Today we had a conversation with a 10 year-old boy hawking a product for his school fundraiser.
He opened with: “This is the product we’re selling, and here are the Facts about it.” He answered questions without consulting an adult, and assured us we could pay Cash on Delivery.
We were impressed by his self-sufficiency. Come to think of it, he reminded us of some of the kids in the long-running Our Gang film series (1922-1944).
The Our Gang shorts were the creation of Hal Roach, producer of the Laurel and Hardy films. The shorts feature the adventures of children from a poor neighbourhood who, bizarrely, have access to remarkable resources. The plots are amusing, sometimes touching, and playful.
Many of the stories are what you’d expect of a group of kids. In one film, some of the gang want to run away and become pirates. In another, the kids try to sabotage their teacher’s alleged romance.
In Our Gang Follies of 1938, the gang stages a variety show in the basement of a neighbourhood building. The subterranean theatre is modest indeed, but the Sets! The Costumes! It looks like the children raided the MGM wardrobe department – which they did, in a way, because by this time, MGM had bought the series from creator Roach.
The stories are usually told from the children’s point of view. Sometimes adults advance the plot, but at other times they pose a hindrance.
This is a world made by and for kids, a place of dazzling imagination and potential. The gang decides to go camping, and behold! Here’s a mule and wagon to take them to the wilderness. (But oops – they inadvertently set up camp near a bootlegger, who dons a gorilla costume to scare them away.)
Our Gang actors are known for being natural and, for the most part, unaffected. In one film, three very young children sneak into the school to raid lunchboxes in the hallway, gorging themselves on stolen pieces of pie, completely non-self-conscious. After all, who among us doesn’t dream of sneaking pie?
The kids are also quite jocular. In the Follies short, a girl named Darla enthuses about making “hundreds of thousands of dollars” because it sounds more impressive than “millions”.
The world belongs to these children, and they’re Taking It On, unafraid and uninhibited, the way childhood ought to be.
In the beginning, at Hal Roach Studios, the cast was recruited from the children of studio employees. As the series grew in popularity, however, talent contests were held to replace kids who were “aging out”.
Although the series has been criticized for African American stereotypes, it was one of the first Hollywood productions to portray black and white children as equals. According to Wikipedia, cast member Ernie Morrison was “the first black actor signed to a long-term contract in Hollywood history and the first major black star in Hollywood history.”
In 1938, Roach sold the series to MGM, which had been distributing the films for over a decade. MGM had deep pockets, but many critics say the shorts became less interesting. They were more subdued and featured less slapstick than the Roach years. Production on Our Gang ended in 1944.
However, in the 1950s, Roach was able to make a series of deals to bring the shorts to television. The series was re-branded as The Little Rascals, which re-ignited their popularity.
If you haven’t seen the Our Gang/The Little Rascals series, you can catch them on YouTube. Sometimes it does a person good to see these crazy, intrepid kids in action.