Over a period of 2 decades, The Our Gang Comedies assembled a legion of America’s most talented children, and laid hundreds of short films to print. A few of these child stars had successful careers afterwards, but most fell into obscurity. And then, some of the series’ biggest stars suffered a series of tragedies so bizarre that an “Our Gang Curse” was long thought to plague them. That may up for dispute, but the fact is that these timeless short subjects, a staple of the airwaves in my formative years, are barely shown on television today.
Early film pioneer Hal Roach opened his Los Angeles studios in 1914. His skill as a filmmaker was quickly apparent, and his eye for unknown talent was even better. During the first 10 years of the studio, he found and developed legendary film stars Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and even Will Rogers. He also started the careers of Fay Wray, Jean Harlow, and Frank Capra along the way. Many of these early Roach films are still highly sought after, but he is most famous for the series he started in 1922.
Even in the 1920s, getting funding for short subject films was not easy, being considered high risk and low reward financially, but Roach believed in his idea. After months of hard work finding the actors, and scavenging for money, the first short subject film by the “Hal Roach Rascals” was released November 5, 1922. Its title was simply “Our Gang”, and its story centered on a gang of misfit kids trying to stop a heartless businessman bankrupting the nice old widow and her corner store. The cast, the original Rascals, was apparently Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, Jackie Condon, Peggy Cartwright, Monty O’Grady, and possible also featured Winston Doty and Dinah the Mule. The reason for my speculation is that no one is sure, as sadly, there are known prints or copies of this landmark silent film. By all accounts, it was, nothing special, but garnered enough interest that Roach commissioned more films featuring the “Our Gang” kids. These first generations of the Rascals were silent films from 1922-29 and featured the above-named players and also included early stars Allen “Farina” Hoskins, Mary Kornman, Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins, Joe Cobb, and Jean Darling.
The success was obvious, but not staggering at first. Fan interest steadily climbed over the first few years and peaked in mid 1930s, during what I call “The Spanky Crescendo”. By this point, the stars of the series were as popular as any Hollywood feature film actor. The Gang is often compared to their contemporaries of the time, such as the Baby Burlesks series which introduced Shirley Temple, the Buster Brown shorts, who sold Pete the Pump to Hal Roach, and of course, the Mickey McGuire films, famous for their star, Mickey Rooney. While the similarities are obvious, comparing their cultural impact, popularity, or importance is laughable. Speaking of cultural impact, let’s address the elephant in the room. I speak of course of race. As a different era in film, some things were done or said that we can’t imagine today, however, had the big studios had their way, there would have been no African-American, Italian, or Irish kids cast, which was commonplace at the time. Hal Roach was considered, at the time, a radical guy for his open views on ethnic, sexual, and racial equality. He developed the series with a hope of the Gang’s kids all being best friends, classmates, and yes, equals. None of those things were regularly found in America in the 1920s. Of the 221 films produced, you cannot today purchase (through traditional outlets) all of the films, with about 40 of them being held from broadcast or sale for racial insensitivity. On a side note, the rumor that the franchise was purchased by Bill Cosby to ensure that those films wouldn’t be shown is false.
And finally, one of the biggest confusions of the series is, in fact, its name. All 221 films are of “Our Gang”, and early title cards read “Hal Roach Studios present Our Gang”. Later, when the kids would do celebrity tours, they would be billed as “Hal Roach’s Rascals”. In the 1950s, MGM created a package of 80 shorts for television, and replaced many title cards from when Hal Roach Studios had owned the films. Allegedly, to avoid copyright issues, the series was renamed “The Little Rascals” and released to early television across America, where new generations of children (myself included) would come to love them. However, some of the film title cards remain listed as “Our Gang”, so go figure.
The biggest star of Hal Roach’s Silent Era was undoubtedly Allen “Farina” Hoskins. Having appeared in 105 of the 221 Our Gang shorts, Hoskins holds the record for most film appearances, but was released by MGM at age 11. Often in his younger years he was dressed as a girl when it was required. In 1938, his name came up on a register and Hoskins was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) due to his alleged Socialist Party ties. After he was cleared, he joined the Army and served 5 years in World War II. From 1955 to his death in 1980, Allen ran Physical and Mental Rehabilitation Workshops in California. He was the 7th person inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975, but stated he deserved to be there as a healer, not because of “Farina”.
