Thursday, February 14, 2008

High Sign!

Being in anti-Valentine’s Day mode this week gave me cause to remember our good friends Spanky, Buckwheat and Alfalfa and the mighty He-Man Woman Haters Club.  If they were still with us today, they surely wouldn’t fall prey to this Hallmark holiday (well, at least Spanky and Buckwheat wouldn’t).  The HMWHC episode of The Little Rascals was called "Hearts Are Thumps" from 1937.  REO Speedwagon keyboardist Neal Doughty just happened to be watching it one day right after getting divorced or breaking up with his girlfriend or some such thing, and he felt like joining the HMWHC himself, thus he rolled tape on his VCR and lifted part of the dialogue for the intro to their hit 1981 song "Tough Guys".  Long live the He-Man Woman Haters Club!

Meantime, I’ve been on a Little Rascals binge lately anyway, so why not give them a little salute, o-tay?  Talk about "kickin’ it old-school"!  The Little Rascals/Our Gang comedies are some of the funniest damn things you’ll ever see, and just like their comedic uncles Laurel & Hardy and The Three Stooges, these classic "shorts" have held up amazingly well over the years and are just as watchable and relevant today as they were 70-80 years ago.  Producer Hal Roach was a genius at discovering and cultivating so many genuinely funny child actors over the run of the entire series (221 shorts in all), beginning in the Silent Era in 1922 and ending in 1944.

Easily the most visible and arguably the most talented Little Rascal was George "Spanky" McFarland, who appeared in 95 episodes and showed incredible comedic skills even at the age of four.  His facial expressions and reactions—modeled after his idol Oliver Hardy, who worked right next door at the Hal Roach studios—were absolutely priceless, especially in his early days in the series.  Matthew "Stymie" Beard idolized Stan Laurel, and the over-sized bowler hat he often wore was a gift from the man himself.  Stymie had some of the funniest lines too, like when asked by a lunch-counter cook how he and Spanky expected to eat the mess of food he had just ordered without any money, "We don’t expect to—we just want to!"  Then there was the irrepressible Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas, with his big shit-eating grin and butchered English.  Oddly enough, Buckwheat was actually cast as a little girl in his first few features.

And we can’t forget that other brilliant actor, Pete The Pup.  He had no lines, of course, but ol’ Petey could ham it up with the best of them.  Actually, there were several Peteys who worked on the show over the years, which accounts for why the circle drawn around his eye was sometimes on the left side and at other times on the right.  There were plenty of other members of the animal kingdom featured on the Little Rascals—monkeys, bears, chimps, cows, cats, mules, you name it.

One thing I loved about The Little Rascals comedies was the inventive machinery and props the producers concocted for the kids to use.  Many of their "appliances" used the circuitous route to get the job done, but whatever works, right?  If you get the chance, check out all the contraptions on "Hook And Ladder" and you’ll see what I mean.  Another aspect of the series that added to its charm was the intentional misspelling of words like on Buckwheat’s hat in the pic here, as well as "Keap Out", "Shakespeer" and "Fire Cheef".  Their painted signs usually featured backward ‘S’s, too, and you can tell they were all done by the same person, as the handwriting was always the same, but it was still funny.

There’s also a rather curious phenomenon surrounding various members of the Our Gang/Little Rascals troupe—many of them died at relatively young ages, and some never made it out of their ‘30s after leaving the series.  Norman "Chubby" Chaney’s weight problem caught up with him and he died at age 18.  Bobby Hutchins—better known as "Wheezer"—was killed while piloting a plane during a training mission in World War II at age 20.  William "Froggy" Laughlin was killed while delivering newspapers on a bicycle at age 16.  Scotty Beckett (he of the trademark over-sized sweater, baseball cap worn sideways and catchphrase, "They never learn…") had a very troubled adult life filled with violence, divorces, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide attempts, the final one of which was successful at age 38.  I guess he never learned either.  In addition, Darla Hood only made it age 47 when she died of hepatitis and Buckwheat was only 49 when he passed away in 1980 after suffering a heart attack.  A few months afterward in 1981, Stymie Beard succumbed to a stroke at age 56 after spending the better part of the ‘50s and ‘60s in and out of jails with a heroin addiction he finally kicked in time to appear on several ‘70s TV shows, including "Sanford & Son", "The Jeffersons", "Good Times" and "Starsky & Hutch".

And then there was that legendary vocal stylist Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer (pronounced SWHITE-sir), who actually considered himself to be a really good crooner, believe it or not.  As funny as he was on-screen, by most accounts, he was quite incorrigible off-screen—temperamental, disrespectful of authority figures, and constantly pulling practical jokes on the other kids (sometimes even mean ones that caused injury).  He apparently had domineering stage parents (as did poor little Wheezer and some of the other kids) who were constantly at odds with the studio over Alfie’s screen time and number of lines he had vs. what Spanky got.  Alfalfa’s adult life wasn’t very pleasant either.  He did a few bit parts in movies here and there during the ‘40s and early ‘50s, but never could sustain his career.  He was shot and killed in January, 1959 at age 31 after he had threatened his ex-business partner with a knife, allegedly over $50 he was owed and a hunting dog he owned.

Then again, many of the former Our Gang-ers made it to old age, like Spanky, who died in 1993 at age 75, Tommy "Butch" Bond who died in 2005 just over a week shy of his 80th birthday, and Gordon "Porky" Lee, who died a month after Bond, just two weeks shy of his 72nd birthday.  Near as I can tell, there are only three well-known Little Rascals/Our Gang regulars still living:  Dickie Moore, who was the Fire Cheef in "Hook And Ladder", Jackie Cooper, who went on to a career as a director (which included a brief stint of early "M*A*S*H" episodes), and the youngster Mickey Gubitosi, whom you might know better as Robert Blake, who went on to—never mind, we won’t get into all that now…

There are numerous Our Gang/Little Rascals DVD collections available out there for purchase or rental, and many of the shorts are now on YouTube as well, but avoid at all costs those misbegotten colorized versions—wrong, wrong, wrong!!  This sounds so clichéd, but if you want to take a fun little trip back to a more innocent time, these little dudes (and dudettes) will surely entertain you.  In the words of Bullwinkle, "You can’t beat the classics, I always say!"  He said it...and how!

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