Saturday, February 23, 2013

"Bored of Education" - The Little Rascals (1936)

As a kid I used to watch these Our Gang comedy shorts on TV before going to school in the morning. I expect that most “baby boomers” share this same memory. These films were a “double banger” for me, as they not only allowed me a look back at life in the 1930’s; a period I have always been interested in; but they also taught me that some of life’s troubles were universal and unchanging, especially when it came to the world of children. And, being a child at the time, I considered myself somewhat of an expert on the subject.

In this episode, the gang is confronted by a new teacher on the very first day of a new school year. With the cunning that does not come of age; or wisdom; the boys decide to play hooky by pretending to be sick. What they really want is a day off, even before the school year has begun.

Spanky fixes Alfalfa with a phony toothache and they wait until the class has begun before asking to be excused. Spanky, of course, needs to accompany Alfalfa home. It wouldn’t be right to let him make the journey alone. The teacher readily agrees to their request, all the while hiding a little secret of her own.

As a new teacher on the first day of school, she has prepared a little treat for the class; ice cream. When Alfalfa and Spanky leave the school, they find themselves left out of the little “surprise” which the teacher had planned for their classmates. With a natural inclination towards improvisation, the two pals need a quick “fix” if they are going to be able to partake of the ice cream.

These old films have been restored over the years and many are in pristine shape, as this one clearly is. Another thing that many people never notice when watching them, is that even though there is quite a bit of “politically incorrect” humor involving the racial differences of the kids, they are; for the most part; equal in their roles as children. They even attend an integrated school at a time in which Jim Crow still reigned supreme throughout much of the nation. These little “shorts” by Hal Roach represent some of the first times in which blacks and whites were portrayed as somewhat equal on film. And remember, they were all united against a common enemy; the adults. 

There were 4 African-American actors in the main cast of the “Our Gang” series. They were Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison, Allen "Farina" Hoskins, Matthew "Stymie" Beard and Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas. Morrison was actually the first African-American actor ever signed by a major studio to a long term contract. He was also the first African-American “movie star” in the history of Hollywood.

If you think the 4 African-Americans were stereotyped, then just take a look at the white kids. Morrison and Thomas were both of the opinion that the white kids were much more “pigeon holed” than they were. There was the little blonde girl, Darla; the freckle faced kid, Alfalfa; a neighborhood bully, Butch; and the little toddler, whose name I don’t even remember.

In an article about the Our Gang series on Wikipedia, "Stymie" Beard is quoted as saying “We were just a group of kids who were having fun." Ernie Morrison recalled that, "When it came to race, Hal Roach was color-blind." I don’t know if that is accurate, as some of the stereotyping would seem to be at odds with that statement.

No matter; these films are wonderful snapshots of what life was like for kids almost 100 years ago, and as such are invaluable in our being able to look back. And, for me, they are great reminders of my younger years and the things that amused me.

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