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Our Gang  




Hal Roach, 1936.  Directed by Robert F. McGowan.  Camera:  Francis Corby.  With George "Spanky" McFarland, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas, Eugene "Porky" Lee, Darla Hood, Harold Switzer, Baby Patsy May, Jack Hatfield, Leonard Kibrick, Matty Roubert, Thomas Pogue, David Thursby, Billy Bletcher, Tom Dugan, Hubert Diltz, Jack Hill.

Taking advantage of a sunny spring day, Our Gang is out running riot over a golf course.  How they ever got onto the country club is a mystery, but they're there digging divots nonetheless.  No one has a care in the world, and life couldn't be sweeter.  Buckwheat's the caddy, carrying doubles for Darla and Spanky.  When Spanky's ladling spoon "club" won't help him whack his way out of a sand trap, he just picks up the ball and throws it toward the pin while no one's looking.  Walking to the green, resourceful Spanky carefully takes the cover off his putter—a long-handled hammer.  Porky is carrying Alfalfa's bag, and he's earnestly recording zeroes on his slate for each time Alfalfa fans on a swing from behind the sand bunker he's buried in.  Spraying sand like a snow blower, but not the least upset by it, Alfalfa finally lifts a lucky shot to the green, and gladly exchanges his pitching wedge (a shovel) for his putting iron (a billiard cue).  Chalking up and taking aim from a prone position, Alfalfa lags his putt a wee bit short, but cagey Porky guides the shot into the cup with a blast from his trusty bean shooter.

Meanwhile, back at the clubhouse, the caddies, protesting their low rates, walk off the course, leaving a desperate caddy master to scout up some substitutes for the next foursome anxious to tee off.  Anyone will do.  He settles for even less, rounding up the gang when one of Spanky's slicing drives upends the harried caddy master as he tries to cross the fairway.  These kids make an aggregation of bag toters like this unlucky foursome's never seen, and their unorthodox caddying turns the golfers' game into a frustrating shambles, all climaxed by a wild chase over the golf course's rolling hills when Jiggs, the gang's pet chimp, takes after the golfers in a runaway lawn-mowing tractor.  No one is safe in the chimp's path, including the gang, who lean on a fence at the crest of the hill, breaking it down and turning it into a sort of sled that whizzes them downhill, clearing the fairway of golfers and clubs alike, knocking them high into the air and leaving the dazed duffers sprawling in the sled's wake!

Busby Berkeley may have had his Gold Diggers, but Hal Roach scored a bull's eye casting his kids as Divot Diggers in this delightful short.  The last Our Gang picture directed by series mentor Bob McGowan, it's also one of his finest and most enduring efforts, a happy movie brimming with sight gags, carefree fun, heart, action, peppy background music—a film in which forty laughs to a reel is par.

Disarming in its simplicity, Divot Diggers is one of those ideal Our Gang comedies that succeeds on several levels.  It offers a broad base of identification, even for those who never caddied as a kid or played golf later on.  This is basic visual comedy, made doubly funny by frequent cutaways to close-up reactions of the gang.

In the film's opening scenes, there's vicarious adventure in the gang's efforts to fashion their own amusement.  Somehow, they're having great fun playing lousy golf all by themselves, and using makeshift implements ill-designed for the purpose.  Later, s the kids are recruited as inexpert bag toters, you can watch from a different (safe and superior) point of view, laughing at the golfers' abundant misfortune—because none of it is happening to you!

As one flustered golfer tees up and addresses the ball, Buckwheat's shoes squeak, Jiggs the Chimp starts thumbing his lips and sputtering unintelligibly, and Baby Patsy pops a balloon in the poor guy's ear during his backswing!  Another member of the group (character comedian Tom Dugan) finds that the monkey is his caddy.  On one hole, he wastes forty-six shots before sinking his putt, and when he finally does, the ball pops out of its hole, propelled by a frog resting underneath!  At this, Dugan goes berserk and breaks his putter over his knee.  Following his master's cue, Jiggs dutifully begins taking clubs from Dugan's bag and cracking them in two.

It's likely Dugan had a hand in writing Divot Diggers.  Listed as a scenarist on the Roach payroll, the Dublin-born actor also turned up in one of Charley Chase's golf-related pictures, Poker at Eight.  Other possible contributors to the gag fest:  Chase's brother James Parrott, prolific supporting comic Charlie Hall, famed circus clown Felix Adler, silent star Harry Langdon, John Guedel (later the producer of Groucho Marx's TV show), Carl Harbaugh (who coauthored some of Buster Keaton's silent masterpieces), Frank Butler (later to win an Oscar for Going My Way), and, by two reports, Frank Tashlin, at the outset of his career as a distinguished writer-director.  With all this gag-writing talent at Roach in 1936, no wonder Divot Diggers has such a high laugh quotient.

