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Our Gang  

 

ARBOR DAY

 

MGM Hal Roach, 1936.  Directed by Fred Newmeyer.  Camera:  Milton Krasner.  With George "Spanky" McFarland, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, Darla Hood, Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas, John Collum, Harold Switzer, Olive Brasno, George Brasno, Hattie McDaniel, Maurice Cass, George Guhl, Mary Wallace, Kahtryn Sheldon, Rosina Lawrence, Dick Rush, Rolfe Sedan, Bobby Dunn.

Two sideshow midgets find that the only way they can get some time off is to fool their boss, dress as children, and run away...but Smithers, the hardworking truant officer, thinks they are kids playing hooky and carts them off to school, where they sit through an Arbor Day pageant begrudgingly performed by the gang, and then volunteer to contribute a song.  When the song evolves into a vaudeville shimmy number, the principal calls a halt ("Positively shocking!"), just as the sideshow owner turns up and explains that the "children" are really midgets.  Smithers if fired and the midgets are escorted back to their sideshow.

Not uproarious, but subtly funny, Arbor Day is an engaging piece of fluff built around a school pageant.  What makes it unusual, especially for this period of Our Gang films, is that the pageant looks real, complete with "original" lyrics and music by one of the teachers, choreography, costumes, and a general aura of amateurishness that makes it most disarming.  Fred Newmeyer, who made the overly studied The Pinch Singer earlier in 1936, swung to the other extreme with this entry and landed right on target.

In fact, the performance is so vividly evocative of school plays we have all experienced that one would almost bet that the Hal roach writers cribbed this entire sequence from a bona fide grade-school pageant.  First there is a tree-planting ceremony, with Spanky reluctantly speaking the words:  "Men may come and men may go/but I have heard them say/Big oaks from little acorns grow/So we have Arbor Day."  Then there is a song-and-dance recital, with the girls dressed as the spirit of Mother Nature, and the boys as "sturdy oaks...really hardy blokes."

When the time comes for Buckwheat to deliver his one line, he stammers and looks out to his mother in the audience, who loudly prompts him, "With plow and spade, the hole is made."  Happy his mother knew the line, Buckwheat applauds and exudes, "Yep! at's it!"

Later, when Spanky, as a woodsman threatens to cut down a tree, Alfalfa stops him and explains why he must cherish the oak, by singing Joyce Kilmer's "Trees," in what has to rate as the poem's all-time worst rendition.  Even this is acknowledged within the film; as Alfalfa garbles the words and strains for the high notes of the song, truant officer Smithers starts to doze off, and Spanky shakes his head in weary disgust, while the emotional teacher in charge of the play finds tears in her eyes.

The entire cermony is framed by the wordy eloquence of school principal Maurice Cass, a character actor who was born to play headmasters and orchestra conductors, which is precisely what he did for nearly thirty years in Hollywood.  His dowdy speech-making is perfectly attuned to the atmosphere of the school pageant.  "If I may be permitted to be facetious," he declares coyly at the end of his long-winded recitation, "On with the danceólet joy be unconfined!"

George and Olive Brasno, who were ideally cast as pint-sized replicas of the young adult couple in Shrimps for a Day, return as worldly-wise sideshow midgets, which they actually were, performing between film jobs in Buster Shaver's vaudeville act.  The diminutive twosome was engaged for Arbor Day at fifteen hundred per week, no little sum.  The film's only disappointment is that when the Brasnos finally do their number, they get through just a few lines (which aren't easily intelligible) before Principal Cass cuts them off.  It would have been fun to see their whole act, and we are anticipating just that at this point in the film.  No wonder George calls as he's being carried away, "Come over and see a good show some time!"

The Little Rascals
The Life and Times of Our Gang
by Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann
Crown Trade Paperbacks, New York, 1992