New DVDs: Our Gang

A new box set from Genius Entertainment that assembles all 80 of the Hal Roach produced “Our Gang” sound shorts – under their re-release title, “The Little Rascals” — provokes some thoughts on the unstructured artistry of Robert A. McGowan, the director in charge of the series during its most productive years. Also, a “lost” Michael Curtiz resurfaces, in the form of the first authorized release of “This Is the Army,” a 1943 Technicolor feature made as a money-raiser for the Army Relief Fund. Presented in a superb Technicolor restoration from UCLA, it’s part of “Warner Bros. and the Homefront,” a nifty little box set that includes two other wartime, all-star revue films: David Butler’s “Thank Your Lucky Stars” and Delmer Daves’s “Hollywood Canteen.”

41 comments to New DVDs: Our Gang

  • “Don’t drink the milk, it’s spoiled!”

    “But when I get my pension…”

    “But all the children love mush…”

  • jbryant

    The Little Rascals set sounds like a blast, but I’m half afraid if I dove into that nostalgia fest, I’d never crawl out again.

    I got to see Spanky McFarland in person many years ago (mid 70s, I think). He gave a lecture of sorts in a hotel conference room in Evansville, Indiana. I seem to recall it being more of a motivational pep talk than a showbiz reminiscence. Anyway, quite cool, if odd, to see this icon of my youth all grown up and looking like a midwest carpet salesman or some such.

    Recently saw Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer among the ensemble of Wellman’s “Island in the Sky,” a gripping survival yarn that I liked very much.

  • Dave Marr

    Dave, in your column you mention “one small exception” to the “Our Gang” films being presented as originally released. I’m not entirely sure I want to know, but… um, what is it? Is there a particularly notorious episode of which I’m not aware, or is it just not worth mentioning? Or both?

  • James L. Neibaur

    What is most interesting is the inclusion of a handful of silents in this package that concentrates on the Roach-era talkies. It is great to get all of these films, in chronological order, in one package. If only Genius would now release the Laurel and Hardy Roach-era talkie shorts in the same sort of package, or perhaps the Charley Chase.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘Recently saw Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer among the ensemble of Wellman’s “Island in the Sky,”’

    Appears in two other William Wellman movies, TRACK OF THE CAT and THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY.

  • Alfalfa plays a nonagenarian mute Indian in TRACK OF THE CAT – one of the weirdest pieces of casting ever. I think he was 24 at the time it was filmed.

  • Alfalfa is the kid who opens the swimming pool that Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed fall into in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. (My fave Alf perf, through, is as the weirdo comic relief in the 1957 AIP hit MOTORCYCLE GANG). And if you want more adult Rascals, Stymie is in THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY and Darla Hood is a victim of THE BAT in the Vincent Price chiller. I love this Rascals set, and I’m sorry that so many “fans” around the Internet are being so negative about it. It’s not perfect, there are mistakes, but it’s such a massive set (83 shorts, much bonus material) that it’s one of the best releases of the year. Hell, Sony is (rightly) lauded for finally releasing the Three Stooges 2-reelers properly, and each individual boxed set has fewer than 2 dozen shorts and absolutely no bonus material whatsoever, not even decent liner notes. I know of no plans for stateside Laurel & Hardy or other Hal Roach releases in 2009, although Sony is planning a Charley Chase box of Columbia shorts…

  • @Dave Marr: It really is a very small exception, which I learned about from the fans posting to the Amazon listing: two shots are missing from the 1934 “Washee Ironee,” during a scene in which the Gang drafts a Chinese kid (of course) to help them do some laundry, and he demonstrates how to spit water on the clothes. It’s an odd omission, more likely due to a production error than any censorious impulse.

    @Laughing Gravy: What do you think of the Columbia Chase shorts? I have only the dimmest memory of seeing some of them on television in the 60s. He seems to have had more control over them than poor Buster did in similar circumstances; at least, he’s credited with writing and or directing several of them. (“Washee Ironee,” just to complete the eternal circle of pedantry, was directed by Charlie Chases’s brother, James Parrott.)

  • Robert Chatain

    Carl Switzer as himself, not Alfalfa, performs a hilarious kid talent show song, “Love in Bloom,” in “Easy to Take,” the 1936 John Howard/Marsha Hunt comedy — one of the funniest bits in movie history if it hits you at the right moment.

