Little Rascals History

Early years
According to Roach, the idea for Our Gang came to him in 1921, when he was auditioning a child actress to appear in one of his films. The girl was, in his opinion, overly made up and overly rehearsed, and Roach patiently waited for the audition to be over. After the girl and her mother left the office, Roach looked out of his window to a lumberyard across the street, where he saw a group of children having an argument. The children had all taken sticks from the lumberyard to play with, but the smallest kid had taken the biggest stick, and the others were trying to force him to give it to the biggest kid. After realizing that he had been watching the kids bicker for 15 minutes, Roach thought a short film series about kids just being themselves might be a success .

Under the supervision of Charley Chase, work began on the first two-reel shorts in the new "kids-and-pets" series, which was to be called Hal Roach's Rascals, later that year. Director Fred Newmeyer helmed the first version of the pilot film, entitled Our Gang, but Roach scrapped Newmeyer's work and had former fireman Robert F. McGowan re-shoot the short. Roach tested it at various theaters around Hollywood. The attendees were very receptive, and the press clamored for "lots more of those 'Our Gang' comedies." The colloquial usage of the term Our Gang led to its becoming the series' second (yet more popular) official title, with the title cards reading "Our Gang Comedies: Hal Roach presents His Rascals in..." The series was officially called both Our Gang and Hal Roach's Rascals until 1932, when Our Gang became the sole title of the series.

The first cast of Our Gang kids was recruited primarily from children recommended to Roach by studio employees, including photographer Gene Kornman's daughter Mary Kornman, their friends' son Mickey Daniels, Roach child actor Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison, and family friends Allen "Farina" Hoskins, Jack Davis, Jackie Condon, and Joe Cobb. Most of the early shorts were shot outdoors and on location, and also featured a menagerie of comic animal characters, such as Dinah the Mule.

Roach's distributor Pathé released One Terrible Day, the fourth short to be produced for the series, as the first Our Gang short on September 10, 1922; the pilot Our Gang wasn't released until November 5. The Our Gang series was a success from the start, with the kids' naturalism, the funny animal actors, and McGowan's direction making a successful combination. The shorts did well at the box office, and by the end of the decade the Our Gang kids were pictured on numerous product endorsements.

The biggest Our Gang stars in this period were Sunshine Sammy, around whom the series was structured; Mickey Daniels; Mary Kornman; and little Farina, who eventually became both the most popular member of the 1920s gang[8] and the most popular African-American child star of the 1920s (Bogle 21). Mickey and Mary were also very popular, and were often paired together in both Our Gang and a later teenaged version of the series called The Boy Friends, which Roach produced from 1930 to 1932. Other early Our Gang kids were Eugene "Pineapple" Jackson, Scooter Lowry, and Andy Samuel.

Changing distributors
After Sammy, Mickey, and Mary left the series in the mid-1920s, the Our Gang series entered a transitional period. McGowan was often sick and unable to work on the series, leaving nephew Robert A. McGowan (credited as Anthony Mack) to direct many of the shorts from this period. The Mack-directed shorts are considered to be among the lesser entries in the series.[9] New faces included Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins, Harry Spear, Jean Darling, and Mary Ann Jackson, while stalwart Farina served as the series' anchor.

Also at this time, the Our Gang kids acquired an American Pit Bull Terrier with a ring around his eye; originally named "Pansy", the dog soon became known as Pete the Pup, the most famous Our Gang pet. During this period, Hal Roach ended his distribution arrangement with the Pathé company, instead releasing future products through newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM released its first Our Gang comedy in September 1927. The move to MGM offered Roach larger budgets, and the chance to have his films packaged with MGM features to the giant Loews Theatres chain.

Some of the shorts around this time, particularly Spook Spoofing (1928, one of only two three-reelers in Our Gang history) contained extended scenes of the gang tormenting and teasing Farina, scenes which helped spur the claims of racism which many other shorts did not warrant. These shorts marked the departure of Jackie Condon, who had been with the group from the beginning of the series.

The sound era
Starting in 1928, Our Gang comedies were distributed with phonographic discs that contained synchronized music-and-sound-effect tracks for the shorts. In spring 1929, the Roach sound stages were converted for sound recording, and Our Gang made its "all-talking" debut in April 1929 with the three-reel Small Talk. It took a year for McGowan and the gang to fully adjust to talking pictures, during which time they lost Joe, Jean, and Harry, and added Norman "Chubby" Chaney, Dorothy DeBorba, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, Donald Haines, and Jackie Cooper. Jackie proved to be the personality the series had been missing since Mickey left, and his talent was seen to good effect in three 1930 Our Gang shorts, Teacher's Pet, School's Out, and Love Business. Love Business, not released until 1931, explored his crush on the new schoolteacher, pretty Miss Crabtree, played by June Marlowe. Jackie soon won the lead role in Paramount's feature film Skippy, and Roach sold his contract to MGM.

