of being forever young. It's that magic simplicity of childhood that brings us back time and again and that wonderful word called nostalgia that makes us never forget. So long folks, i'll see you at the clubhouse.






Tuesday, August 23, 2011

They're Not Staying Down There, Anymore!

C.H.U.D(1984)
Director: Douglas Cheek
Cast: John Heard, Daniel Stern, Christopher Curry


It seems that everybody nowadays is referencing this silly b-film from the 80s, a fun flick that has developed quite the cult following among monster fans. Playing like an updated, albeit grimier and grittier, version of a 1950s creature feature, C.H.U.D focuses on one of the key fears of the times, in this case, toxic waste! Each era had it's own fears including radiation and atomic fallout, pollution and the environment. While not exactly the best written example of such fears, C.H.U.D is an entertaining enough piece of trash cinema that it deserves a viewing by the monster fan.


The film begins with a typical pre-credit sequence of a young woman getting attacked by something that grabs her and takes her(and her little dog,too!) into the sewers. We soon learn that several disappearances are occuring throughout an area of New York City. The plot intermixes different people involved in the area, who all come together by film's conclusion. They include a photographer(John Heard) and his model wife(Kim Greist). There's also a soup kitchen worker(Daniel Stern) and a detective(Christopher Cummings) who is on the case and is looking for his missing wife. Stern and Cummings soon discover that it's a government cover-up perpetuated by a man named Wilson(George Martin) who explains that what they are dealing with are called C.H.U.D., which translates as cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers! After an EPA and S.W.A.T. team are decimated on camera by the creatures, it's decided that they must be destroyed, and Wilson proposes they gas the sewers. More mayhem ensues, including the C.H.U.D. wiping out a diner(that includes a cop played by John Goodman!) and Cummings discovering the head of his dead wife! Heard, meanwhile, was investigating with a group of vagrants whom he had photographed in the past and after going down into the sewers with a reporter, he finds himself trapped after a run in with the monsters. His wife is attacked by one of the creatures back at the apartment they live in, but is able to decapitate it with a sword(?), while Stern, who got locked underground by Wilson's men for knowing too much, and Heard discover the remains of the two teams, and what C.H.U.D really means, which is contamination hazard urban disposal. Cummings threatens to expose Wilson, but is shot for his troubles. Heard and Stern escape the sewers, and Stern shoots Wilson dead. The sewers are gassed and it appears that all the C.H.U.D are all dead.












This is a weird film and not surprisingly, unpopular with the critics. CH.U.D is simply a well made exploitation film, nothing more and nothing less. What makes it stand out are it's imaginative and creepy monster designs, created by John Caglione Jr., which are actually effective and pretty scary. They are a frightening lot, complete with glowing eyes and luminous, sickly colored skin. There's not as much footage of them as I would have enjoyed, but what is there counts. The decapitation scene is the standout, though i'm somehwat confused how an ancient sword could dispatch one, but a S.W.A.T. team armed with flamethrowers(!) could not defeat them!


The cast and direction are also somewhat different. It's really bizarre to see good actors like Heard and Stern in something like this and it adds to the fun. Cheek really went for a gritty atmosphere with this, as everyone appears to be grimy and sweat stained and unclean. Nothing appears sanitized, the attempt to capture the seediness and filth of early 80s New York captured better than anything this side of Larry Cohen's films. The atmosphere is heightened and is part of what makes C.H.U.D work so well after all these years. Of course, there is the usual quota of silliness, beyond the ridiculous name for the title monsters, which I doubt anyone in the cast was able to pronounce with a straight face. The vagrants and bums all look appropiately dingy, but man, that underground dude with the knife really overacts and is a riot for the bad movie crowd. There's plenty of other eccentric moments that include an inappropiate shower scene(which is featured uncut on the DVD! Yay!), some screwy dialouge, hilarious overreactions(Heard has some great acting when he discovers some dead bodies in the sewers) and the infamous truck that hits a manhole and explodes, even though I may find that explainable when one considers the combination of a spark and gas in the sewers, but maybe i'm bringing logic to something that dosen't need it!