  • Dave Marr

    Thanks, Dave. If memory serves, Carl Switzer appears as a problematic boy scout of some sort in “I Love You Again,” Woody Van Dyke’s somewhat late Powell/Loy screwball from 1940. It’s a fairly significant role – I seem to remember an awkward negotiation between Carl and William Powell in the woods.

  • The Charley Chase Columbias? If somebody from Sony is reading this, I love them and they’re brilliant comedy classics that will sell a million copies. If nobody from Sony is reading this, they’re a disappointment. The budget seems about 1/10th what Chase had at Roach, and Charley himself seems wan and older than his years (he had a severe drinking problem, and died in 1940, much too young). There are some excellent comedies, though, notably THE GRAND HOOTER and THE HECKLER, both of which, if memory serves, were remade with Shemp Howard. Incidentally, Charley Chase in my opinion was the best director the Three Stooges ever had; look at VIOLENT IS THE WORD FOR CURLY, FLAT FOOT STOOGES, and TASSELS IN THE AIR.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    THIS IS THE ARMY — I think it was the biggest-box office movie of the year — It’s great-looking and superbly directed by Curtiz but at the same time an awfully bad movie that I tried very hard to watch climbing to some second or third degree or whatever degree one migh have to climb to in order to swallow that stuff. But you had to. I mean, how can you be against the Army Relief Fund of sixty five years ago? It’s a document, that’s for sure. Let’s look at it that way.

    OUR GANG: well, no nostalgia here because I was born and grew up in France where the OUR GANG shorts were unknown (or if they were, I wasn’t aware of it). Watching them decades later makes me feel like indulging with nostalgia that isn’t even my own.

    Chase: a comedy genius just a few notches under the greatest ones. Both as comedian and director. Has to be rediscovered. It has started, but he deserves more.

  • As I said in the Times story, J-P, “This Is the Army” was the highest grossing film of 1943, with a total of $9.5 million for that year and a cumulative gross of $17 million ($200 million in current terms). The wartime audience was eager to support the fund, but I imagine filmgoers were also happy to see their kids in the army dressing up in drag and performing musical numbers rather than attacking German pillboxes. I find it second tier Curtiz but far from “awfully bad.” It’s a close relative of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with a similar identification of family and country. And against all odds, Curtiz does manage to slip in a couple of his trademark tracking shots through a spectacular nightclub set. Did he have that in his contract? The Technicolor restoration (by UCLA) is very nice, and the lighting is so dark, shadowy and Curtizish in spots that one imagines Natalie Kalmus throwing fits just outside camera range.

  • Christoph Huber

    I kind of have to echo Jean-Pierre’s comment about Our Gang: Even though some Certified Comedy Classics from Chaplin to Laurel & Hardy were still regular TV material when I grew up (ca. the early 80s) – almost unthinkable now with the changes in European televsion in the last decades -, the Rascals are a completely alien presence. In fact, when I saw Harmony Korine’s Mr. Lonely, what really puzzled were these references to some mysterious Buckwheat character.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Dave, I have two confessions to make: I hadn’t yet read your article when I wrote my post, and I didn’t watch THIS IS THE ARMY from beginning to end. Maybe it’s not as bad as I thought. Let’s say it looks better (Curtiz’s camera work, the Technicolor…) than the contents deserve. Some of the comedy stuff is excruciating, in a very forties (and especially war-time)style. Soldiers in drag is an acquired taste, etc… It’s hard to evaluate such a period piece fairly. Agee wrote in “The Nation” that “a simple-hearted friendliness generated between audience and screen… made that film happy to see even when it was otherwise boring.” That “friendliness,” whatever it was, has vanished with the time and on the TV screen, I guess. But I’ll give it another try, if only for those tracking shots (of the kind that annoyed Jack Warner as being expensive and useless).

  • jbryant

    Christoph: Guess you also missed Eddie Murphy’s tenure on Saturday Night Live in the early ’80s, when he performed a recurring parody of a grown-up Buckwheat embarking on a second career as an unintelligible singer.

    I think TCM showed the Warner Bros. homefront flicks the other night, but I missed them.

  • James L. Neibaur

    I am currently writing The Fall of Buster Keaton, dealing with his films for MGM, Educational, and Columbia. The release of the Columbia set of Keaton comedies was a bit of a revelation. After decades of reading that these were the worst films in which Keaton starred, I discovered that I find them much more amusing than his work at MGM or Educational.

