Judge Clark Douglas is a watered-down imitation of what he once was.
"What? There ain't no way Darla would leave me for dumb old Butch!"
When Hal Roach created the first Our Gang short back in the early 1920s, he had no idea that he had just begun a long-lasting cultural phenomenon. The entertaining short films about a group of mischievous-yet-lovable kids proved immensely popular during the silent era. Unlike many silent-film successes, the Our Gang shorts were able to transition successfully into the sound era in the late 1920s, and the Roach-produced shorts that ran from 1929 to 1938 are rightfully regarded as the cream of the Our Gang crop. Unfortunately, Roach eventually could not afford to keep producing the shorts on his own, so in 1938 he sold the rights to MGM and stopped producing short films entirely.
This five-disc collection rounds up all 52 shorts created by MGM between 1938 and 1944. Here's the rundown:
As you might suspect, these shorts aren't nearly as successful as the Roach-produced pieces. Not that there isn't anything of value in this set, but it must be admitted that to watch this collection is to witness the slow death of Our Gang. As the series proceeds, we see famous cast members depart one-by-one…first Porky, then Alfalfa, then Darla, then Spanky…in the end, the only cast members of note left when Our Gang concluded were Robert Blake's Mickey (who was never as interesting as the likes of Spanky or Alfalfa, anyway) and Billy Thomas' Buckwheat (who was sadly turned into more and more of a caricature as the show progressed). Leonard Maltin, a long-time Our Gang aficionado, does not include a single episode from the MGM era on his extensive list of shorts he considers to be the best of the series.
The packaging includes a warning on the back of the case that this is set is, "intended for the adult collector and is not appropriate for children." That may seem a bit odd to those who fondly remember watching Our Gang during their younger years (myself included), but the label is certainly justified. There's an awful lot of racial stereotyping going on here, ranging from subtly insulting (Buckwheat conveniently happens to get the short end of the stick more often than not) to blatantly offensive (the minstrel show in which all of the white characters wear blackface and Buckwheat wears whiteface). There's one scene in "Men in Fright" in which all of the kids are enjoying a feast of junk food. They're all eating hamburgers, hot dogs, and ice cream. Well, all of them except Buckwheat. He's plowing into a great big slice of watermelon, and makes it clear that watermelon is the only food he's interested in.
Such stereotypes afflicted Our Gang throughout its entire run, though it is worth noting that the program was considered socially progressive at the time. After all, it was offering a depiction of children of different races and sexes as equals. They were all part of the same gang and held the same rank, and there was little discrimination that took place amongst the kids (aside from Alfalfa's laughably juvenile "He-Man Woman Hater's Club," an organization that would always come close to crumbling whenever Alfalfa's dear Darla appeared). As with the Looney Tunes shorts that offer similar disclaimers, parents might want to be a bit selective about which shorts they let their kids watch (many are perfectly harmless), but I'm glad that the original material has been preserved. It's best to leave all warts intact when one looks at the past, as historical revisionism is offensive in its own way.
All controversy aside, these shorts just aren't terribly good in terms of the basic craftsmanship. Sure, it could be argued that they're slicker and more professional, but that's part of the problem. The Roach shorts had a reckless energy and unpredictability that made them feel both genuine and delightful. Everything feels much more staged and stiff in the MGM era. It's as if the studio felt that the kids should only be permitted to misbehave within much stricter parameters. Spanky in particular seems to be having much less fun in this era then he did during his devil-may-care heyday. Once upon a time, the Our Gang shorts were for kids. Kids loved them and identified with them, but the MGM shorts feel like they've lost that childlike sense of anarchy. Everything's a bit too cute and cuddly this time around; the liberating joy of misbehaving has faded considerably.
The transfer is fine, even if the level of detail is a bit less impressive than I would prefer. The expected stream of scratches and flecks are present, but nothing particularly distracting. Sound is certainly crisp and clean, much moreso than many of the earlier Our Gang shorts. As this is a Warner Archives release, there are no supplements.
Though I'm sure collectors will be very happy to have these shorts available on DVD at long last, this is far from A-grade Our Gang material. If you want to remember Spanky, Alfalfa, and the rest of the gang at their best, you may want to pass on this set.
The folks at Warner Bros. are free to go, but these shorts are guilty of
ending the Our Gang era on a sour note.
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