Friday, December 27, 2013

I Remember That: The Little Rascals And Embracing The Past

"After school they had nothing to do and a whole neighborhood to do it in.  They made their own fun.  They charmed the world. We see innocence, enterprise and the best of ourselves in them."
-Author Richard Bann-
No matter how hard I try I just can't seem to stop looking back.  No matter how much I move forward and accept gifts with the latest technological fare I still fall back on the vintage stuff. No matter how much I'm pushed kicking and screaming into the future I can't help but turn my head over my shoulder to adore all that has come before.  For me, much of what remains in the rear view mirror is irreplaceable and often represents all that was right with the world once upon a time even if all wasn't right.

I'm terribly nostalgic and I suppose to my detriment. It's a real Achilles heal of mine at times. No matter what efforts I make to join progress I can't stop returning to the past. My blog posts alone are more than evidence of that.  Everything that has come before seemed so much better. I just keep embracing it.  I'm more than happy to do so and I'll certainly look to others to handle embracing matters of the future.

Bobby Wheezer Hutchins.

Maybe it's natural to reach back and hold on to all that was good in our lives.  We know what's coming.  We know the end of the line is a cold hard fact. It's a rather uncomfortable, inevitable truth isn't it?

My latest foray into the past has taken me back to the 1920s, and the films of Hal Roach, silent and talkie, in the form of The Little Rascals (1922-1944; 220 episodes) also properly referred to as Our Gang.  These are simply remarkable short films that still mesmerize me today. They were impressive when I was a child, but perhaps I'm even more than amazed by them today.

And so I go to these places and there is something terribly comforting and safe there. And if I'm to self-examine and be honest, personally, it is very much an escape to that place.  I'm perfectly okay with that.

Joe Cobb.

There was indeed something special about these kids, these Little Rascals - Our Gang.  It's not that each generation doesn't have its fair share of adorable children because they do exist.  I've had the pleasure to witness two of my own say the darndest things, experience them do the darndest things and surprise me with the kinds of responses that only an innocent child could deliver with such unscripted perfection you wish it was forever captured like it was for these short films.  What a treasure that is to have by the way.

Mary Ann Jackson.

But there was something special about the way Hal Roach captured the innocence of children back in an era now long gone and never to happen quite the same way ever again.  Most kids are captured on film today often exhibit a tendency to overact, flash fresh for today's idea of cute. Kids in film today are rarely presented in such impromptu fashion instead appearing overly rehearsed. On film, today's kids are either jaded, expected to act smart beyond their years or behave as if wise to the ways of the world portraying smart ass as cute.  There are certainly exceptions like The Courtship Of Eddie's Father (1969-1972), but even that was filmed decades ago. However, this may be the perception of a fellow looking through the rose-colored glass of nostalgia.  It's possible.  The Little Rascals had their moments, but they were far more precious than most and precocious with an innocence.

I suppose the irony of the evolution of children captured for television can be seen even within the evolution of Hal Roach's long-running The Little Rascals.  Change was in the air and it transitioned from silent film to the talkie. Television was becoming more advanced than ever.  With all that kids are exposed to through television today a loss of innocence it certain to naturally occur.

Joe Cobb shares a prayer.

I'm sounding like a curmudgeon here and I don't mean to.  Maybe The Little Rascals series wasn't as innocent for its time as it sure seems to be today, but looking back now these kids were hopelessly and endlessly sweet and funny and unpredictable. They were captured on film like never before or will ever be again.

Writers Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann deliver one of the best lines from their meticulously researched book, The Little Rascals: The Life And Times Of Our Gang (1992; revised from 1977), a dated book now but one that was a delight to read.

Maltin and Bann reflect, "It's nice to escape for a while from the uncertain future we all face, and retreat to the more leisurely joys of a certain past."  Precisely.  And precisely the case for me.

It is a book that is not only an entertaining page turner but offers a window into a period of television history one might hardly be familiar.  Through The Little Rascals the writing team offers remarkable detail regarding the transition from silent to sound.  It is books like this one that are still cherished despite the brilliance of that advancement called the Internet. The amount of information acquired in interviews and research for this book has taken decades and it is simply a wonderful document and bible to a series that should be remembered within our cultural development amidst The Great Depression (1929-1939).