    The Charley Chase Columbias that I have seen (maybe eight or ten of them) range from fair (Skinny the Moocher) to hilarious (The Wrong Miss Wright) and several in-between. The SONY set should be great. Milestone and Allday promise massive sets of Chase silents that apparently will not overlap the already available Chase shorts on the Kino sets.
    Genius does own the DVD distribution rights for the Roach product, and chose to being with Our Gang rather than Laurel and Hardy. There are some who balk at the fact that not all of the movies in the Rascals set have original MGM titles, do not have “enough” digitial restoration, and a myriad of other extremist complaints. I look at it the same way as my old friend Laughing Gravy — it is great to have all of the Our Gang talkies from the Roach era in one chornological DVD set at an affordable price. I hope Genius does indeed embark on a set of Charley Chase talkies from the Roach era (which is the rumor, although, curiously, there is no rumor as to their considering a similar set for Laurel and Hardy).

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    James, it was very painful for me to go through what you call the Fall of Buster Keaton when I was writing my Keaton book in the early seventies (and “updating” it ten years later). Whether the Columbia shorts are worse than the Educational shorts is a matter of opinion (I haven’t seen any in a long time) but there is no doubt that the seven MGM sound features are abysmally bad (even DOUGHBOYS, although it might seem a bit better superficially). I suffered a lot watching those features (and they were not so easy to find way back then). Maybe someday I’ll feel distanced enough to watch all the Educational and Columbia shorts, and I’ll sure read your book. I remember Educational’s THE GOLD GHOST (first in the series) as the only one close to the old silent Keaton at his best or near best. Then the Fall…

  • James L. Neibaur

    Of course I am familiar with your work, jean-pierre, and agree with you that Keaton’s MGM talkies are a trying experience (I don’t think the two MGM silents are as bad as their reputation). Keaton always believed Grand Slam Opera was the best of his Educational output, and it has been terribly overrated as a result. The Columbia films are essentially the same sort of knockabout slapstick that the studio’s short films are noted for, but Keaton was given enough freedom (within the shorts department’s obvious budgetary limitations) to be reasonably creative. Pest From The West and Pardon My Berth Marks may be his most enjoyable films of the sound era.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    James, do the two MGM silents have a bad reputation? THE CAMERAMAN is still an outstanding film, completely Keatonian (I don’t know anybody who thinks it’s bad) and I am a great admirer of SPITE MARRIAGE despite its weaknesses (the opening is as good as anything he ever did). Keaton is still very much Keaton in it. In the talkies, from the very first one, he no longer is, just a sad ghost of himself.

  • I haven’t seen the MGM Keaton silents muchly maligned either. Yeah, some complain that the Keaton MGM silents are not as “pure” as his earlier stuff…but how can you complain about “The Cameraman”? Keaton back at Coney Island, what’s not to like…

    I must say, I always thought those Eddie Murphy Buckwheat bits were hilarious.

  • James L. Neibaur

    The Cameraman is also a favorite of mine, but I have read studies that call it anything from a last dying gasp to a comedown from that which had gone before. I actually do not recall many championing it as outstanding. Spite Marriage is often dismissed as a weak film, and a portent to what would soon occur at MGM, but I think it contains enough clever ideas to make it worthwhile. But then I also have argued that the self-directed Harry Langdon silent features are better than their reputation. Few agree.
    The MGM talkies have me searching for those isolated seconds where the Buster Keaton of yore shows up and does something interesting. But it almost never happens. I do see it at Educational and, even moreso, at Columbia. These later shorts are hardly at the level of One Week, Cops, or The Playhouse, but few are complete misfires.

  • Christoph Huber

    jbryant-

    Actually, I never saw any Saturday Night Live before the advent of the internet. European TV seems one big anti-Buckwheat conspiracy.

