Are The Little Rascals Still Funny?

Are The Little Rascals Still Funny?

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.

Hal Roach: Are The Little Rascals Still Funny?

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.

Little-Rascals-02-Farina-Noose

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.

Little-Rascals-05-Farina-Knife

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.

Little-Rascals-04-chase

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.

Little-Rascals-07-Edgar-Kennedy-baby

 

 

  • Don

    Great article. This was one of my favorite episodes as a kid and still is (62 now). Yes there were things that are considered incorrect by todays standards but these were made how many years ago and I never looked at it in “black or white” then. It was just a bunch of kids getting into silly situations. I still enjoy watching them and my daughter who is now 24 watched them with me as a kid and loved them. Her favorite episode was with Jackie Cooper and Chubsie Ubsie in love with Miss Crabtree. I think these films were very creative and entertaining, especially for their time. Just easy and fun watching. A lot better than what’s on these days!

  • verneaux

    Part of the reason that Farina is spotlighted in this short is that during his time with the gang, Farina was the ‘star’ of the gang – Just like Sunshine Sammy had been before him. When white kids like Spanky headlined the gang, there were still racial episodes but they didn’t seem to be the focus.

    • Charles M Lee

      Also, although there were clear racial overtones, the Rascals did have some positive influence on me as a young African American child. I wanted to emulate some of the positive things they did. They were a very creative and ambitious bunch. I remember wanted to organized the kids in my neighborhood and put on a talent show like they did in one of their episodes.

  • Tom K.

    “is it still OK to enjoy the Rascals” If you refuse to bow to those ” slavers ” that push the freedom killing Political Correctness – then YES, it IS okay to enjoy the Rascals.

    • Charles M Lee

      How dare you use the term “slavers”. No one’s back is being beaten until the skin literally drips off. No one’s loved ones are being wrenched from the arms of begging mothers and carried off and sold. For the most part I think PC has gone too far. But slavers, how dare you!!!!!!!

  • MikeyParks

    I don’t believe there’s anything “derisive” in these old “Little Rascals.” When these were made we were freer to use our differences as sources of comedy. Today, everything has been homogenized to the point of no texture or taste. We’ve lost our ability to laugh at ourselves. Too bad for us! BTW, this episode was on the air when I was a kid. One thing I came away with was that the Rascals were always hungry and there was never any food!

  • jan

    I really saddens me when people try to belittle or ban any books, stories, or movies of time long ago. It was what it was at the time. Trying to judge the Little Rascals by todays standards is wrong. They really were just children being children and it is really too bad that todays children can not do the same. Have times, attitudes and prejudices changed – yes. Are things better – I don’t believe all of the changes are good. Children had an innocence in that time that is not possible in this day and age because of many of those changes. Do I still enjoy watching the Little Rascals – You bet! It takes me back to when kids could just be kids having fun and doing what comes naturally. Children have alway had the capacity to be the cruelest of the cruel – but they can also be freely loving and able to enjoy life in the moment.

    • Charles M Lee

      There is a sadness when innocence is lost. When I first started watching those shorts they were just funny. As time progressed and our struggle unfolded, innocence was lost. In a way, the Civil Rights movement was the beginning of the end of an age of innocence. Realities about parts of our country were exposed that shattered our pristine views about ourselves as a nation.

  • Cara

    I never did think the Little Rascals were funny. But then, I didn’t enjoy The Three Stooges either. Abbott and Costello, on the other hand. And Laurel and Hardy. Great.

    You know, there are two types of people in the world. The ones who like watching people poking each other in the eye, and the ones who don’t.

    • Charles M Lee

      IMO Laurel and Hardy was the greatest comedy team of all time. I have every short they ever made. Blockheads is my favorite.

  • hupto

    As Bill Everson so succinctly put it, when everybody’s being made fun of, who’s being discriminated against?

    • Charles M Lee

      That is a good point, but the problem is, not everyone was being treated the way African Americans were being treated. If they were indeed treated as equals then there would not have been a problem. Yet they weren’t. When these shorts were made a huge majority of Americans still saw us as less than human. There in lies the problem.

      • hupto

        Also true. But movies were and still are merely a reflection of society, and African-Americans had to make do with what was offered. Remember the famous words of Hattie McDaniel: “I’d rather play a maid than be one.”

        • Charles M Lee

          Touche`

  • jim

    The little Rascals were great.

  • Somtiga

    As a baby boomer (now 68) I grew up in an all white neighborhood and went to a Catholic school, so my chances for hanging out with Afro-American kids was close to zero. I was amazed that such conditions could have existed, It didn’t exist in the television of the 50′s or early 60′s. My father told me that when he was growing up he regularly played with “colored” or Negro kids(Terms not used today but not used in a pejorative way, back then). I always found this odd, that there had been this physical interaction back in the 20′s and 30′s but had been lost by the 50′s. I loved the Little Rascals. When Spanky McFarland died several years ago I felt this sadness as if my youth had also passed.

