The Little Rascals Volume 3
Blu ray – The ClassicFlix Restorations
1932, ’33 / 1.37:1 / 210 Min.
Starring George McFarland, Dorothy DeBorba, Dickie Moore
Written by H.W. Walker
Directed by Robert F. McGowan
The third volume in ClassicFlix’s Little Rascals series introduces the show’s most celebrated performer, George McFarland, otherwise known as Spanky. Before landing a contract with Hal Roach, the tiny Texan was already making a giant-size splash in his hometown of Dallas where he appeared on billboards hawking Wonder Bread and underwear. The following year Spanky made the leap from billboards to movie posters in the first of 88 comedies made for the Roach Studio before retiring ten years later at the wizened age of 14—which works out to approximately 137 in Rascal years.
Spanky arrived at the Roach lot just in time, Our Gang favorites like Jackie Cooper, Allen Hoskins (Farina), and Mary Ann Jackson were leaving the troupe for greener pastures and Roach needed to keep his entertainment machine chugging. Just three years old in his screen tests, McFarland was even more guileless than Bobby Hutchins (“Weezer”) whose first speaking role came at age four in 1929’s Small Talk. No doubt Spanky was a chubby little charmer but his presence was also a harbinger; in just a few years the ragtag esprit de corps epitomized by The First Seven Years and Helping Grandma would be replaced by a distinctly homogenized assembly line vibe—the Uber-slick theatrics of Our Gang Follies of 1938 and the stale cornpone of Election Daze from 1943. Fortunately the rascals are still celebrating their glory days in these shorts from 1932 and ’33, a collection highlighted by one of the most memorably funny—and disturbing—Our Gang comedies ever produced.
Directed by Ray McCarey, Leo’s brother, 1932’s Free Eats stars Billy Gilbert and Paul Fix as a pair of nomadic crooks whose disguise takes its inspiration from Lon Chaney’s cross-dressing crime film The Unholy Three—Gilbert, along with Fix in wig and dress, impersonate a vacationing couple whose two children are not what they seem. The toddlers are actually little people, tobacco chewing mugs dressed in nursery school drag. These man-babies in their frilly bonnets and nightdresses are crawling, cooing, horrors—”Waldemar” is a bug-eyed gargoyle played by “Tiny” Lawrence (Free Eats appears to be his only film role) and “Elmer”, a young man with an old man’s face, is played by Clarence Chesterfield Howerton, otherwise known as Major Mite, a circus performer and sometime film actor (he was one of the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz). The ominously close mouthed Waldemar speaks barely a word but Elmer is dubbed with the basso voice of a hard-boiled gangster—the cherry on top of this nightmare sundae.
The imposters and our gang collide at a charity benefit held on an expansive estate—replete with food trays and bejeweled dowagers, the manor is fertile ground for both the thieves and the hungry little rascals. Leave it to Stymie, wise in his generation, to spot the miniature con men for what they really are—”they’s fidgets!” After both the gang and the crooks have laid waste to the mansion the cops arrive to nab the real guilty party. Unfortunately for Elmer his hiding place is a spittoon where he winds up with a face full of chewing tobacco—he gets the last word anyway—”Hey flatfoot, call your shots.”
Robert F. McGowan’s Readin’ and Writin’ was notable for June Marlowe’s final turn as Miss Crabtree and the debut of “Breezy Brisbane”, who may have been a Brisbane but was in no way “Breezy”—a maladroit little punk, Breezy is an outsider amongst the outsiders. Played by Kendall McComas, Breezy is a charmless juvenile delinquent who talks out of the side of his mouth because that’s what movie tough guys do. No surprise that he’d rather be fishing than attending the first day of school—to that end he sabotages Miss Crabtree’s plans with a salvo of practical jokes aimed at getting him kicked out of class. Of course it’s Brisbane who suffers the greatest indignity, though his well-deserved comeuppance is alleviated in part by the administration of the big-hearted blonde at the blackboard—farewell and adieu Miss Crabtree.
