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 ceremony 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!"