    • Charles M Lee

      Indeed these characters were like a part of our family. We grew up with them.

  • Bruce Reber

    I loved to watch the “Little Rascals”/”Our Gang” shorts on TV when I was growing up. They turned up on various channels from the mid 60′s to the early 70′s. TCM aired some of them in January 2011 during a tribute to producer Hal Roach.The LR/OG characters I remember most were Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat and Froggy. One of the funniest shorts I remember was one where one of the kids had a jar of Limberger cheese, and how the pungent odor was causing everyone to stay away from him. I liked to watch how the kids always managed to outsmart the adults, now matter what situation they were in. Maybe TCM can air all of the LR/OG shorts sometime. They are amusing and fun entertainment, way better than anything with kids in it these days.

    • Charles M Lee

      It was Alfalfa that was being shunned because he ate the cheese.

  • jbourne5181

    every Saturday morning at 8 ’0 clock I would spend an hour with the Little Rascals. every once in a while I still come across episodes on cable and yeah, 70 years later, they’re still funny

  • Laurence Almand

    I used to enjoy THE LITTLE RASCALS, but even then I noticed the racist comments and situations…such as Farina talking about lice and coal oil and such. But then, that was acceptable in those days. What is surprising about the films is that they contained any African-American players at all, since in the Southern market films with mixed-variation casts were often banned.

    • Charles M Lee

      Also, I do not know what Hal Roach’s “official” out look on African American’s was, but it took some gonads for him to use them. Like him or not, he was a pioneer in comedy.

  • david rackley

    I used to watch the little rascals myself as a kid im 43 now . ya there were some racist themes there. but that was part of that time period. I also know about song of the south being banned witch I think is POLITICAL CORECTNESS going to far!

  • Charles M Lee

    I would like to – as an African American – weigh in on this subject. I am 64 now and I remember watching the LR/OG shorts in the 50′s on TV. I was really happy to see a Black person on television. That was something very rare in those days. We watched not only those shorts but we rarely missed the Amos and Andy show. What was our reaction? We laughed. I was in grade school then. I had the innocence of a child. That is not to say I didn’t have an awareness of discrimination. I knew that most popular media at that time had no Black people.

    Then suddenly racial injustice was thrown to the forefront in 1957 with Little Rock Arkansas. The bitter injustices inflicted on people of color in this country were brought to the forefront. As well they should have been. At first the focus was simply on integration and equality. Slowly out of the non violent civil disobedience came more angry voices. This is when a focus on HOW we were portrayed in the media came into play. These voices pointed out how these portrayals helped to promote and justify the continued degradation and oppression of African Americans. For the most part I agree. Looking back on a lot of these comedies there was a clear- intended or not – message I was receiving. It told me my “place” in America was one of subjugation and that I was seen as a simpleton. There was some truth to that at the time. However both Black and White people fought against discrimination and American responded.

    So now I am left with a sort of ambivalence towards these old shorts. Do I still watch them, you betcha. I have a DVD of some of the LR/OG shorts. When it comes the racist overtones, I realize that was the product of the times. It is not otay – sorry I couldn’t resist that, but at the same time it was funny stuff. Comedy ridicules. That is what makes it funny. It is the fact that it was done during a time when African Americans were being lynched and brutalized that raises the brows.

    I do not think anything should be banned. If I don’t like it I don’t have to watch it. I don’t have to purchase it. If those shorts are banned then there are so many hip hop songs, and comedic routines by African Americans that would have to be banned also. I’m just sayin.

    By the way, as someone already pointed out, the episode highlighted was indeed aired on open television. I laughed when I first saw it.

    • GeorgeDAllen

      Charles–many thanks for the perspectives; love the “otay” reference, well done :)
      A couple of commenters at this point have mentioned seeing “Moan & Groan” on television way back when–it could be my phrasing in this piece is awkward; the clearer thing to maybe have said is that in 1971 the short was removed from the King syndication package (I said “excised,” but w/o mentioning that it may have indeed aired at one time or another), along with some other shorts in their entirety (while some others were just edited). So sure, some folks may well have seen it before it was taken off the air. I’m pretty sure I didn’t (I was 3 years old in 1971; offhand I’m not sure if/when M&G was restored to broadcast on any kind of regular basis) — because I think I would have definitely remembered the bits with the noose and the knife.

      • Charles M Lee

        Thanks for your reply George and for the article. I don’t remember seeing “Moan & Groan” on the syndicated reruns in the 70′s now that you mentioned it.. I think it was in the 50′s when I saw it. In fact I had forgotten that particular short until you mentioned it. Also I just thought of something, all of them went to school together and were in the same class room. Hmmmmmmm.