  • If you’re looking for somebody who thinks THE CAMERAMAN is a dreadful film, you’ve found one. It’s not as bad as the last Laurel & Hardy films for Fox and MGM, which is the best I can say about it. I am loving the new Kino release of THE GENERAL, though! I am not certain, BTW, that Genius DOES have the rights to the Laurel & Hardy talkies. I suspect they hold all the Roach material EXCEPT for L&H.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    One critic (French, I think; I can’t remember who it was) has called THE CAMERAMAN “Keaton’s masterpiece.” It’s a wild exageration, of course. But the film is indeed outstanding, even though, in my opinion, somewhat inferior to most of his previous silent features. Visually it’s rather drab, studio-bound despite the few location shots in New York streets. Keaton’s character is more conventional, less “Keatonian” than in the earlier films. The film’s general structure is rather loose, some sequences conventional or even untypically gratuitous (Shannon miming a baseball game in a deserted stadium — a dramatically and psychologically unmotivated set piece that seems totally out of character and un-keatonian). It may be a “comedown” from the masterpieces, but it’s only a few inches below their level, whereas the abominable sound features are hundreds of miles below.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Clifford: I would be very interested in hearing why you think THE CAMERAMAN is a dreadful film. This is the first time I heard anybody say that. I think it’s at least as good as COLLEGE or BATTLING BUTLER.

  • jbryant

    All Day Entertainment will release a 4-disc set called “Becoming Charley Chase” on January 27th. Disc One is titled “Charles Parrott at Keystone – and more!” It has 8 shorts and a documentary. Disc Two is called “Charley Chase Becomes Jimmy Jump” and collects 17 shorts. Disc Three, “Jimmy Jump Becomes Charley Chase,” holds 10 shorts and a music featurette. Disc Four, “Directed by Charley Parrott,” has 7 titles plus an interview with Chase’s daughter. It will retail for $39.95, but if you pre-order at Classicflix.com by Nov. 18th, it’s $25.98. I haven’t checked amazon or any other sources.

    This is great news, and reminds me that I need to sit down and finish watching my Kino Chase collection plus all his stuff I recorded off Turner Classics. I’ve seen one Chase short on the big screen: McCarey’s excellent “The Caretaker’s Daughter,” at LA’s Silent Movie Theatre a few years ago.

  • As part of our Friday night movie parties, we showed Charley’s LIMOUSINE LOVE a couple of years ago (available on a German DVD), and it got the biggest laughs of any short we’ve shown in years. Hope that gets released stateside on some collection or other (it’s a late silent). As for THE CAMERAMAN, I had heard good things about it, and was looking forward to it, and found it included neither of the two things I most relish about Keaton films: it lacked (a) a WOW! How did he DO that!?! moment, and (b) laughs.

  • Bob Mastrangelo

    Dave:
    Excellent piece on the Rascals, and glad to see you (or anyone) champion the much-neglected Robert McGowan. His earliest Our Gang talkies, such as Railroadin’, are unexpectedly sophisticated, especially in their use of sound.

    Have you heard anything about a possible release of the surviving Our Gang silents? As far as I know they’re not available.

  • James L. Neibaur

    I have seen The Cameraman with an audience on two different occasions (once with no soundtrack at all- – completely silent). The most recent time was just last year. On each occasion it got a sensational response from its audience. I have seen the much-maligned Harold Lloyd feature Hot Water get a similarly positive response with an audience. I attended one, and am aware of another, screening where the later Laurel and Hardy feature Great Guns was met with solid laughter and applause throughout. These are all considered weaker films from each respective comedian, but an audience often repsonds differently than our “learned” assessments.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    I was unaware that HOT WATER was ‘much maligned.” It may not be top-notch Lloyd but it includes at least two, maybe three brilliant sequences that are as good as anything he ever did.On the other hand it’s hard to imagine any audience enjoying GREAT GUNS “with solid laughter and applause throughout.” The French critic Roland Lacourbe, who wrote a fine book about L&H, called it their worst picture. However Bill Everson in his L&H book states that it was very well received in England during the war. Maybe it would have been well received in France too if we had been able to see American movies during the German occupation.

    Audiences have laughed till they peed in their collective pants watching both outstanding comedies and absolute trash. Laughter isn’t (although it should be) an accurate indication of comedy greatness. I place Keaton higher than anybody else in film comedy, but I have probably laughed harder and more often at other, less sublime stuff (Laurel and Hardy, or “The Odd Couple” on Television, to mention just a few examples). What does it mean? Anybody can laugh at someone slipping on a banana peel (in his first personal short way back in 1920 Keaton did a riff on that — not slipping is the first step of the gag — and claimed audiences didn’t get it. Today they do; let the psychologists tell us what that means.)

