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Our Gang  




MGM Hal Roach, 1936.  Directed by Gordon Douglas.  Camera:  Art Lloyd.  With George "Spanky" McFarland, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, Eugene "Porky" Lee, Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas, Darla Hood, John Collum, Rosina Lawrence, Dudley Dickerson.

The circus is coming to town for one day only, a day when the gang has to go to school.  But Spanky has a plan:  he's written a doctor's note excusing them all from school the next day because of colds, and he has Buckwheat and Porky place it on the teacher's desk at the end of the afternoon so she'll see it first thing in the morning.  Then they learn that Miss Jones plans to take the class to the circus anyway!  By now the school is locked, and the note is already in its place, so the kids return that night to break into the building and retrieve their letter.  Lightning, thunder, and darkness make the escapade a scary one, and by staying out in the rain that night the four would-be truants find themselves with real colds the next morning, keeping them from school, and the circus.

Like the slick new top-grade features the Roach plant was then introducing (including ghostly items such as Topper), Spooky Hooky and most other one-reelers of this period share a brisk pacing and surefooted sense of storytelling that makes them winners from start to finish.  Nothing is rushed, yet there is no time wasted:  the plot is presented and carried through with perfect timing.

Miss Jones is, as always, the perfect schoolteacher:  pretty, pleasant, and genuinely concerned about her students.  When Spanky and Alfalfa display their phony coughing and sneezing symptoms as warnings that they may be sick the next day, she reveals her surprise of planning to attend the circus and hopes they get better so they can come, too.  Thus the frustration of having hatched this scheme needlessly is coupled with the notion of having tried to pull a fast one on someone as nice as she.

The main concern of the four burglars that night is spooks; Spanky takes a brave, no-nonsense stance on the matter ("I told you once before, there ain't such things like spooks"), yet in the end he's as frightened as the others at the possibility of a ghost or skeleton creeping up behind them.  On the other hand, Porky (with a crafty mind behind that bland exterior), is so far removed from this that he pretends to be a spook, to scare his friends, by donning a white sheet, carrying around a noisemaker, and breaking light bulbs in a class lab room.

Buckwheat gets the biggest scares, having to wait outside and act as lookout for the others.  The darkness, a nearby hoot owl, and the noisemaker Porky left behind all contribute to his growing fright, prompting him to join the gang inside. A short time later, after hiding behind a drapery, Buckwheat tiptoes back into the open and finds a life-sized skeleton clinging to his back!  By now the janitor has been awakened and, at the sight of Buckwheat and the skeleton, he leaps through the front door of the schoolhouse, followed by the kids, who have managed to retrieve their note amid this ruckus.

Next morning, however, we see the results on a screen split into four equal sections, with the same scene taking place in four bedrooms:  Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, and Porky are being given cold remedy oil by their mothers, who intone in unison, "For the last time, you can't go to school today!"

Although it has no real laugh-getting qualities, Spooky Hooky is thoroughly engaging and enjoyable, easily one of the best and most skillful Our Gang one-reelers.  Its possibilities are fully realized by director Gordon douglas, and its soft-sell moral is abundantly clear:  even on a petty scale, crime doesn't pay.

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