How long has it been since you’ve cued up one of the Our Gang comedies? I used to love “The Little Rascals,” and picked up the Complete Collection of Hal Roach sound shorts (released from 1929 to 1938) quite some time ago—and there it sat on my shelf. I knew I’d get to them eventually, because one of my many—many—television addictions back in those “good ol’ days” when there were exactly seven channels available (In my case: Channels 3, 6, 10, 12, 17, 29, and 48…later to be joined by 57…before the then-mind-busting joys of cable) was making sure I caught every broadcast of the “Little Rascals” shorts that I could. You know, whenever The Flintstones wasn’t on. Or Batman.
Or Ultraman. Or Get Smart. Or…hoo boy, did I watch a lot of television.
Until I started revisiting these movies, most of my specific memories about the plots, bits, and so on, had well faded from memory. What I do remember about them from those days was the very distinct appeal they had for me in general, that may have been a little different from the appeal they may have had, or continue to have, for you; I always thought of them as not so much laugh-out-loud funny as eyebrow-raising bizarre. Especially those long stretches of sped-up slapstick that seemed to be filmed with no accompanying synched sound at all; you’d just hear the hiss, crackles, and popping “white noise” of the empty soundtrack—which always struck my ears as a particularly ghostly thing, probably because of how much I associated that sound, or better to say the lack of it, with the classic Universal Monster Movies.
(You’d hear this uncanny noise/silence, say, during the tracking shot that introduces Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, or the percussive close-ups that ushered in our first terrifying gaze at the Frankenstein Monster, or during those tense few moments before Bramwell Fletcher unleashes an ancient curse by opening up the sealed box containing the Scroll of Thoth, in The Mummy)
I’d get the same weird charge out of some early Laurel and Hardy shorts; Abbott and Costello, not so much, what with all the talking. The Three Stooges, ditto…what with all those zany sound effects of fingers-in-the-eyes and hacksaws-across-the-head.
But back to the Rascals. The other thing that sticks in my mind, of course, is the whole discussion of whether or not the Our Gang films can still be considered so innocent, charming, or funny today…you know…because of stuff like this:
OK, so that’s from the Stooges, not the Rascals. But it was actually a recent discussion of just that iconic moment—maybe one of the most recognized and oft-repeated representations of burlesque stereotyping in movie history—that got me to thinking about getting busy again with Hal Roach’s Rascals.
An exhaustive (and perhaps exhausting) overview of the Rascals’ entire filmography will remain beyond the scope of this piece. Histories are readily available everywhere should you wish to seek them out. Trivia abounds. Instead, I decided to pick, sort of at random and sort of not, one short to see what I would take away from it as far as this whole “is it still OK to enjoy the Rascals” question.
Because of my fondness for haunted-house-themed subject matter, and because it was one of the shorts included on my boxed set’s first disc, I decided to go with the 94th Our Gang short to be released: 1929’s Moan and Groan.
Did I pick a doozy.
Like many of the Rascals shorts, the plot is pretty straightforward. Our gang—which, in this film, included Allen “Farina” Hoskins, Jackie Cooper, Mary Ann Jackson, Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins, Norman “Chubby” Chaney, and Pete the Dog—is lazing about chatting with their friendly police officer pal, “Mr. Kennedy” (Edgar Kennedy), who entertains the tykes with tales of digging for treasure when he was a little boy. He discourages them from playing inside the abandoned, “haunted” house that seems to interest them. Do they pay attention to his warning? They’re not called Rascals for nothing!
Once inside the dilapidated residence, we see that there’s a crazed-looking German/Jewish fella (Max Davidson) apparently squatting there, hiding inside the walls. He laughs, and OOOOHS and AAAHS and grabs the hand of one of the kids (when the tyke is foolish enough to stick his own little paw through one of many holes in the walls), and all of this gets the Rascals a little creeped out. Or, at least, it gets Farina a little creeped out. Farina makes multiple references to hearing “spooks.”
So far, so good, I’m only squirming a little.
Farina’s the one character repeatedly required to react to the crazy man’s noises with his eyes bugged out (similar to the effect we see in “Dis House Sho’ Gone Crazy!”), but honestly, we’re all well aware of and almost inured to that stereotypical device. Chaos erupts among the children, and they take to a handy ladder to climb out of their dirty house sandbox to an upper floor. Before Farina can join them, the ladder falls down to the ground, stranding Farina below. Jackie (Jackie Cooper) helpfully throws a rope down…and Farina, not thinking twice about it, robotically twirls the rope…around his neck.
Haw haw. Are you feeling queasy yet?