Transition
Jackie Cooper left Our Gang at the cusp of another major shift in the lineup, as Farina, Chubby, and Mary Ann soon also departed. Our Gang entered another transitional period, similar to that of the mid-1920s. Stymie, Wheezer, and Dorothy carried the series during this period, aided by veteran child actors Dickie Moore and Kendall "Breezy Brisbane" McComas. Unlike the mid-20s period, McGowan was able to sustain the quality of the series, with the help of the kids and the Roach writing staff.

New Roach discovery George "Spanky" McFarland joined the gang in 1931 at the age of three and would end up staying for the next eleven years. At first appearing as the tag-along toddler of the group, and later finding an accomplice in Scott Beckett in 1934, Spanky quickly became Our Gang's biggest child star; he won parts in a number of outside features, appeared in many of the now-numerous Our Gang product endorsements and spin-off merchandise items, and popularized the expressions "Okey-dokey!" and "Okey-doke!" [10]

In late 1933, Robert McGowan, worn out from the stress of working on the kids' comedies, left the series and the Roach studio, going over to direct features at Paramount. German-born Gus Meins assumed his role starting with Hi'-Neighbor! in 1934, working with assistant director Gordon Douglas and alternating directorial duties with Fred Newmeyer.

Wally Albright and Jackie Lynn Taylor joined the gang at this time; as did Billie Thomas, who within a few months of joining would begin playing the character of Stymie's sister "Buckwheat" (even though Thomas was a male). The Buckwheat character became a male in 1935 after Stymie left the series. The same year, Carl Switzer and his brother Harold joined the gang after impressing Roach with an impromptu performance at the studio commissary, the Our Gang Cafe, which was open to the public. While Harold would eventually be relegated to the role of a background player, Carl, nicknamed "Alfalfa", became Scotty Beckett's replacement as Spanky's sidekick. Darla Hood and Eugene "Porky" Lee also joined the gang in 1935.

The final Roach years
Our Gang was hugely successful during the 1920s and the early 1930s. However, by 1934, movie theater owners were increasingly dropping two-reel (twenty minute) comedies like Our Gang and the Laurel and Hardy series from their bills, and running double feature programs instead. Although the Laurel and Hardy series was discontinued in mid-1935 (and Laurel and Hardy moved into feature films full-time), Roach's distributor MGM wanted him to continue making one-reelers (ten-minutes instead of twenty). The first one-reel Our Gang short, Bored of Education, won the Academy Award for Best Live-Action Short Film in 1936. Bored of Education also marked the directorial debut of former assistant director Gordon Douglas.

Spanky, Darla, and Alfalfa in the "Club Spanky" dream sequence from the 1937 short Our Gang Follies of 1938Also in 1936, the first (and only) full-length feature film starring the Our Gang kids was released, entitled General Spanky. Directed by Douglas and Fred Newmeyer, it starred Spanky, Buckwheat, and Alfalfa in a sentimental, Shirley Temple-esque story set in the Civil War. The film focused more on its adult leads (Phillip Holmes and Rosina Lawrence) than the kids, and was a box office disappointment.

Tommy Bond, an off-and-on member of the gang since 1932, returned to the series as the neighborhood bully Butch, beginning with the 1937 short Glove Taps. Glove Taps also featured the first appearance of Darwood Kaye as the bookish Waldo. In later shorts, both Butch and Waldo would become Alfalfa's main rivals in his pursuit of Darla's affections.

Roach produced one last two-reel Our Gang short, the lavish Our Gang Follies of 1938 (1937), a parody of the Broadway Melody of 1938. Alfalfa, who aspires to be an opera singer, falls asleep and dreams that his old pal Spanky has become the rich owner of a swanky Broadway nightclub, where Darla and Buckwheat perform and make "hundreds and thousands of dollars."

Most casual fans of Our Gang remember the 1936–1938 shorts the best, especially the "He-Man Woman Haters Club" from Hearts are Thumps and Mail and Female, the Laurel and Hardy-ish interaction between Alfalfa and Spanky, Alfalfa and Darla's on-again-off-again romance, and the comic team of Porky and Buckwheat.

As the profit margins declined due to double features [11], Roach could no longer afford to produce the series, and sold the entire Our Gang unit (including the rights to the name, the Our Gang film backlog from 1927 to 1938, and the contracts for the actors, writers, and director Douglas) to MGM in May 1938.

