The first of three rare silent Hal Roach Presents His Rascals two-reelers included in this 8-disc set of talkies opens with Pete, the gang’s pit bull mascot, sticking his head into a noose and trying to hang himself over his master’s new loyalty to a girl instead of to him. A page of the set’s accompanying booklet highlights the tragic and sometimes uncommonly early deaths of nearly a dozen of the child stars that were part of the Our Gang series as children. Indeed, there is a knowing and slightly darker comedic energy to many of the MGM shorts about pre-teen urchins knocking about Culver City produced from 1922 to the late 1930’s. Although sweetness and affability, typified by “leading man” Alfalfa and “leading lady” Darla had taken over in the last few years, the notion of children experiencing adult-style woes and being wise beyond their years (enough to create all manner of industriously-designed machines and full-on Vaudevillian talent shows) grew out of a tougher street sense; it is this which imbues much of The Little Rascals, The Complete Collection with equal parts belly laughs (at the sheer joy of watching the impossibly adorable child actors) and primal release (at the raw inventiveness of it all).
Lovingly assembled and remastered, and with enough bonus materials to make a good case for the genuine artistry contained in their execution, the 80 short subject films contained here provide frequently irresistible and often compelling viewing. The chronology begins with 1929’s Small Talk, the first Our Gang talkie following seven years of phenomenal popularity in the silent era, and ends with Canned Fishing from 1938, in which Spanky and Alfalfa (familiar to generations of boomers who caught the repackaged shorts on UHF TV stations in the 1960’s) are just starting to get “old” by Rascals standards. After this point, MGM took over the series from Hal Roach and, according to the several enthusiastic and knowledgeable historians interviewed in the extras and on commentary tracks (of selected episodes), the magic never really came back. That magic is especially in evidence during the long stretch of films directed by Robert McGowan, who clearly had an uncanny knack for getting great performances out of his ever-evolving cast. Kudos to Genius Entertainment for including three silent versions on the bonus disc. This addition really helps chart the arc of the series, and, combined with the knowledgeable input from authors on the subject and some of the surviving child actors, gives a sense of well-deserved importance to the experience of taking in this delightful chunk of film history.
In fact, one of the highlights of the extras is a series of full-length interviews with now aging cast members from the series. Their candor about their experiences (Jean Darling, an early Our Gang femme fatale, is not shy about referring to her child-star self as a horrible “wretch,” and Jerry Tucker reveals a touching anecdote about keeping his past as a “Rascal” from the men he fought alongside during World War II) makes these talking heads segments well worth a look. A short doc about racism in Our Gang makes the case that Roach’s integrated playtime and classrooms broke down barriers—and while this is true (the entire series sprung up around an African-American child actor, and in the talkies Farina, Stymie and Buckwheat provide a generous portion of truly transcendent humor), there are several scenes included in this collection that demonstrate an over-reliance on, shall we say, certain stereotypes of the day. Whether or not this can be forgiven is up to the individual viewer. For this reviewer, these concerns are outpaced by the sheer dynamism of what is happening on screen among these pint-sized ne’er-do-wells.
And some of what is achieved--through the confluence of unaffected performances, many, many exterior locations that really open up the action and the unadulterated newness of what was being created at the time—represents something lasting and, in many ways, still unequaled. Especially under McGowan’s direction (later directors such as Gus Meins and Gordon Douglas retained the charm, but streamlined the approach, losing the rough—and often quite experimental—beauty that McGowan achieved), performers like heavyset Joe Cobb, the aforementioned Farina Hoskins, Jackie Cooper, the tiny Spanky, and, notably, Mary Ann Jackson, a spunky almost-Tomboy who brightens up many a scene (and can even induce a tear when she agonizes over losing her “little brother” when he is adopted from the gang’s orphanage before she is) really provide a strong connection for an audience. And let us not forget Pete the Pup, who is responsible for far more heartfelt laughter than an animal-doing-silly-things should be capable of inducing in an adult.
Many of the shorts feature the kids wreaking havoc in high society, but the best, most watchable work in this collection involves the minor diversions that Hal Roach’s Rascals experience as they go about their day. The great charm of the series is the fly-on-the-wall fantasy it affords us. These are the gritty childhood adventures we all wish we could have had, and we watch them now seeing ourselves in the halting, entirely un-self conscious performances, the make-do-with-what-we-have energy and the open-mouthed, wide-eyed double takes.
The Little Rascals, The Complete Collection gives a remarkable and enchanting genre from early Hollywood its due.
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