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Our Gang  




Hal Roach, 1934.  Directed by Gus Meins.  Camera:  Art Lloyd.   With George "Spanky" McFarland, Scotty Beckett, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, Jerry Tucker, Marylin Bourne, Gilbert Hullett, Paul Rodriguez, and Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas, Claudia Dell, Joe Young, Billy Bletcher, Tex Madsen.

At breakfast one morning, Spanky's Dad relates a newspaper story of long-lost pirates' treasure having just been salvaged along the California coast.  So the adventuresome gang sets out to discover buried riches of their own, despite orders from Spanky's mother that he not leave his room for disobeying her.  They happen upon an eerie darkened cave that promises mystery, and the wide-eyed youngsters explore its deepest reaches, finally stumbling into a fabulous subterranean room filled with towering furniture and enormous footprints large enough to be buried in.  Most intriguing is a gigantic chest, and when Stymie climbs up to flip the lock open, millions of gold coins, rubies, diamond-studded crowns, and other gleaming jewels gush out like waters unleashed from a dam, flowing about the room till the kids are literally swimming through glittering wealth.

Reveling in their merry triumph, Spanky shouts, "Well, men, should we take it all?!"  Weighed down with dripping treasure and glory, as they wobble and clank back toward the room's secret entrance, their glee is checked, their muscles tensed by the approaching deep bass voice sounds of an awesome-looking medieval giant; it's his cavern domicile they've just disrupted.  With wickedly resounding growls, the huge beastlike creature finds the tiny children easy prey, and sets out to capture the appetizing intruders and hang them on meat hooks, one by one.  Blanching in fright as the others are captured, Spanky is scampering from his doom when he's awakened from his predicament by the gang's cries outside his window-they're anxious to go to the cave.  Bewildered, Spanky realizes the whole thing has been a horrible nightmare.

Wonderful and wonder-filled, Mama's Little Pirate is one of the most unusual and disarming of all Our Gang shorts, a minor classic of the comedy-thrills genre, and a film whose surrealism leaves one lost in admiration.

Beautifully constructed, a mix of comedy and ominous anticipation carries the film's first reel, serving as essential build-up for the fantasy and (unrelieved) suspense one knows is surely coming.

The charming breakfast-table scene at the film's outset wastes little time propelling the story forward, but tosses off a nice quota of gags, too.  As Spanky listens open- mouthed to his father's newspaper story, he heaps teaspoon after teaspoon of sugar on his oatmeal.  Finally realizing what he's done, Spank furtively pours the whole mess into Pop's empty bowl, announces he's finished, and scoots under the table and out the door-anxious to be after the treasure.  "That boy's a whirlwind when he gets going," Pop says, as he digs into his oatmeal, stopping short with a sudden sour look.

As a boy, Hal Roach knew Mark Twain.  He and his staff did conceive ideas for Our Gang films from actual newspaper stories, and some newsworthy event could have inspired Mama's Little Pirate, just as depicted in the opening sequence.  But Our Gang films sometimes also show signs of an unconscious patterning after Mark Twain's literary boyhood characterizations, and one can't help but recall The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the chapter that begins, "There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure."

And so he does.

Still, angled a third way, the concept for Mama's Little Pirate could have been suggested by the pure fantasy of Laurel & Hardy's concurrent Babes in Toyland (also directed by Gus Meins).  Even if not, the studio-created cave sets certainly are those used in Babes in Toyland, having been the underground dominion of sinister "Barnaby " (Henry Brandon) and his army of Bogey-Men.

Coincidentally, Brandon would resurrect his Barnaby characterization for Our Gang Follies of 1938, another imaginative film again employing the dream contrivance as the pretext for extraordinary fantasizing.

The fantasizing in Mama's Little Pirate is abetted by some ingenious double-exposure photography.  (There are lots of costly optical transition wipes, too, adding to the technical polish.)  Told to stay in his room ("Aw, a fellah cain't do nothin''), Spanky's devilish alter ego comes to life and stands next to him arguing that mothers don't know anything about caves, and "If you let her get away with it this time, you'll be henpecked the rest of your life...Well, what are we, mice or men?"  He's a man, it's decided chin in hand, so out the window he goes.

Later, having listened to his alter ego and regretted it, for a finale Spanky wakes from his dream and knocks his trouble-causing double flat to even the score.