Farina Hoskins.

What Hal Roach created with The Little Rascals was something of pure genius.  He wasn't looking for overacting. Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple were allegedly turned away from the series for exactly that reason.

Chubby Chaney and Joe Cobb see stars.

Roach was looking for the innocence of kids.  Roach was riveted by the simple act of kids scrubbing it out for the biggest stick in the yard. He saw the beauty in the little moments that parents have or family members have the opportunity to cherish. That simple innocence of kids is a forgotten gift and it was eloquently captured in these Hal Roach films.  These acts are a near impossible find today, which makes these not only phenomenally good fun, but a cultural and historical document archiving the way we were.

I don't know what led me back to the past this far.  I watched The Little Rascals after school when I was a young boy. I think they were broadcast out of Boston on Channel 56. They always caught my attention then, but seeing them again for the first time in decades I've hardly lost appreciation for what was achieved here.

Maybe it was listening to REO Speedwagon's classic Hi Infidelity (1980) recording for the umpteenth time.  On that effort a songs called Tough Guys opens with an audio tribute to The Little Rascals.  The clip features George "Spanky" McFarland, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer and Darla Hood.  I always smiled when I would hear that opening but perhaps it registered with me and sent me off on one of my unexpectedly crazy research missions.  In the audio clip, Spanky is bent out of shape that Alfalfa would forsake the He-Man Woman Hater's Club. Alfalfa insists he has to live his own life even if that means loving Darla.

Fortunately the series talkies have been archived beautifully on a seven volume DVD set for posterity.  Most of the silent films have been lost forever with the exception of a few.  How fitting it should mirror the lost art of capturing children on film.

Pete The Pup.

I shouldn't deny myself the beauty of technology. Once upon a time I went to great lengths with snail mail and phone calls to get the rarest of rare music and books. It would take weeks to sort these things out.  A subscription to Marvel Comics was managed through an envelope, a handwritten form and a check. When was that first comic book to have arrived?  I had no idea. I just hoped it would one day come and now bent.  Now it's all at the push of a button. Okay, I love embracing the past but I'm more than acutely aware that embracing the present and future is perhaps the best way to get there.  Yes, The Little Rascals was indeed The Brady Bunch (1969-1974) of another era, a beautiful glimpse into the world of kids being kids and discovering themselves.  Problems, solutions and their potential were all completely unencumbered by video games or technology.  Just amazing.  I remember that.  In fact, I remember all of that started changing with my generation.  Trust me, I welcomed the VCR and VHS and the proliferation of the cassette and the arrival of Atari.  I loved it all.

My first foray into The Little Rascals talkies as they are known highlight a number of the gang that maybe aren't quite as well known as Spanky, Darla, Buckwheat and Alfalfa. Perhaps one day we will give them all a look.

The first volume focused squarely on a still exceptional bunch of kids.  This group of kids was certainly no less charming.  Farina Hoskins. Joe Cobb. Mary Ann Jackson. Chubby Chaney. Jackie Cooper and Wheezer Hutchins are the true standouts from the first ten talkies.  Where are they now? Well, the book by Maltin and Bann delves deeply into their stories without the knowledge of these last many years. Sadly none survive. All have passed away.  The rotund and infinitely lovable Joe Cobb (1916-2002) is now gone. The naturally gifted funny boy Farina Hoskins (1920-1980) has since passed.  Tomboy and sweetheart Mary Ann Jackson (1923-2003) lived a good life. Cobb-replacement and darling Chubby Chaney (1914-1936) died unexpectedly at a young age from a glandular ailment and lived an unfortunately short life. The incredible delightful Jackie Cooper (1922-2011) lived the longest even appearing in our beloved Superman trilogy (1978-1983). The endlessly charming Robert Wheezer Hutchins (1925-1945) also died tragically and unexpectedly in a mid-air crash as a pilot during WWII training exercises at just twenty years of age.

Beyond some of these early favorites, other, better-remembered, aforementioned, unforgettable characters, and I do mean characters, have also left this mortal coil.  We shall one day embrace another look at those kids.  All together these Little Rascals came up with some outstanding moments.  It's nice to see there are still those of us who remember that and folks who might introduce those kids to their kids today nearing some ninety years later.

Wheezer In Action.

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