The MGM era
The MGM-produced Our Gang shorts were not as well-received as the Roach-produced shorts had been, due to both MGM's inexperience with the brand of slapstick comedy Our Gang was famous for and MGM's insistence on keeping Alfalfa, Spanky, and Buckwheat in the series until they were teenagers. After a frustrated Gordon Douglas, having completed only two films, left MGM to return to Roach, MGM began using Our Gang as a training ground for future feature directors; George Sidney, Edward Cahn, Herbert Glazer, and Cy Endfield all worked on Our Gang before moving on to features. Nearly all of the 52 MGM-produced Our Gangs were written by Hal Law and former junior director Robert A. McGowan (Anthony Mack). McGowan was credited for these shorts as "Robert McGowan"; as a result, moviegoers have been confused for decades about whether this Robert McGowan and the senior director of the same name back at Roach were two separate people or not.

The Our Gang films produced by MGM are considered by many Our Gang historians, and even the Our Gang kids themselves, to be lesser films than the Roach entries [12]. The kids' performances are considered to exhibit a "cutesy" style of child acting that was the antithesis of the original gang [13]. Robert Blake (using his given name of Mickey Gubitosi), Billy "Froggy" Laughlin (with his Popeye-esque trick voice), and Janet Burston were among the major additions to the gang at MGM. The series dropped in financial success after 1939 [14], and when six of the thirteen shorts released between 1942 and 1943 sustained losses rather than turning profits [15], MGM discontinued Our Gang, releasing the final short, Dancing Romeo on April 29, 1944.

Since 1937, Our Gang had been featured as a licensed comic strip in the UK comic The Dandy, drawn by Dudley D. Watkins. Starting in 1942, MGM licensed Our Gang to Dell Comics for the publication of Our Gang Comics, featuring the gang, Barney Bear, and Tom and Jerry. The strips in The Dandy ended three years after the demise of the Our Gang shorts, in 1947. Our Gang Comics outlasted the series by five years, finally changing its name to Tom and Jerry Comics in 1949.

Post-history
When Hal Roach sold Our Gang to MGM, he had retained the option to buy back the rights to the Our Gang trademark, provided he did not produce any more kids' comedies in the Our Gang vein. In the mid-1940s, he decided that he wanted to create a new film property in the Our Gang mold, and forfeited his right to buy back the Our Gang name in order to produce two Cinecolor featurettes, Curley and Who Killed Doc Robbin. Neither film was critically or financially successful, and Roach instead turned his plans towards re-releasing the original Our Gang comedies.

The Little Rascals
In 1949, MGM allowed Roach to buy back the rights to the 1927–1938 Our Gang shorts, provided he remove the MGM Lion studio logo, and all instances of the names or logos "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer," "Loews Incorporated," and Our Gang from the reissued film prints. Using a modified version of the series' original name, Roach packaged the 80 sound Our Gang shorts as The Little Rascals and had Monogram Pictures distribute the shorts, first to theaters, starting in 1951, and then to television in 1955. Under its new name, The Little Rascals enjoyed renewed popularity on television. Seeing the potential of the property, MGM began distributing their Our Gang shorts to television in 1956.

The television rights to The Little Rascals were assigned in 1964 to a then-new distributor named King World Entertainment, and the success of The Little Rascals paved the way for King World to become one of the biggest television syndicators in the world; distributing, along with the Rascals, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Jeopardy, and Wheel of Fortune. King World has seen success in distributing a variety of television properties and game shows that offer airline tickets, great vacations and other prizes. It can be argued that their success wouldn't have been as great without the storied and successful Rascals property.

1979 brought The Little Rascals Christmas Special, an animated holiday special based on the gang and featuring voice work from Matthew "Stymie" Beard and Darla Hood. Hanna-Barbera brought the animated gang back from 1982 to 1984 in a series of Little Rascals television cartoons for ABC Saturday Mornings. Many producers, including Our Gang alumnus Jackie Cooper, made pilots for new Our Gang TV shows, but none of them ever went into production.

In 1994, Amblin Entertainment and Universal Pictures released The Little Rascals, a feature film based upon the series and featuring interpretations of classic Our Gang shorts, including Hearts are Thumps, Rushin' Ballet, and Hi'-Neighbor! The film, directed by Penelope Spheeris, starred Travis Tedford as Spanky, Bug Hall as Alfalfa, and Ross Bagley as Buckwheat; and featured cameos by the Olsen twins, Whoopi Goldberg, Mel Brooks, Reba McEntire, and Raven-Symoné. The Little Rascals was a moderate success for Universal, bringing in $51,764,950 at the box office [16].
 

Our Gang Members:
Mary Kornman
Wheezer

Butch
Dorothy
Harry
Jackie
Scotty
Shirley

 

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