After some amusing time spent with the subplot of cops getting their fingers caught in “Chinese handcuffs,” back in the house our crazy hermit has caught up with Farina and takes him captive after the other children have retreated inside the walls to hide (and, amusingly, pray). The lunatic “invites” Farina to sit down and have a turkey dinner with him. He’s crazy, so of course there’s no food there on the plate at all as he nevertheless wields a fork and knife to cut it up. And oh, look! While cutting the “turkey leg,” the crazy man “accidentally” brushes past close to Farina’s neck with the gigantic carving knife.
Farina: If’n you cut my throat off, I won’t be able to eat any turkey at all!
Hey, what a riot.
Farina—not being crazy, after all—recognizes there’s no food in front of him, thinks it a bit odd, and tells his host that he doesn’t see any turkey legs. At which point, the lunatic shoves the knife right up against the child’s throat. He asks Farina again if he sees the turkey leg.
Farina: Yes suh, yes suh, I see two of ‘em!
To be, uhm, “fair”—Farina’s portrayed as the one child who’s actually paying attention to the strange goings-on (while the others at first ignore him and scold him for being scared—that is, until they see the dirty, hairy old man with their own eyes and get chased all over the house)…but between the bug-eyed bit, the references to “spooks,” the noose, the knife, and the oh-so-amusing bit where a policeman takes out some talc to put on Farina’s baby sibling (it’s labeled “flesh”…and it’s black!), it’s a little impossible to deny that there’s some extremely blatant, race-themed humor at play here, and in the Rascals films in general.
To be yet more generous, it’s also legitimate to point out that the other characters—particularly the policemen in this short—are also the targets of broad caricature. It’s a comedy, after all—a comedy for and about children. We’ve got the dumb Irish cop who stumbles around, gets a balloon stuck to him and his finger caught in the Chinese handcuffs, and is seen frequently pointing his gun in the wrong direction. “The lunatic” (as the part is referred to in the Internet Movie Database) looks a bit like Fagin from Oliver Twist—and Jewish stereotyping is another of the reasons cited for this particular film having been hidden from view once the Rascals shorts were revived for television.
Yes: After watching Moan and Groan, I looked up some of those easily-accessible nuggets of trivia to find that this was one of the shorts that was indeed excised from the King Features rotation of the Our Gang comedies on TV—which means I very likely had never seen it until now. Some may wish to debate the merits of taking these films or others like them out of circulation for reasons of sensitivity, or political correctness—I won’t really bother, because (a) I can’t think of a single case where I’d fall on the side of eliminating works of film history from the public eye, and (b) that subject has been pretty thoroughly worked out here on the blog in the extensive back-and-forth about Disney’s Song of the South—but it is very easy to see why, in a climate where such selective presentations were considered appropriate, this particular Little Rascals comedy got the short end of the censorial stick.
When they became adults, the African-American actors who played “Sunshine Sammy,” “Stymie,” and “Buckwheat” were vocal in defending Our Gang producer Hal Roach, insisting that the films were in fact progressive, if not ahead of their time, because they depicted the children as equals—that much is very true—and that producer Roach was “color-blind,” and that they were simply “kids having fun.”
Without taking anything away from the actors’ obvious sincerity, or trying to second-guess what went on during shooting on movie sets decades ago, or making ridiculous attempts to deny the actors’ own memories or experiences, it still must be said that there is no way a rational viewer can look at the “Little Rascals” films and deny that there’s a considerable number of race-based gags executed that are as derogatory as anything we’d find in The Birth of a Nation.
That said, there’s still much innocence and charm to be found in these films; these are the original “free range” kids. As much as improved attitudes about race have made portions of these comedies alarming or grotesque, it’s also fair to say that the modern trend towards helicopter parenting has also tainted their comic misadventures. The notion of children rambling around a condemned house, chased by an insane derelict who holds a knife to the throat of one of the kids? Try selling that plot as the basis for good-natured, family-friendly comedy today. The goofball slapstick of Home Alone has nothing on the subversive tingles we get from the antics in Moan and Groan today.
Are the Little Rascals still funny? Only you can say for yourself, because you’re either laughing, or you’re not. Me? I love these movies, yes I do. But it would be shamefully irresponsible to pretend they’re something they’re not, and ignore how the stereotyping and derisive, race-based humor that was, and is, damaging in the films can teach us something about how we interpret the broad caricatures we might find in the movies today—or even the lack of them, as the sharpest edges of comedy are sanded away for fear of offending any members of the broadest possible audience demographic.
By all means, love these vintage classics: they’re sweet, funny, strange, and ghostlike relics that offer startling windows into the past. But love them like an adult, because anything less would be a betrayal of Our Gang, and the little rascals that come after us.