Golf was a particularly inspiring subject for the staff, growing out of an annual studio event explained by Hal Roach:  "Every year, more or less, we used to have a golf tournament at the studio, and everybody played, no matter how bad.  Now Babe (Oliver) Hardy and Bob McGowan and I used to play a bit of golf out at Lakeside [Country Club], but Hardy was the best golfer around, and he used to win the thing nearly every time and get the trophy.  We'd all play and have a good time.  Once in awhile someone'd get an idea for a picture from the thing.  One year it would be Charley Chase, another year Laurel & Hardy, or the gang, and so on."  The Chase outing is a particularly delightful one called All Teed Up (1930), co-starring Thelma Todd.

Adding to the fun of Divot Diggers is a lively incidental music score that enhances the film with its own rhythmic pacing.  Studio music cue sheets provide us with titles to some of these jaunty tunes:  "Cuckoo Waltz" (a Nathaniel Shilkret composition), "Buckwheat's March," "Alfalfa's March" (composed and orchestrated by Marvin Hatley), "Colonel Buckshot," "Miss Crabtree," "Sliding," "Slouching," "Dash and Dot," "Gangway Charley," "Riding Along," "On a Sunny Afternoon," "We're Out for Fun," and "Flivver Flops" (all written by LeRoy Shield).  Some of these were library themes, their names revealing their sources from earlier Hal Roach films (Colonel Buckshot was a character in the 1930 Laurel & Hardy film Another Fine Mess), while many of the compositions recorded for Divot Diggers were used as background scoring for concurrent reissue of the Laurel & Hardy comedy Brats, which had been musicless when first issued in 1930.

Astute Our Gang viewers will notice that Darla Hood has blond tresses in this short.  The reason is that her hair was bleached for her role in the Laurel & Hardy feature The Bohemian Girl.  Originally Darla had been cast to play Thelma Todd as a child; with Miss Todd wearing a dark wig, Darla was a perfect choice for the role.  The actress's death in early stages of production caused a hasty rewrite of the film and the grown up.  So...brunette Darla became a blonde, at Westmore's Beauty Salon in Hollywood, where she met Shirley Temple, the only time Darla crossed paths with the actress who had bid unsuccessfully for the Our Gang leading lady role.  Darla's natural hair coloring hadn't been restored when Divot Diggers started filming.

Of Laurel & Hardy, Darla recalled, "They were so marvelous, Hardy was a bit more serious, and reserved, but Laurel apparently just loved children, and he'd always pick me up, and hold me, play games.  I remember one time I wanted to sit and make mud pies, and he sat right down on the ground with me and helped me mold my mud pies!  After filming The Bohemian Girl, we'd take turns visiting each other's sets.  If the gang wasn't shooting, we could walk up real close and watch Laurel & Hardy, or anyone on the Roach lot, as long as we behaved ourselves, which we did now and then!  Of course the back lot there at Roach was the greatest playground any kid could ever have."

Darla had no clear recollection of Divot Diggers, but did have some clear observations on the series itself:  "Our films were based on the kinds of activities kids would normally be involved in anyway; the only thing is that the studio provided us with the sets, props, costumes, and everything else to go with it all.  For the longest time, I wasn't even aware that I was being photographed.  I was so young it was like living in a dream world, and I hardly remember the first few pictures I did, and I wasn't even aware that they were movies.  Even when I was making my screen test, they just kept telling me, well do this and that, and I thought I was sort of performing just for them.  I didn't understand what a motion picture camera was, or what it was doing in the way of recording my actions."

Spanky McFarland agrees, again pointing up the Our Gang comedies' unstudied quality.  "I was making pictures before my memory process started, and before I could walk.  It was the only way of life I knew.  For a long, long time I thought every kid grew up making pictures.  Before adolescence, I really didn't think too much about being in the movies.  I was actually eight or nine years old before I realized all kids weren't in the movies, and I never had any friends other than the gang.  It wasn't like a job—but it wasn't exactly like playing either."  (In late 1935, Collier's magazine asked Spanky his age.  "Six," he said.  And how long had he been working in motion pictures?  "Seven years," answered Spank.)

Bob McGowan and successor Gus Meins sometimes filmed the series in what amounted to a modified, supervised, "candid camera" technique.  Kids, like people, are most interesting when they don't know they're being watched.  Of course, Roach staffers didn't conceal their filmmaking equipment, but its presence was unstressed and its purpose downplayed as much as possible.  With proper direction, this method allowed the kids' true, ingratiating personalities to shine through on film essentially unadulterated.  It enabled McGowan to capture the unacted innocence that was Our Gang's hallmark; and it was precisely the loss of this feeling that made the later films in the series seem so contrived and heartless.