One of the most beloved stars of the series may have been Pete the Pup, who made his debut in 1923?s The Cobbler. He was actually already a star called “Tige” from the Buster Brown series when Roach bought the dog whose real name was “Pal”. Roach didn’t like the infamous ring around his eye and tried to have it removed, only to find it had been died on to the American Staffordshire Terrier by famed cosmetologist Max Factor. In 1930, “Pal” was poisoned by an unknown sicko, and he was replaced by one of his puppies, named (not surprisingly) “Pete”. This dog, named “Lucernay’s Peter”, after his owner and trainer, Harry Lucernay, is the Pete most people are familiar with. The most famous canine in the world, Pete was allegedly the first member of the breed to be registered when the American Kennel Club recognized it in 1935. Petey’s last film was 1938s Party Fever, and then he was retired to Atlantic City where people paid a $2.00 a piece (a hefty sum at that time) for a picture with the iconic dog. He died in 1946 at age 17.
Norman “Chubby” Chaney made his debut in 1929?s Railroadin’. He stood only 3 feet, 11 inches tall, and weighed a staggering 113 pounds. Contrary to popular belief, he was in no way related to horror star Lon Chaney, Jr. “Chubby” appeared in 18 films over 2 years before leaving the series. Over the next few years, his weight ballooned to 300 pounds due to a glandular condition. He would get his weight down to 136 before he died at age 21 in 1936, the first cast member to pass, and the only to die during the series’ production.
The 3rd release of 1929, Boxing Gloves, saw the addition of one of the series’ most enduring celebrities, when a young Jackie Cooper was hired as the new tough kid. While he appears in only 15 Rascals pictures, his film and television career would span the next 6 decades. He is most remembered today as Daily Planet editor Perry White in 1976?s Superman. Along with George “Spanky” McFarland, he is one of only 2 Rascals to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 1930, Matthew “Stymie” Beard would first appear in one of my favorite films, Teacher’s Pet. He was Hal Roach’s hand-picked successor to Albert “Farina” Hoskins who was getting too old to be in the series. He was in fact never screen-tested, showing up to the tryout, walking center stage and smiling. Roach gave him a 5 year contract on the spot, no questions asked. Always in his trademark bowler’s hat, he starred in 36 films. His 2 younger sisters, brother, and his mother in fact, all had limited appearances in Our Gang films. After he left the series at age 10, he had a few minor roles in films, and then fell into drug use, becoming addicted to heroin. He kicked the habit in 1960 and lived an uneventful life until his death from a stroke in 1981. He was buried with his trademark bowler hat.
George “Spanky” McFarland first joined the Gang in 1932 in a short called (not surprisingly) Spanky. He was only 3 years old, and became an instant celebrity, quickly becoming the face of a franchise that was 7 years older than he was. Over the next 11 years, he appeared in 95 shorts, and the only full length feature about the Gang, 1936?s General Spanky. He left the series in 1942 at age 14. Like many child stars, he had trouble finding work in Hollywood after his long run with the Rascals. In 1950, he hosted a television series, The Spanky Show in Tulsa, Oklahoma until he quit in 1960 over creative differences. He worked numerous odd jobs over the years and hosted a charity golf tournament for nearly 2 decades. He made his final appearance as himself in the cold open of the Cheers episode “Woody Gets an Election” in 1993. He died of cardiac arrest in June 1993. In January 1994, he joined Jackie Cooper when he had a star placed on The Hollywood Walk of Fame. Beloved by fans, he is still regarded as “The Rascal”.
Around the same time Spanky joined the Gang, so did Tommy Bond. “Tommy” did 13 films over 2 years and then was let go. He left the business and returned to public school. In 1936, Hal Roach called Tommy and his parents and asked him if he would like a new deal. He returned to the Gang as tough kid “Butch”, the arch-nemesis of Alfalfa (Carl Switzer). He appeared in 14 more films in this role, and then aged out. After serving in the Navy in World War II, he portrayed Jimmy Olsen in 2 Superman films; 1948s Superman and Atom Man vs Superman in 1950. He worked steadily throughout his life, appearing 73 total films and working behind the scenes in television until 1991.
As much as Hal Roach loved “Stymie”, he was aging out by 1934. He discovered Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas at local tryout in LA. Over the first 1 1/2 years, he was portrayed similar to “Farina”, being dressed in a “pickaninny” stereotypical style. When “Stymie” Beard left the series, “Buckwheat” began to get more speaking roles and working as a more central part of the Gang. During his early years, he was often paired with Eugene “Porky” Lee, and the twosome would often outsmart the older kids. About the same age, and both suffering from speech impediments, the two were inseparable, on and off set. As he grew older and his speech improved, his character became that of a typical African-American child. In nearly 10 years, he appeared in 92 of the Our Gang films, remaining through the series end in 1944. He never acted again, but having put 10% of every dollar he had every earned into US Savings Bonds, he was in good shape financially. He served a stint in the Army during the start of The Korean War, and then returned home. Over the years he was very close to his former co-stars, in particular “Spanky”, “Porky”, and “Stymie”. He passed away from a heart attack in 1980, 46 years to the day that he signed with Hal Roach. The next year, Eddie Murphy began a popular impression of “Buckwheat” on Saturday Night Live. Murphy states he was shocked when George “Spanky” McFarland called and chastised him for it, stating it insulted the memory of his friend and was a negative image for African-Americans in the 1980s after all they had fought to achieve.
