With 221 episodes filmed over more than two decades, Our Gang/Little Rascals is the most successful, longest-running film series in Hollywood history. Here's how the Little Rascals found their way onto the silver screen.
STICKS AND STONES
One day in 1921, a Hollywood producer named Hal Roach spent a frustrating morning auditioning girls for a part in one of his movies. It wasn't going well-the kids sounded too rehearsed and their stage makeup made them look like little grown-ups. In those days child actors were supposed to act like adults, not like normal kids. They were usually well scrubbed and well behaved, and because the adult characters were almost always the center of the story, the kids interacted with the grown-ups more than they did with each othr. They were often little more than props.
That afternoon when the auditions ended, Roach sat in his office and stared at the lumberyard across the street. He noticed a group of kids that had snatched a few sticks to play with, and were now arguing over them-the smallest kid had grabbed the largest stick, and the biggest kid wanted it.
Roach was fascinated. "I knew they would probably throw away the sticks as soon as they walked around the block," he recalled more than 60 years later, "but the most important thing in the world right then was who would have which stick. All of a sudden I realized I had been watching this silly argument for over fifteen minutes because they were real kids."
FORMING THE GANG
Roach thought movies about "kids doing the things that kids do" might make interesting viewing. As he told Leonard Maltin in The Life and Times of the Little Rascals: Our Gang, "I thought if I could find some clever street kids to just play themselves in films and show life from a kid's angle, maybe I could make a dozen of these things before I wear out the idea."
Roach started putting together a cast of archtypical kids that audiences would be able to relate to: the leader of the pack, the pretty girl who gets teased by the boys, the tomboy, the nerdy smart kid, the chubby kid, the spoiled rich kid, etc.
Roach also decided to cast black kids in some of the parts. That may not sound like a big deal, but in the 1920s it was unheard of. In fact, he was the first Hollywood filmmaker to depict black kids and white kids playing together, treating each other as equals, even going to the same schools. (The integrated school scenes were cut whenever the films played in the South.)
Characters like Farina, Stymie, and Buckwheat have since been criticized for perpetuating ethnic stereotypes, and ethnic humor was common in the series, especially in the early days. But the fact that the cast was integrated at all was a milestone. Hollywood films of the 1920s never portrayed blacks and whites as social peers, and wouldn't for years to come. But Roach was determined that his kids would be peers.
Casting that first group of little kids was a snap-Roach just asked around the studio lot. Everybody, it seemed, either had a kid or knew one that would be good for a part. An eight-year-old black child actor named Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison was already appearing in Roach comedies, and his family knew of a one-year-old named Allen Hoskins. (Allen, better known as "Farina", would go on to appear in 105 Our Gang comedies-more than any other kid) Photographer Gene Kornman's five-year-old daughter Mary was interested; so was her friend Mickey Daniels. Roach also hired a six-year-old child actor named Jack Davis, a three-year-old named Jackie Condon, a chubby four-year-old named Joe Cobb, and a few other kids as well.
TESTING THE WATERS
The very first film, titled Our Gang, was shot twice with a different director each time because Roach didn't think the first version was funny enough. The second film, a 20-minute silent short, directed by an ex-fireman named Bob McGowan, was a hit with test audiences, critics, and movie exhibitors alike. When Roach received repeated requests for more of those "Our Gang comedies," he decide that would be the name for his series. The kids themselves were billed as "Hal Roach's Rascals"; the name "Little Rascals" came much later.
The fourth Our Gang movie to be filmed, One Terrible Day, was actually the first one released to the public; it hit theaters in September 1922. Our Gang (the first film) was released two months later.
These films were unlike any that audiences had seen before. Kids were the stars, but the films were designed to appeal to people of all ages. And they were a hit from the start-kid actors were acting like real kids, arguing, getting dirty, and getting into all kinds of mischief. The acting was so natural that audiences forgot they were watching a movie.
How was Our Gang director Bob McGowan able to coach such authentic performances out of actors as young as two years of age? He didn't have many options-reading scripts and memorizing lines was out, since many kids were too young to read. So McGowan made acting a game: he explained the scenes to the kids as carefully as he could, then he filmed them as they play-acted their parts. (One unintended consequence: as the kids grew older and became more aware of themselves as actors, their acting style sometimes became less natural.)
