A prize of $50 inspires the Gang's Eagles Club
to find a singer who can win a radio station amateur contest that afternoon.
Auditions are held before a capacity kiddie audience in the clubhouse, with
Spanky moderating and assistant Pete the Pup poised awaiting Spank's wink as
the cue for striking a loser's gong, with a mallet tied to his tail.
One kid objects to being "hooked" so abruptly: "I just already got
started." "Oh, no," Spanky delights in telling him, "you mean you just
Darla is chosen as the prime candidate, despite Alfalfa's
persistent efforts. She is set to meet Spanky at the station later
that day, but when the time comes, she's nowhere in sight. Spanky
goes to look for her, and in his absence, Alfalfa decides to perform in
Darla's place ("I'll do it!"), singing her song, "I'm in the Mood
Listening back in the clubhouse, dozens of Our Gangers
rush out to the local drugstore's battery of pay telephones, phoning in
a ton of votes for Alfalfa, with the result that this dark-horse
contestant (who was hooted off the clubhouse stage three times that
morning) saves the day and wins the $50 prize.
Out of which probably had to be paid a whopping
reimbursement for the drugstore phone calls.
If, as Truman Capote said, failure is the condiment that
gives success its flavor, crooner Alfalfa feasted on a tasty mouthful in
The Pinch Singer. as a film, however, The Pinch Singer
was fed too many sweets, and without the proper nutrients never grew
into the kind of healthy comedy it might have been.
Our Gang's three radio contest shorts for Roach, The Pinch
Singer is the weakest. The music is sprightly and delightful
but the kids perhaps too cute and story exposition notably deficient.
Most of the blame must go to Fred Newmeyer, here making his official
debut as an
Our Gang director (he was pulled off the first aborted version of
the film Our Gang in 1922).
A boyhood chum of Bob McGowan's in Denver, Newmeyer was
by this time a veteran comedy director, having worked for many years
Harold Lloyd, directing such classic films as
The Freshman and
Last. He branched out into other feature films (once directing
W.C. Fields) but by the mid-1930's was working on Poverty Row.
Having started his successful career with Hal Roach in the late teens,
he now returned to Roach for a job, and worked on several
Our Gang comedies, including the feature-length
What Newmeyer apparently didn't realize was that the
Our Gang, although extremely talented, were still children,
requiring a special kind of direction to make their planned movements
and dialogue seem spontaneous. Bob McGowan, Gus Meins, and later
Gordon Douglas mastered this technique of working with the kids, but
Newmeyer did not, as evidenced by this two-reeler.
A great deal of the dialogue and gesturing is hopelessly
contrived, much like the later MGM
Our Gang shorts. As Alfalfa and Buckwheat audition for the
club, the kids laugh and cheer them in a forced, unconvincing manner—precisely
the way a group of kids would act if someone told them to laugh on cue,
without actually giving them anything to laugh at. The camera
repeatedly cuts to reaction shots of Spanky making broad, knowing
gestures; when Buckwheat's whistling is exposed as a fraud (he's got
Porky playing a phonograph nearby), Spanky says, "Hey kids, let's give
Buckwheat a big, great big hand because he had us all fooled then!"
(Even a good director would have had trouble getting anyone to sound
convincing with that kind of dialogue.)
Worst of all is the finale. After
Alfalfa has unexpectedly won the prize money, Spanky and Darla arrive on
the scene. Spanky is about to scold Alfalfa, but when he hears
about the prize, he says, "Say, pal, I knew you could do that all the
time. Besides, I was just telling Darla, you're the best singer in
the whole wide world..." Alfalfa interrupts Spanky's hot-air
speech by giving him a taste of his own medicine and ringing the
audition gong he's concealed in his briefcase. At this point what
do the three kids do? They lock arms, snuggle up together, and
smile blissfully for the camera in an "aren't-we-cute" pose for the
fade-out. Apparently, Newmeyer missed an essential point of the
series. One need only look back to Mike Fright, from 1934,
or ahead to the excellent and compact one-reeler Framing Youth in
1937, to see how this same material should have been treated.
Looking at the film out of context, it comes
as a surprise that the gang doesn't immediately think of Alfalfa when
they want a singer. Although he is by now one of the Gang's main
characters (sort of displacing Scotty Beckett, who'd just left the
series), Alfalfa hadn't yet solidified his image as a "crooner."
It was in the coming year that Alfalfa's singing became a fixture of the
series and an integral part of story lines.
Alfalfa's singing, and his sincere attitude
toward performing, are equally interesting in this short. His
audition song is "On the Road to Californy," a folk song with his brother
backing him up on accordion, creating the same enjoyable country-western
feeling as the songs they did in earlier films; Alfalfa's love songs
were to come later. When he goes on the air to sing Darla's
number, "I'm in the Mood for Love," he is uncertain, forgets words,
loses the beat, and summons up a falsetto to reach half the notes.
When Alfalfa fails to conclude his unending number, the microphone
begins to sink, forcing Alfalfa to stoop down with it to finish his
song! This innocence is a far cry from the super-confident crooner
Our Gang comedies, when Alfalfa
knows he's funny and his character appeal varies inversely.
Several professional-school kiddie acts are
seen in the course of the radio program. One black-faced group
called The Plantation Trio sings "Five Foot Two" ("Has Anybody Seen My
Gal?"). A top-hatted troupe does "The Broadway Melody," led by a
well-scrubbed young man belting out the theme from MGM's famous
early-talkie musical. An instrumental trio plays a saxophone
version of a number written for an earlier Hal Roach All Star
comedy, Mixed Nuts, while the song's composer, studio musical
director Marvin Hatley, leads the on-camera orchestra (cued by an
announcer who proclaims, "Take it away, Marvin!"). Earlier,
Buckwheat mimes to a 78 rpm recording of "The Whistler and His Dog."
Music aside, The Pinch Singer
demonstrates that the
Our Gang kids were like any
actors working in films—they needed a good director.
This was Darla Hood's third Little Rascals appearance.
She'd been christened "Cookie,
Our Gang's Sweetheart," for Follies, but nobody'd call her
that, using her real name, Darla, instead.
In another deplorable example of how
cavalier TV editors and syndicators have sometimes slashed
Our Gang films, The Pinch
Singer almost never turns up intact on television or for other
revival showings. With all that's missing from expurgated prints,
one might be led to believe the film is actually a one-reeler. In
the bargain, the original titles are usually obliterated too; the
as-always interesting artwork on the main titles having shown a
silhouetted radio tower with pulsating radio waves.
Finally, in 1981, when Taxi's
terrible Danny DeVito married Cheers' barmaid Rhea Perlman, they
set the tone for their life together by playing a tape of Alfalfa's
warbling in Pinch Singer during the wedding ceremony. Ah,