When I was a kid and originally saw this film, which had already become a cult item among my friends, the film was re-edited and contained a different ending. The middle piece with the diner being attacked was placed on the end, cutting to black and the sounds of screams and panic, before going to credits. It actually was pretty effective and while it may seem cliche for the ending of a monster movie, I sort of enjoyed that edit. The film is still very enjoyable today with enough cheese and strangeness to appeal to the cult film devotee and cool enough monsters to appease the horror crowd. It's sort of silly, but contains a great atmosphere that has rarely been duplicated, though I suspect a remake is forthcoming. A sequel was made, but not as the Romero-esque epic I envisoned about the C.H.U.D. attempting a takeover of New York and battling the police and the army. It wasn't anything that exciting, but was instead a comedy called C.H.U.D. 2:Bud the Chud(1989) and did not contain any of the original's awesome monsters, instead playing like a rip-off of the superior, Return of the Living Dead(1985). It was a terrible sequel and certainly ranks among the most disappointing and dull that I have ever seen. It didn't even have a quarter of the fun of the original, which is still able to entertain fans today.



Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Mystery Of The Man Who Conquered Death!

Life Returns(1935)
Director: Eugene Frenke
Cast: Onslow Stevens, George P. Breakston, Lois Wilson, Robert Cornish



The biggest mystery of this film is why to view it in the first place. The era and the title are tantalizing, especially when one realizes that this was actually released by Universal Studios during their horror heyday! For a number of years I had read about this obscure curiosity and despite several bad notices in many genre reference guides, I still felt compelled to review it. Like any mad scientist, I should have left well enough alone. Very little is written about this film and that's understandable to a large degree, considering the abysmal quality of this b-product. The title and basic plot suggest something akin to Frankenstein, but it's actually a very boring melodrama about a scientist(Onslow Stevens) who is obsessed with ressurecting the dead, but does very little experimenting, instead opting to lay about on an old couch and allow his wife(Valerie Hobson, who was in Bride of Frankenstein, the same year) to die and his son(George P. Breakston) to live in the streets with an Our Gang type group, minus the charm and charisma. Stevens' scientist has to be one of the worst protagonists that I have ever had the misfortune to endure. He constantly feels sorry for himself and is too lazy and self-absorbed to help anybody, including his own family! When his son's dog is taken to the pound and gassed, he finally does something, taking the dog to be ressurected, though in reality it's just footage of Robert Corinish's experiments with terriers, where he successfully brought two dogs back to life. The conclusion resembles the sloppy sort of editing that one would associate with an Ed Wood production, sadly lacking the unintentional humor that makes Wood at least entertaining. The son is overjoyed and proclaims his father the greatest scientist of all time, even though he merely observed the actual experiment and has done nothing to justify such a claim!



What an awful mess this film is and what a chore it is to sit through! The behind the scenes story was somewhat more fascinating, concering Robert Cornish's experiments with ressurection with dogs and the real footage inserted into teh film, is certainly the highlight. Unfortunately, the canines, whose blood was drained and then reinserted, had suffered some brain trauma(similiar to audiences after viewing this film, I guess) and werenot a complete success. He was to conduct experiments on human specimens, but was denied, as was the proposed follow-up to this film, which was to be about that experiment!



Even for the Universal horror completist, this is a tough film to sit through. The acting is hammy and dull, even though both Hobson and Stevens were capable of much better. Stevens actually portrayed a good mad doctor in the fun b-film, House of Dracula(1935) and Hobson starred in a few horror classics, besides the already mentioned, Bride of Frankenstein, she was also in Werewolf of London, that same year. The direction is non-existant, as is the action, which even the real life experiment fails to bring any level of excietment to the proceedings. A truly bizarre film that may appear tempting to the classic film fan, yearning for more delightful shudders and thrills from the studio who did it best, but fails to deliver on any level, even that of the unintentional comedy.For only the morbidly curious and the most masochistic of moviegoers. All other types need not apply.