Spanky. The star title alone suggests what a goldmine director Robert McGowan and Roach predicted for young Mr. McFarland and he paid off in dividends for years to come—he was the perfect foil for any number of the series’ comical villains and the instigator of the gang’s most memorable mischief-making. Aided and abetted by his squawking sidekick Alfalfa, Spanky was a trooper, carrying on even when he was plainly well past his prime, finally leaving the series only to return when he couldn’t find work elsewhere. Oh, to be stereotyped as a toddler. Shirley Temple wept.
Spanky was comprised of test footage of the roly-poly infant lazing around his bedroom, his only distraction a errant bug—he makes a game of the insect’s ultimate destruction, as three-year olds are wont to do. Most of this sequence is more like a home movie with McGowan acting as the proud papa and after those “aw”-inspiring shenanigans the film’s plot seems like an afterthought; Brisbane (a reformed man after his showdown with Crabtree) and the gang mount (and dismantle) a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the under-appreciated laugh-getter Dorothy DeBorba playing Little Eva—her discombobulated ascension to heaven is the film’s comic highlight, Spanky’s high jinks notwithstanding.
Both Choo Choo and The Pooch are fairly formulaic Rascal material. Choo Choo finds Roach perennial Del Henderson losing his mind on a train full of out of control rascals and The Pooch features one of Roach’s favorite bêtes noires, the dog catcher—perfectly embodied by the dead-eyed Budd Fine, who remains immune to the charms of Pete the Pup. Free Wheeling‘s title describes both itself and its companion piece, Hook and Ladder. The gang broadens its horizons past their backyards and take to the streets with two fast-paced if wobbly flights of fancy. In Free Wheeling the gang gives a poor little rich boy a ride in their donkey-powered taxicab and in Hook and Ladder they suit up to fight fires rascal-style with a horse-drawn firetruck. Though their ungainly wagons tangle up the traffic, the effect is the very opposite of road rage.
Forgotten Babies is a nursery school burlesque with four year old Spanky tending to the gang’s little siblings while big brothers go fishing. Spank quickly loses control to the rug rats who do an adult-sized job of wrecking the joint, playing havoc with everything from the goldfish bowl to vacuuming the kitchen—in reverse. Though a mere “infink”, as Popeye would say, Spanky’s approach to crowd control (birdcages, glue and bread boxes) is unimpeachable.
Directed by McGowan and written by H.M. Walker, 1932’s A Lad an’ a Lamp could go toe to toe with The Kid from Borneo as the Our Gang production most plagued by the series’ ingrained racism. So it’s a bit of a disconnect to see the film in high definition and in such unblemished form when its very nature is fundamentally tarnished. But does the appearance of this wrongheaded movie mean Borneo is forthcoming as well? Why yes, yes it does. Though united by their casual bigotry, that’s where the similarity ends, Borneo, in spite of everything (and everything in this case is rife with cringe-inducing moments), is hilarious. A Lad an’ a Lamp is not.
A recent brush with the story of Aladdin and his lamp has moved the gang to retrieve any old lamp from the junkyard and begin their search for a genie. One appears thanks to a bored magician who overhears their conversations—in particular Spanky’s sudden desire for a pet monkey. Spanky’s wish comes true via the most misbegotten kind of mistaken identity—thanks to some five and dime smoke bombs, Stymie is convinced his little brother Cotton(!) has been turned into a chimpanzee. The jokes are repulsive and the lack of any real laughs (besides the uncomfortable kind) expose just how easy it is to introduce an unspoiled child to prejudice in its most pernicious form.
Yes, even A Lad an’ A Lamp looks beautiful on this new Blu ray as do all the other episodes—a brilliant job by ClassicFlix. The company keeps to their standard formula for these releases with no real extra material except for before and after restoration demonstrations. Volume 4 promises even more delights with The Kid from Borneo leading the assault on our mixed emotions.