Because the Our Gang films were so successful, it wasn't long before every child star in Hollywood-not to mention thousands of aspiring kid stars all over the country-started clamoring for a part in the series. Mickey Rooney came to Hollywood just to audition for Our Gang. He didn't make the cut, and neither did the biggest child star in Hollywood history, Shirley Temple.
*A kid could be cast in an Our Gang film as young as two or three years of age (infants and toddlers were sometimes used as extras), and the average age was around seven. Most started out as supporting players and were promoted to more central roles as they got older. Spanky was a notable exception-he was cast in starring roles from the very beginning.
* The youngest actors weren't allowed to be on the lot more than six hours a day, and they spent at least half that time playing off camera, not working on the films. Once actors reached the age of six, however, they were expected to put in a full nine-hour shift (five hours of acting, three hours of school, and one for lunch).
* By the time most of the actors hit 11 or 12, they were starting to look too old for the series, so they were phased out. Kids who matured early had to leave sooner than that.
The Hal Roach Studios shot 88 silent Our Gang films between 1922 and 1929. In 1928 they started releasing their films with phonograph records containing music and sound effects that were synchronized with the films-but no dialog. The first real "talkies" followed a year later. Then from 1929 to 1937 Roach made another 73 Our Gang shorts. Most film buffs consider these later years to be the best of the series, with the most popular characters-Farina, Jackie, Chubby, Spanky, Buckwheat, Darla, and Alfalfa-delivering their best performances.
Our Gang films were 20 minutes long until 1936. Around then, theater owners started to drop short-subject comedies from their schedules to make room for double features. In addition, the big Hollywood studios like Columbia, Warner Brothers, and MGM were bundling their own short-subject films with their feature films and forcing theater owners to take them as a package-if an owner wanted to show an MGM blockbuster like Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), he had to show the MGM shorts with it.
The future for independent short-subject producers like Hal Roach looked grim, so Roach switched gears and started making feature-length films. Any short-subject that didn't work as a feature was discarded, and soon the Our Gang series was the only one left at the studio. Roach ordered up a feature-length Our Gang film called General Spanky. When it died at the box office, the fate of the Our Gang series was sealed ...or was it?
It turned out that Louie B. Mayer, the head of MGM, was an Our Gang fan, and he thought there was still a lot of demand for the films. Mayer promised Roach that if he cut the films down to 10 minutes in length, he'd see to it that they got distribution. Roach agreed and made another 23 shorts over the next two years. But even with MGM's support, demand for short comedies kept falling, and so did the profits. In 1938 Roach sold the Our Gang unit to MGM, including all of the films made between 1927 and 1938.
THE SHOW'S OVER
The quality of the Our Gang series suffered terribly at MGM. Instead of assigning a single top-notch director to film the shorts, the studio used the series to prepare inexperienced directors for feature film work. As Leonard Maltin and Richard Bann wrote in The Life and Times of the Little Rascals: Our Gang, "Hal Roach Studios was geared to making nothing but good comedy shorts, while MGM was geared to make everything but. The result was a strictly-for-kids mixture of ten-minute morality plays and pep talks pushing American virtues during wartime."
As the quality deteriorated so did audience interest; after 16 years of solid profits the films started losing money. MGM ended production in 1944; the last original Our Gang film, Tale of a Dog, was released in April 1944.
Birthday Blues (1932)
LIVING ONThe era of first-run Our Gang shorts may have ended, but the age of reruns was just around the corner. In 1949 Hal Roach bought back the right to his Our Gang shorts and began licensing them for television (MGM kept the rights to the ones they made). The only problem: MGM kept the right to the Our Gang name in case they ever decided to make more films, Roach had to come up with another name for his films. Since the kids were already known as "Hal Roach's Rascals", he decided to name the series The Little Rascals for television.
Thanks to TV, by the mid-1950s the classic films were more popular than they'd ever been, entertaining a new generation of kids and bringing back fond memories for people old enough to remember them from the first time around. The Little Rascals has been airing almost continuously since then and is now available on video as well.
Our Gang Follies of 1936
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