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Our Gang  




MGM, 1929.  Directed by Robert McGowan.  Camera:  Art Lloyd.  With Jackie Cooper, Donald "Speck" Haines, Mary Ann Jackson, Norman "Chubby" Chaney, Allen "Farina" Hoskins, Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins, Edgar Kennedy, Otto Fries, Joy Winthrop, Emma Reed.

Jackie has eyes for Mary Ann, but doesn't know how to go about acquiring a "wife."  Officer Kennedy first advises Jack to try the caveman approach, but Mary Ann turns the tables and beats him up.  Then Kennedy suggests that Jackie wash himself, dress up nice, and bring her candy.  Just as he's carrying out this plan, a rival enters the picture.  Jackie accuses Speck of stealing his girl, and when they square off, Mary Ann interrupts and insists that if they must fight, it should be a duel, just like the storybook she's been reading.  The two combatants retire to practice their swordplay, and despite Jackie's fervent attempts to call off the duel, it's soon under way.  The swordsmen slash everything in sight (car tires, laundry, barn doors, innocent bystanders) except each other, and finally, Jackie announces that they're going to finish the fight like men—with their fists.  Here, Jackie literally has the upper hand, and after a strong sock on the nose, his opponent gives in.  When Mary Ann confesses that she always liked Jackie best, Speck punches her in the face!  This starts Jack on a rampage, and causes Speck to call for help from his pop, who tries to break up the fight.  Meanwhile, Jackie's spry old granny has been watching, and comes leaping to the rescue to teach the interfering father a thing or two.  She pops him in the nose, and gives him a few swift kicks, to the rousing cheers of the gang.

The First Seven Years is the first real "winner" of the sound era, a delightful short that works in every respect, and shows some evidence that the Roach production team was getting the knack of making talkies.  The intercutting of silent and sound footage is barely noticeable here, and the use of sound effects (particularly the sound of sheets ripping, in the final duel) is fairly convincing.  The only element still missing is music, both for the beginning and end titles, and as background accompaniment during the film.  However, this short is so full of action and dialogue that the absence of a music score doesn't seem so acute.

The First Seven Years explores the age-old situation of two boys competing for the affections of one girl, with a variety of insightful touches to make it seem vividly real, a page out of anyone's childhood.

While Jackie pulls petals off a daisy, reciting, "She loves me...she loves me not," and making eyes at Mary Ann, the young girl pretends to be disinterested, sitting by herself and reading her books.  When she overhears Officer Kennedy pitching the caveman idea to Jackie, she rejects the idea of being a piece of property to be acquired so easily, and decides to beat up her predator.  When Speck tries a more direct approach, telling her, "Hey, you're a pretty neat lookin' chick," she spurns his advances, claiming, "I wouldn't marry any man."  Yet when the possibility of a fight develops, Mary Ann changes her tune, and enthusiastically agrees to allow the boys to duel over her, dressing herself as a Fairy Princess to make the whole storybook situation come to life.

As for Jackie, he's too shy to take a blunt approach to love, except when Kennedy eggs him on.  He's much more amenable to the idea of bringing her candy and acting polite, although he feels some obligation as a red-blooded young boy to object at first to washing his neck and ears just for a "dame."  When it comes to dueling, Jackie feels that discretion is the better part of valor—or more simply, that if winning Mary Ann means getting himself killed, he'll do without Mary Ann.

The First Seven Years gives us other nice glimpses into the world of childhood.  At first, Jackie is ready to pick a fight with Speck, but when the rival accepts his challenge, he hedges by protesting that Speck is 9 and he's only 8.  He enlists a reluctant Chubby to report the fight to Officer Kennedy by reminding him that they signed their names together in blood to be pals forever.

Best of all, when Jackie resigns himself to the fact that he's going to die in the upcoming duel, Wheezer asks, "If you're gonna get killed, can I have that knife?"  Jackie hands over his pocket knife, but warns that if the outcome is different, he'll want it back.  When the fight is over, he turns to Wheezer and demands the knife, declaring, "I didn't get killed."  "Aw gee," moans Wheezer, "I never get a break!"

Adults play an interesting role in the doings of this film.  Kennedy the Cop apparently has nothing more pressing on his mind than to stroll around the neighborhood and keep an eye on the kids.  He's happy to offer his advice to Jackie on winning a girl, but when the caveman idea goes awry, he has to turn away to keep Jackie from seeing his laughter at the resultant debacle.

When Jackie's mother sees him washing and preparing to dress in his good suit, she asks why, and he explains that he's dressing up to see his girl.  "Well, you can see your girl in your play clothes," she says firmly.  "This suit is for Sundays."  Parents just don't understand these things.  Later, in a final, desperate attempt to avoid the duel, Jack calls to his mother to see if there are any errands she wants him to do.  "No, dear," she answers.  "Mother doesn't need you now.  You just continue playing and have a good time."  It's no use.  Luckily, Granny is a bit more on the ball, providing Jackie with a Sunday suit his father wore years ago, and later coming to his aid when Speck's father steps into the fight.

The key to success in The First Seven Years, aside from Bob McGowan's surefooted direction and expert job of editing and sound recording, is the performances of the kids, who make every line of dialogue, every action, seem real and spontaneous.  From Mary Ann's diffidence and elaborate comic "takes" when she's accidentally struck by a sword, to Speck's final whimpering for his pop, these superb young actors create real-life characters who win our sympathy, our identification, and our laughter.

Even more remarkable is the fact that these kids repeated their roles in foreign language versions of the same short, learning to speak the Spanish, French, and German dialogue phonetically!  With the advent of sound, Hollywood studios saw themselves losing their vast export trade; Hal Roach, for one, had always made the largest share of his profits from the higher rentals and volume abroad.  Foreign distribution of silent films had been a simple matter of translating and reshooting the titles, but talkies couldn't even be dubbed at this time.

Faced with a major loss of income, coupled with the 20 percent increment talkies added to production costs, Roach and other producers solved the problem temporarily by hiring language tutors to coach their stars through as many as four separate foreign editions of each film.  Highly impractical today, the idea made sense at the time, since Hal Roach comedies weren't talk fests, and blackboards with phonetic dialogue could be placed out of camera range to prompt the stars.  Foreign actors were engaged for the incidental roles and helped carry the body of expository dialogue.

Roach explained in 1929, "The principals speak on a word or two anyway, and the best part of a comedy is always a matter of pantomime—actions and expressions.  Besides, if they mumble a couple of words in broken lingo it's usually amusing."  Each scene was shot first in English, and then immediately afterward in French, Spanish, German, and sometimes Italian.  This was an impressive feat for adult performs like Laurel & Hardy, but for the children of Our Gang who were still learning to read and write in English, it is nothing less than astounding.  But then, so were the kids.

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