Like the previous year's King Kong, Mama's Little Pirate wisely withholds what everyone's waiting to see, allowing for the build-up of suspense to overtake comedy by the time the giant makes his startling appearance and changes the pace of the film completely.

As part of the well-designed anticipation, one is led to suspect a giant's imminent presence by the huge furniture and footprints; later thudding footsteps and deep beastlike mutterings promise the worst.  Our tense fears are realized when the towering club-toting creature rumbles into the room, but even then the camera cleverly discloses him only from the waist down, having to truck back to reveal the hairy giant in full form-sort of a photographic unmasking.

Underscoring the mood of apprehension through these sequences is some wonderful background music, these particular themes seldom used in Roach pictures and reserved for the few genuinely suspenseful two-reelers the studio made, like George Stevens' brilliant Boy Friends comedy Air Tight.  The nearly identical thrill-music scoring there complements the visuals as nicely as in Mama's Little Pirate.

Oddly enough, the ill-tempered giant's threatening grunts and growls (he has no dialogue) are dubbed by five-foot-two Billy Bletcher, who as Wally's father in The First Round-Up is the object of a gag about his height.  Bletcher's sepulchral tones had also provided the huffing and puffing voice for The Big Bad Wolf in Disney's Three Little Pigs the previous year.

In another size dichotomy, as the gang gazes about the giant's quarters and wonders aloud who or what would own such huge things, Spanky and Stymie answer each other with the line, "Well, it certainly ain't no midget."  Spanky McFarland's mother related that the gang's tag-along infant companion in the oversize bonnet was indeed a five-year-old midget who later caught on with one of the major circuses as "The World's Smallest Man."

The contrast between the infant and the giant is remarkable, and the gag writers knew it.  Unaware he has visitors, the giant is shown going about his everyday giant-type business in the cave, and each time he picks up something like his huge club, the infant-midget in that funny bonnet is revealed silently hiding behind it.

What gives the gang away though, is not the "baby" pop ping up all over, but their own avarice when the loot stuffed in Spanky's clothing begins spilling out from his hiding place and attracts the giant's attention.

Summing up, one might say that the blending of fantasy and reality was Hollywood's business; Hal Roach added comedy, and intriguing things like Mama's Little Pirate are the result.

Henry David Thoreau wrote that the best of all states is to be in dreams awake.  And in few films are escapist fantasy elements so vividly realized as in Mama's Little Pirate:  for a handful of minutes at least, it almost makes us believe in make believe.

One contemporary filmmaker who believes in make-believe, Steven Spielberg, wrote the story for, and produced, a 1985 feature film called The Goonies, about a bunch of adventurous kids who wind up in a treasure-filled cave with a monosyllabic giant.  Though Spielberg never commented on the subject, it seems likely that his inspiration was this Our Gang short.

Random jottings:  Perhaps one isn't supposed to wonder why there was no continuity for Spanky's screen mothers, but he must have had twenty of them over the years.  Claudia Dell (Smith) served the role attractively here, and again in Anniversary Trouble, though by then she'd taken a new husband, Johnny Arthur—of all people.  The lovely Claudia Dell had been Tom Mix's leading lady in the original Destry Rides Again, and reportedly served as the original model for Columbia Pictures' statuesque torch lady trademark.

Finally, Mama's Little Pirate makes use of an undervalued comedy device that Hal Roach and his team of craftsmen believed in, and used more frequently (and more successfully) than any of their contemporaries:  almost any gag can be extended, and the laughter multiplied, by cutting away to another character's reaction to it.  Properly timed and edited, those reactions can make a gag come to life.  In fact, as often as not, the reaction gets a bigger laugh than the gag that's provoked it!

Beautifully visual films like Mama's Little Pirate are brimming over with raw comic business or setups that cut away to vacant expressions in response, looks of glaring frustration, wide-eyed apprehension, soul-deep resignation, deadpan looks, exchanges of sick looks or pompous, knowing looks, and all often embroidered by subtle gesturing.  It's a magic form of silent communication that at its best, and in its way, can be nearly as elegant as the literate dialogue of even a film by James Whale!

That's why, as Spanky McFarland has said, one seldom needed to bother studying scripts; with the advent of sound most everything was shot in shorter takes, and lines of dialogue weren't as essential as the comedy reaction or "take" (what the scripts dubbed "taking it big," or "takems").

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