About the Little Rascals
Senior director Robert F. McGowan helmed most of the Our Gang shorts until 1933, assisted by his nephew Anthony Mack. He worked hard to develop a style that allowed the kids to be as natural as possible, downplaying the importance of the filmmaking equipment. Scripts were written for the shorts by the Hal Roach comedy writing staff, which included at various times Leo McCarey, Frank Capra, Walter Lantz, and Frank Tashlin, among others. The kids, some of them too young to read, very rarely saw the scripts; instead McGowan would explain the scene to be filmed to each kid right before it was shot, directing the children using a megaphone and encouraging improvisation. Of course, when sound came in at the end of the decade, McGowan was forced to modify his approach slightly, but scripts were not adhered to until McGowan left the series. Directors Gus Meins and Gordon Douglas used a more streamlined approach to McGowan's methods, in order to meet the demands of the increasingly sophisticated movie industry. Dougls in particular was forced to streamline his films, as he directed Our Gang after Roach was forced to halve the running times of the shorts from two reels (20 minutes) to one (10 minutes).
Finding kid talent
As the children grew too old to be in the series, they were replaced by new kids, usually from the Los Angeles area. Eventually, Our Gang talent scouting was done using large-scale national contests, where thousands of kids (often at the behest of their parents) tried out for one open role. Norman "Chubby" Chaney (who replaced Joe Cobb), Matthew "Stymie" Beard (who replaced Allen "Farina" Hoskins), and Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas (who replaced Stymie) all won major contests to become members of the gang. Even when there wasn't a massive talent search going on, the Roach studio was bombarded by requests from parents who were certain their children were perfect for the series. Two of these children included future child stars Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple, neither of whom made it into the films.
African Americans in Our Gang
The Our Gang series is notable for being one of the first times in movie history that African-Americans and Caucasians were portrayed as equals, though a number of people, including members of the African-American community, do not look favorably upon the characters of the African-American children today . The four African-American child actors who held main-character roles in the series were Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison, Allen "Farina" Hoskins, Matthew "Stymie" Beard (whose trademark oversized derby hat was a gift from fellow comedian Stan Laurel), and Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas. Ernie Morrison was, in fact, the first black actor signed to a long-term contract in Hollywood history , and was the first major black star in Hollywood history as well .
The Black children in Our Gang often epitomized the Stepin Fetchit stereotype of a "Negro" (Bogle), as well as that of the pickaninny . These characters provided comic relief by speaking a mangled form of African American Vernacular English, and by frequently being so frightened that either their hair stood on end, or they turned white (a special effect created with negative film exposure techniques). Comedian Eddie Murphy controversially parodied Buckwheat in a series of skits for Saturday Night Live. In their adult years, Ernie Morrison, Matthew Beard, and Billie Thomas became some of Our Gang's staunchest defenders, maintaining that its integrated cast and innocent story lines were far from racist. They explained that the white children's characters in the series were similarly stereotyped: the "freckled kid," the "fat kid," the "pretty blond girl," and the "mischievous toddler." "We were just a group of kids who were having fun," Beard recalled, and Morrison said of Hal Roach that "when it came to race, that man was color-blind" . Other minorities, including Asian Americans (Sing Joy, Allen Tong, and Edward Zoo Hoo) and Italian Americans (Mickey Gubitosi), were also depicted in the series, with varying levels of stereotyping.
Our Gang Members: