ClassicFlix has done a miraculous job of bringing back from near-oblivion the first eleven sound shorts in the Our Gang series in a set entitled The Little Rascals: The ClassicFlix Restorations, Volume 1.
The Production: 4/5
Comedy producer Hal Roach made many memorable films during his career and brought hours and hours of happiness to moviegoers (and later television viewers) earning Academy Awards along the way and especially earning the devotion of countless children who grew up with his comic creations and passed their love of his work down through subsequent generations of enthusiasts. One of his cleverest and most enduring creations was Our Gang, a group of precocious youngsters of mixed races and ethnicities who play together and explore the fun and fears of childhood in equal measure.
Roach was very canny in his establishment of Our Gang. He peopled it with both very young and preteen children, allowed the most endearing of them to grow up on camera, and transitioned out the kids when they outgrew the shenanigans and brought in new youngsters to train along with the older, more experienced performers. Beginning in 1922 and continuing under various stewardships through 1944, Our Gang brought forth basically four notable casts of kids during its decades of production. After producing eighty-eight silent Our Gang two-reel comedy shorts, Roach, like the rest of the movie industry, moved to sound production in 1929. The eleven shorts in The Little Rascals: The ClassicFlix Restorations, Volume 1 are the first efforts toward sound production that Roach and his staff undertook, and they’re technically raw and rough when looked at through the lens of almost a century of filmmaking expertise. The comedy is still starkly hilarious with the children etching memorable characters for themselves that we follow from film to film, but the transition to sound is awkward and not always effective. Watching these classic comedies, however, in their astonishing visually cleaned-up state through this latest restoration efforts by ClassicFlix, the lapses and foibles that took place in the day of dealing with microphones in open air settings fade in the memory when one dives back into his youth to relive and enjoy again the triumphs and tragedies of those little rascals, Our Gang.
Small Talk begins the transition to talkies, and it’s probably the least amusing of the set’s eleven entries. It’s a moving and somewhat melancholy look at orphans who long for someone to claim them and siblings torn apart when adoptive parents want only one of the pair. But in it, we meet the children who’ll make up the core group in this set’s group of entries, all carried over from their experiences in the Gang’s last couple of years of silent shorts: young, determined Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins, sweet but feisty Mary Ann Jackson, pretty but vacant Jean Darling, corpulent Joe Cobb who was within four films of transitioning out of the Gang, and Allen “Farina” Hoskins who at this point had the longest history with the group beginning in the second short back in 1922. These kids would soon be joined by Norman “Chubby” Chaney in the set’s second entry Railroadin’ and Jackie Cooper in the fourth film Boxing Gloves.
Railroadin’ is one of the more unique shorts in this collection. Its sound discs having been lost for many years, it was never included in the syndicated packages of The Little Rascals shorts provided to local television stations beginning in the 1950s. Thus for me, and possibly many other Baby Boomers who purchase this invaluable package, seeing Railroadin’ for the first time will be quite an emotional experience. It’s a thrilling experience, too, as we see “Farina” trapped on a railroad track with an out-of-control train helmed by Joe baring down on him. The sound here, as in several of the other shorts, is unwieldy. It often drowns out the voices of the kids and at other times, it’s obvious that sections of the movie were shot silent with no sound effects added in postsynch (also a major problem with Boxing Gloves as we see a wildly cheering crowd of enthusiastic spectators to the highly anticipated fight to the finish between Joe and “Chubby,” but we don’t hear anything). Sound goes in and out with Moan & Groan, Inc., too, but who cares when a haunted house adventure with a lunatic (Max Davidson – “I know, but I won’t tell ya”) on the loose is this much fun. The set’s best three shorts are all more slapstick in nature: Shivering Shakespeare where the Gang tries to put on Quo Vadis? with the interfering drama teacher played by Gertrude Sutton getting on their last nerves and ending in a free-for-all pie fight, When the Wind Blows as Jackie endures a torturous night locked out of his house and failing to gain reentry, and Bear Shooters as the Gang goes camping and runs afoul of some bootleggers.
Some other notables must rate a mention. Robert McGowan directs most of these efforts with a sure hand for comedy and a gentle hand in dealing with the obviously quite divergent personalities of his child actors. Screen comedian Edgar Kennedy excels in all four of his shorts as Kennedy the Cop, a jovial, loving beat cop out to protect the Gang and serve as a surrogate parent when the kids need some advice. Wonderful character actress Lyle Tayo plays mothers or nurses or anything else that’s asked of her in several of the shorts. Petie, the Gang’s halo-eyed dog-of-all-trades, is one of filmdom’s most talented and appealing pooches, and one looks forward to his antics in every film. And in the set’s final installment, A Tough Winter, the unforgettable Stepin Fetchit (comic actor Lincoln Perry) gets the only featured billing in any of the shorts as the Gang’s favorite handyman. The short was intended as a launching pad for a separate series featuring the actor produced by Roach, but negotiations broke down and the series never happened. It’s a shame because he’s a wonderful comic actor buried for generations under the weight of negative stereotypes for the character he created, but he’s unquestionably funny both in delivering comic dialogue or in physical schtick.
Here are the eleven shorts included in this one disc set:
1 – Small Talk
2 – Railroadin’
3 – Lazy Days
4 – Boxing Gloves
5 – Bouncing Babies
6 – Moan & Groan, Inc.
7 – Shivering Shakespeare
8 – The First Seven Years
9 – When the Wind Blows
10 – Bear Shooters
11 – A Tough Winter
3D Rating: NA
The shorts are displayed mostly at 1.37:1 aspect ratio and are presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. While you might see a random scratch here and there, a soft shot or three, or some elusive spotting and slight emulsion deterioration, the majority of these shorts look astonishingly good with crisp, clean images and a startlingly good grayscale which features deep blacks and clean white levels. Never have they looked so clear and wonderfully dialed in as they do here. These are two reel comedies (Small Talk ran three reels) with a couple of chapters each.
The ancient sound elements for these shorts are presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound, but there is hiss, sometimes almost overpoweringly so, in every one of these shorts. As mentioned in the review, sound recording of the era was rather haphazard at Roach’s studio, so it’s not the disc’s fault that voices can’t sometimes be heard or that all sound cuts off at certain intervals.
Special Features: 1.5/5
Restoration Comparison (4:33, HD): comparison featurette shows the often atrocious shape of what ClassicFlix had to work with in bringing this kind of astonishing quality to the images of these short comedies. Split-screen compares side-by-side images from the same film or sometimes we get an original image and then a line sweeps over it to reveal the newly restored image. Most effective.
Zenobia Trailer (3:52, HD)
ClassicFlix has done a miraculous job of bringing back from near-oblivion the first eleven sound shorts in the Our Gang series in a set entitled The Little Rascals: The ClassicFlix Restorations, Volume 1. The images are glorious, and the humor and heart are as constant as the sun in this must-have release. Recommended!
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