No Our Gang member may be better known or more beloved than Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer. His unique looks and cracking voice, along with his natural comedic timing made him a major celebrity, rivaling, and perhaps exceeding “Spanky” in popularity at times. This caused a rift between the boys’ paren ts in particular, who argued relentlessly over screen time and money. “Alfalfa” wasn’t close to most of the cast, in fact, his best friend was Tommy Bond, who played his foil, “Butch”. “We never fought because we needed each other”, Bond remembered in a late interview, but admitted Switzer was notorious on set as a being a practical joker, argumentative, and generally just hard to deal with. Starring in 61 shorts, he left the series in 1940, turning to other movie and television work over the next 15 years. He also raised hunting dogs, and in 1959, over a disagreement over a $50 payment for a lost dog, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer was murdered by gunshot in the Mission Hills, California home of Bud Stiltz. The details are sketchy, but legally it was ruled “justifiable homicide”, although an interview with Stiltz’s son stated it was “just murder”.
Darla Hood is my personal favorite Rascal. She was signed in New York City in 1935 and appeared in 50 shorts over 6 years. Hood was a talented singer, dancer, and actress, with a gift so natural, it appeared effortless. Easily the most popular girl in the series’ history, she gained national celebrity almost immediately after her first appearance in 1935. Her coquettish Darla will always be remembered as the love interest of “Alfalfa”, “Butch”, or the bookish “Waldo”. However, her most timeless rendition of “I’m in the Mood for Love” in 1936?s The Pinch Singer, at age 5 is amazingly hard to forget. Darla stated that while her character had eyes for “Alfalfa”, her crush was always “Spanky” whom she regarded as one of the sweetest people she had ever met. She left the series in 1941 and worked on Broadway and recorded a number of albums with limited commercial success. Darla worked various television spots and did voice work for commercials (notably Campbell’s Soup and Chicken of the Sea) in the 50s and 60s. She then returned to singing in nightclubs, headlining at the Copacabana Club in New York and the Sahara Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. She died in June 1979 from complications during a routine appendectomy, she was 47.
Michael James Vijencio joined the Rascals in 1939. “Mickey” replaced “Porky” as the cute kid in oversized clothes. He was often asked to cry on camera and was frequently chastised for being unconvincing. Like Carl Switzer, he was a bit of a brat onstage and many costars found him “whiny”. Yet for all his issues, he appeared in 40 Our Gang shorts. In 1942, “Mickey” was given a last name, Blake. Michael soon took the stage name Bobby Blake. After the series ended in 1944, he did film work for MGM for a few years, and joined the Army. In 1956, he took several theater courses and appeared for the first time under his new stage name, Robert Blake. Over the next 2 decades he did numerous television and film roles until landing the part that is most remembered for, his Emmy award turn as Tony Baretta on Baretta from 1975-78. After its’ cancellation, he did sporadic television work over the next 15 years. In 2002, he was arrested for an alleged connection in the murder of his wife. The trial lasted over 2 years, but Blake was acquitted in 2005. In a number of civil cases from 2007-11, Blake was ordered to pay a reduced sum of $15 million in restitution in a wrongful death suit filed by his wife’s family, he has since filed bankruptcy.
The last subject I want to mention is William “Froggy” Laughlin, who joined the cast in 1941, remaining until the series ended in 1944. An unconventional looking young boy, he learned to do impressions to entertain his classmates, eventually doing Popeye so well he was offered a role in Our Gang based on it. After the series end, he tried some limited acting but got little interest from studios. He relented and returned to high school. He was killed on the way to school when his bicycle was struck by a truck in 1948; he was 16, the youngest cast member to die.
Ok…so that’s it, a brief (sort of) review of my beloved Rascals. I could go on and on, and maybe I can write something else focusing on specific films if there is interest. Maybe you are interested in a certain character and what became of them, just ask, I am a treasure trove of knowledge on this subject. I’d love your input, thanks for reading.