  • Sadly, I have to agree… It’s nice to hear an audience laughing at A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA or GREAT GUNS, but my personal reaction is “They’re laughing at the idea of these comics, not the product they’re watching. They should be watching DUCK SOUP and PARDON US.” To answer another question, Laughsmith — the company that did that wonderful collection of Fatty Arbuckle shorts — has been working on a silent Our Gang collection for 2 or 3 years now, and it promises to be wonderful. No release date yet, though.

  • jbryant

    I have literally never laughed harder in my life than I did at a screening of Hot Water at L.A.’s Silent Movie Theatre a few years ago. I howled until my face hurt. I was therefore surprised to later learn it isn’t universally considered to be top-tier Lloyd. While I don’t think I was delusional about its hilarity, I’m sure it helped that I was psyched to be seeing a Lloyd film on the big screen with an audience of fans and aficionados. Maybe we all drank the Kool-Aid a little bit. But as j-p says, there are some brilliant sequences in it.

  • James L. Neibaur

    I have read Hot Water referred to as a downright bad movie. Even Lloyd himself dismissed it as a failure. I have never read even marginal praise for it. Yet it gets more laughs than any other Lloyd film I have seen with an audience. Personally, I like it. I think the talent of Laurel and Hardy shines through their weaker material at Fox. And general audiences primed to laugh at a vintage old comedy will not likely stand up and shout “Stan did not have enough creative control” they will instead roar at Ollie having a crow stuffed into his pants. The Keaton Columbia shorts also are successful with an audience, but then so are the Three Stooges. But the Marx Brothers don’t seem to work, based on my experience. In just the past year, I have seen people sit stoned faced through Horse Feathers and walk out on A Day at the Races. Perhaps the Marxes aren’t going over as well right now? I can’t understand why that would be.

  • jbryant

    I wonder if perhaps the Marxes aren’t “likable” enough for contemporary audiences, who seem to prefer their comedies to be about schlubby “everymen.” Highly verbal smart-asses like Groucho tend to rise and fall in favor. The current hit “Role Models” seems like a promising transitional step backward, with star Paul Rudd as an everyman who’s also a highly verbal smart-ass.

    By the way, I’m not criticizing the Marx Brothers. I adore them.

  • James L. Neibaur

    I think your assessment is accurate, jbryant. These same audiences who were indifferent to the Marxes have roared merrily at Ma and Pa Kettle. But they also really liked W.C. Fields, and he was often irascible, but also played a put-upon everyman as well (e.g. It’s a Gift)

  • mike schlesinger

    Chase fared better at Columbia than Keaton did, because he (Chase) was more used to–and more comfortable–working in a studio environment. They may not be up to the Roaches, but many are excellent; we ran THE AWFUL GOOF at Cinecon this year to a most enthusiastic response.

  • James L. Neibaur

    I don’t think Chase made a bad picture at Columbia. I have seen a few Roach misfires, but none at Columbia (there are some I have not seen at all). The worst the Chase Columbias offer is fair. I am looking forward to the SONY set. The Columbia short comedies (Chase, Langdon, Andy Clyde, Hugh Herbert et. al.) are filled with some wonderful gems that will hopefully see DVD release soon.

  • After watching most of these Little Rascals/Our Gang adventures, I was surprised to find one of the earliest talkies — “Lazy Day” with Farina — was my favorite, especially the opening 10 minutes or so. This episode took some heat for racial stereotypes, but Farina could have been any lazy kid in charge. I reviewed the set on DVD Spin Doctor.

  • Very interesting and educational thread from some knowledgeable posterrs. Thanks! I love all of Hal Roach’s stuff that I have seen, especially his work with Harold Lloyd.

  • Nice Person

    Can someone identify an Our Gang episode that I saw on black and white TV about 40 years ago. In it was the gang in school the first thing in the the morning. The teacher was a dour, elderly and unsmiling lady. She obtained the classes attention by dinging a glass (I think) and led a rendition of something like “Good morning to you. Good morning to to you. We’re all in our places, with bright shining faces. Good morning to you. Good morning to you.” Suffice it to see, no bright shining face was in attendance. The scene broke me up. Years later, I would lead my kids in similar rendition on the rare occasions we all would have breakfast together. They are doing the same with their kids. I must obtain “THE SOURCE” of this family tradition. Can anyone help. Many thanks.

    kennethsk1@yahoo.com

    athe same