Hal Roach's fundamental theory of comedy is based on the innocence of children.  Ultimately and always we care about what we did as kids, what we would have liked to do, and what we still would do if we could recapture that youthful innocence.  Hal Roach maintains that the top comedians, from Charlie Chaplin right through to Bill Cosby, have always tried to capture that childlike feeling, and this is the basis of their great success.  Roach's Our Gang series used actual kids to communicate the same feeling; this is why it was so important that the youngsters in Our Gang come across as real kids—talented, personable kids just being themselves.

An interesting parallel between Divot Diggers and real life (some years later) involves Spanky, who in the film boasts that he shot a seventy-four.  "Seventy-four strokes for eighteen holes?"  "No!" says Spank.  "That was just for the first hole.  But I cut it down to sixty-four for the second."  Well, over the years his golfing improved considerably, and since 1971 he has hosted the annual Spanky McFarland Celebrity Golf Classic in Marion, Indiana, attended by sports and entertainment luminaries ranging from baseball great Bob Feller to bunnies from Playboy magazine.  Entrants have also included pals Jackie Coogan and Stymie Beard, who in 1973 characterized Spank as "still the same, always in charge, doing everything for everybody, running around saying 'Just relax, let me do it for you.'"  Tournament proceeds are distributed to charities.

Interlude:  Director's Swan Song.  More than two years back, kindly "Uncle Bob" McGowan (as his press notices called him) had relinquished his lengthy affiliation with Our Gang. At the time he was tired, ill, but financially secure at age fifty-one, and wanted to engage in other, less strenuous projects.  He remained at his home studio for a time, and between relaxing at the Masquers' Club and Lakeside Golf Club, he managed to find time to direct a funny Hal Roach All Star comedy, Crook's Tour, and contributed gags to Laurel & Hardy's Babes in Toyland.  Then he accepted a position with Paramount, writing, producing, and directing some generally undistinguished features and shorts, including some one-reel kid comedies featuring W.C. Fields' nemesis, Baby LeRoy.  One of these was called Babes in Hollywood.

Accounting for the director's return to Our Gang in 1936, the Divot Diggers pressbook dubiously quotes McGowan as bemoaning, "I just couldn't stand being away from the kids any longer.  I couldn't have missed members of my own immediate family more than I missed the gang.  After working with youngsters for twelve years it seemed strange to be telling adults what to do and when to do it.  As a matter of fact, every once in awhile, I would catch myself mumbling baby talk to some big lumbering actor, so I thought it was time to quit and return to my first and only real love."  If true, why was this film McGowan's last Our Gang assignment?  The answer is unclear.

Increasingly studio-bound under the direction of Gus Meins, the gang was brought back outdoors by McGowan for Divot Diggers.  It's easy to admire his tight, tidy direction—there's hardly a wasted moment in the film—showing that McGowan's skills had not atrophied.  What's most striking is that Divot Diggers doesn't overlap with any other known McGowan work, and boasts some original touches besides, all serving to indicate that he'd recharged his batteries for a fresh start.  More's the pity he didn't continue his association with the gang at this point.

He worked infrequently after 1936.  Hal Roach recalls that "after Bob left us he did practically nothing.  He was just worn out."  McGowan's inactivity probably explains why he didn't mind when his (less talented) nephew Anthony Mack used the name Robert A. McGowan to write the new series of Our Gang comedies over at MGM.

Later, together with other Roach graduates like Fred Guiol and Bebe Daniels, McGowan did return to Roach off and on in the 1940s to help produce feature films and those awkward "streamliners" for the studio, including two mediocre Our Gang-derivative features in color:  Curley (1947), also known as The Hal Roach Comedy Carnival, and Who Killed "Doc" Robbin (1948).

In 1952, McGowan, cameraman Art Lloyd, and grown Our Gangers Mickey Daniels, Jackie Condon, Farina Hoskins, Joe Cobb, and Johnny Downs were reunited for a poorly staged episode of Art Baker's television program You Asked for It.  A slapdash affair, it didn't begin to exploit the possibilities of an Our Gang reunion, but was a nostalgic treat nonetheless.

Three years later, in 1955, McGowan died of cancer in Santa Monica, at age seventy-two.

Hal Roach remembers Bob McGowan as "a very delightful kind of guy to know and be with.  I made a vacation trip to Europe with him once, and we had loads of fun.  Bob had a great sense of humor.  He always called me 'Boss.'  After each picture he'd come up and say, 'Well, Boss, what do we do next?'  Box was always a top director, head and shoulders above most others in the business.  He was great on the silent pictures, and when sound came in he had trouble for awhile because he couldn't talk to the kids off-scene while he was directing.  It was tough on him, but he adjusted.  Overall, though others like Gus Meins and Gordon Douglas were very talented, I'd have to say Bob was the best director the gang ever had."

The Little Rascals
by Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann
Crown Trade Paperbacks, New York 1992