Walter Mencken 11 a.m., July 25
Anatomy of an ad campaign: Our Gang comedies, 1922 - 1938
The following is to be played on a loop while reading:
Last week was my mother's Yahrtziet. Twelve years. It's the only day of the year when I find it impossible to focus on a feature. And, oh, how I don't crave solitude on September 25.
A friend in need is a Lickona indeed. I spent the night in the company of the four youngest of the Lickona clan (and Oreo the Wonder Mutt) devouring pizza, hot chocolate at Cosmo's in La Mesa (a favored haunt), and Our Gang comedies. It was just the load-lightener needed to get me through the night.
By the way, this is my mother Esther, but you can call her Babe. Everyone else did. Except me. I called he Ma. The photo was taken the day dad returned home from World War II.
One of the earliest memories I have is of Ma and I seated on the green couch in our north side apartment on Chicago's Thorndale Ave. watching The Little Rascals on a small television screen situated inside a big wooden box. Spanky was the first live-action character whom I identified with. What 4-year-old didn't want to be Spanky?
Wanting to know whether or not I was qualified to fill his Red Goose shoes -- and desperately in search of an identity -- I asked Ma, "is Spanky Jewish?" It took Babe a moment to catch her breath and wipe away the laugh tears before she was able to answer her son's question: "His last name is McFarland, honey. Of course he's not Jewish!"
I've had Our Gang on the brain for some time. Two weeks ago this photo, welcoming latest cast addition Norman "Chubby" Chaney to the "Our Gang" family, appeared on my Facebook wall.
A colleague and so-called historian, whose name is being withheld to spare his parents further embarrassment, asked, "Are these second or third tier Rascals? Where's Spanky and Alfalfa?"
Taken in 1929, the photo shows a gathering of second tier Gang members -- Alfalfa was something like sixth or seventh generation Rascal. The answer to your second question is dead.
I'll put Billy Bletchers "WOOOWWWW! up against any sound effect in the Columbia Pictures Library.
"Our Gang" had it's origins in a proposed series of "Sunshine Sammy" shorts starring Ernie Morrison. According to an interview with film historian Donald Bogle, ""[The] interesting thing is the first real kind of African-American star in Hollywood was a [child actor]. His name was Ernest Morrison, whose stage name was "Sunshine Sammy." He worked with Harold Lloyd in the early Our Gang series. He was very well-known in the African-American community in Los Angeles and much admired."
It was 1922, and the majority of theatre owners had no interest in showcasing a series of shorts headed up by a black character, even if he was a kid. Only one "Sunshine Sammy" short, The Pickaninny, saw the arc light of day.
As you can see, a few of the decidedly racist ads are included in this post. It's part of the series' history and as my friends over at Warner Bros. like to say in the pre-credit disclaimer that opens each volume of Looney Tunes, I prefer not to pretend that such a thing never happened.
It's important to note that in spite of frequent discriminating depictions of the rotating cast of African-American 'Rascals' seen in these marketing ploys, the series was in at least one way a bold step forward in race relations. Never before were people of color depicted on such equal footing. Yes, there are watermelon jokes and pop-eyed reaction shots to get past, but in essence, Our Gang is composed of non-judgmental kids of all races (and both sexes, too) doing what they do best: behaving like children.
Our Gang was the brainchild of Hal Roach. The series debuted as Hal Roach's Rascals. The first produced, and third released short was called Our Gang. It clicked with the public and remained the series title until the rights were sold to television under the more commonly referred to trademark, The Little Rascals.
Legend has Roach in his office preoccupied by a group of kids hanging out together in a lot across the way. Roach sits enthralled as he watches the children playfully have at it over over a prized stick. Looking down at his watch, Roach is surprised to see how much time he'd spent eavesdropping on their antics. This daydream was the impetus for the producer's longest running, and most financially rewarding property.
Watching them again, it's remarkable how well the shorts hold up. Mama's Little Pirate still gives me the willies and the violent acts of revenge that close Fly My Kite would make Moe Howard wince.
The mortality rate among Our Gang cast members far surpasses that of the Munchkins. According to Wikipedia, as of June 2013, eleven 'Gang' members are still with us: Robert Blake, Sidney Kibrick, Jean Darling, Marianne Edwards, Dickie Moore, Jerry Tucker, Jackie Lynn Taylor, Lassie Lou Ahern, Mildred Kornman, and Leonard Landy.
Roach sold the series rights to M-G-M in 1938. The studio did for the kids what they did to the Marx Bros. three years earlier: absolutely nothing. The running times were shortened. Spanky, in search of juvenile roles that never came, broke from the 'Gang' just prior to the split. That left the insipid song stylings of Alfalfa to carry the load. And what a load it was. There's not a one in the bunch worth looking at.
What follows are a series of promotional ads from the trades that highlight the series appeal and enormous selling power. All of the shorts, including the shitty Metros, are available on home video. Check the TV section at Fry's Electronics. That's where I found my copies for $5 a disc!
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