The Our Gang Collection
Directed By: Gordon Douglas, George Sidney, Edward L. Cahn, Bud Murray, Herbert Glazer, Sam Baerwitz, Cy Endfield
Starring: George "Spanky" McFarland, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, Darla Hood, Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas, Eugene "Porky" Lee, Tommy "Butch" Bond, Mickey Gubitosi (aka "Robert Blake"), and Billy "Froggy" Laughlin
Late last year, fans of the Our Gang series of shorts were treated to a box set with a complete and (mostly ) uncut collection of the Hal Roach produced talkies in the series from RHI entertainment and Genius Products. These were the shorts that many adults likely remember from the syndicated television packages that kept the "Little Rascals" eternally young several decades after they all reached adulthood. This left two eras of the Our Gang theatrical short series unanthologized on DVD in the US and Canada. The Roach produced silent entries in the series from 1922-1929 and the MGM produced one-reelers from 1938-1944. This five-disc release addresses the latter, and contains all 52 shorts produced by MGM, who had been distributing the series for over a decade before taking over production.
The Films ***½
The conventional wisdom says that when Hal Roach handed over the production keys of his Our Gang series to MGM in 1938, the series lost its way, got progressively more forced and unfunny, and died on the vine in less than six years. While there is a lot of truth to this party line, there were also a number of very entertaining shorts produced by MGM, especially in the first couple of years. There was also some ebb and flow to the quality of the shorts in the series rather than a steady decline, but by the last few years of its run, things did get pretty dull.
After the first two theatrical shorts were directed by Roach-era holdover, Gordon Douglas, George Sidney directed most of the shorts for the first year at MGM. Edward L. Cahn picked up the baton in mid-1939 and Herbert Glazer directed most shorts produced after mid-1942. Sidney's shorts tend to be the best of the three primary MGM directors, although as is the case for all three, the shorts he directed near the end of his run are not as good as his earlier ones. Compared to the Roach shorts, the MGM one-reelers are much more heavily plotted and the young actors were apparently required to adhere closer to the scripts, resulting in some awkward line readings. This is not initially a fatal flaw, but combined with growing tendencies by MGM to insert "moral lessons" in the scripts and stick with their most popular child stars for too long (Alfalfa and Spanky were in their early teens when they left) the charm of the series was eventually diluted.
Fans of Our Gang's Roach-era heyday will sometimes direct a lot of vitriol towards the children who were added to the cast through the MGM years, but I think that most of the problems can be firmly pinned on the writing. Mickey Gubitosi may strike a viewer as strident and annoying in a film like Baby Blues, but any seven year old kid given the specific dialog written for his character (let alone the amount of dialog written for his character) in his first scene crying for attention while his mother deals with pregnancy issues, is going to come across as selfish, petulant, and annoying. When characters like Alfalfa and Darla were replaced by Froggy (a one-joke character who did little but mess-up aphorisms in a bizarre Popeye-ish voice) and Janet (a polished musical performer who did not quite fit in with the amateurish charm that defined the series at its best), it was difficult to say whether it was the performers themselves or the rigid scripts that were turning the characters one-dimensional, polishing all of the rough edges, and robbing the series of its charm.
The shorts are presented chronologically on the discs as listed below. The first short of each calender year is indicated via parentheses as well as bits of casting trivia.
- [*]The Little Ranger (1938)[*]Party Fever[*]Aladdin's Lantern[*]Men in Fright[*]Football Romeo[*]Practical Jokers[*]Alafalfa's Aunt (1939)[*]Tiny Troubles[*]Duel Personalities[*]Clown Princes[*]Cousin Wilbur (Scotty Beckett returns to the series after a three year hiatus for first of two appearances as Alfalfa's "Cousin Wilbur")
- [*]Joy Scouts (first appearance of "Mickey")[*]Dog Daze (Scotty Beckett's final appearance - as "Wilbur")[*]Auto Antics (Final appearance of "Porky")[*]Captain Spanky's Showboat[*]Dad for a Day (Bit part for Arthur Q. Bryan - the future voice of Elmer Fudd)[*]Time out for Lessons (Final appearance of "Woim")[*]Alfalfa's Double (1940)[*]The Big Premiere[*]All About Hash (First appearance of Janet Burston - although her character was not named "Janet" and she would not be a series regular for another two years)[*]The New Pupil (First appearance of "Froggy" - although he is called "Harold")[*]Bubbling Troubles (Final appearance of "Butch")
- [*]Good Bad Boys[*]Waldo's Last Stand (Appropriately titled final appearance of "Waldo")[*]Goin' Fishin'[*]Kiddie Kure (Final appearance of "Alfalfa")[*]Fightin' Fools (1941) (Final appearance of "Leonard" aka "Percy")[*]Baby Blues[*]Ye Olde Minstrels[*]1-2-3 Go![*]Robot Wrecks[*]Helping Hands[*]Come Back, Miss Pipps
- [*]Wedding Worries (Final appearance of "Darla")[*]Melodies Old and New (1942) ("Janet" becomes a series regular)[*]Going to Press[*]Don't Lie[*]Surprised Parties[*]Doin' Their Bit[*]Rover's Big Chance[*]Mighty Lak a Goat[*]Unexpected Riches (Final appearance of "Spanky")[*]Benjamin Franklin, Jr. (1943) (First appearance of "Dickie" and "Happy")[*]Family Troubles
- [*]Calling All Kids[*]Farm Hands[*]Election Daze[*]Little Miss Pinkerton[*]Three Smart Guys[*]Radio Bugs (1944)[*]Dancing Romeo[*]Tale of a Dog
The Video ***
The Audio **½
The English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio has substantial background hiss, but has otherwise very good fidelity without noise reduction artifacts. The fidelity does improve as the series progresses, but since the shorts are arranged chronologically, there is never a severe change in audio quality from one title to the next. There are occasionally noticeable changes in average volume level from short to short that can be jarring when watching via the "Play All" option. No subtitle options or alternate language tracks are present.
The Extras ½
The discs have no extras.
The five DVDs come packaged in a "fatboy" case with two hinged trays, one containing two discs on opposite facing sides of the tray and one containing a single disc. The first and fifth discs are in the inner parts of the case. Menus are straightforward with the only options being "Play All", and "Theatrical Shorts". The menu for selecting shorts uses the title card as the graphic representing each short. Kudos to Warner for actually calling them theatrical shorts rather than "episodes".
Warner Archive's The Our Gang Collection gives Our Gang/Little Rascal completists exactly what they want and nothing more. All of the post Hal Roach MGM one-reel theatrical shorts in one box set of five burned to order DVD-Rs. Transfers are solid although clearly derived from sources a few generations removed from the original negatives. This results in some higher than ideal contrast with occasional light positive and negative "speckling". Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio has substantial background hiss, but has otherwise very good fidelity without noise reduction artifacts. Hardcore fans will be pleased to own the complete set, and casual fans will likely enjoy the first two discs in the set, although as the series progresses through the 1940s, they seem to be running our of creative and comedic gas.