Your Gang and Some of Our Gang

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A couple of months ago before relocating to Maryland, I had some time in-between packing to watch some TV. Along with writing and painting about history I love to watch old movies. Turner Classic movie decided to run a marathon of all the  historical Hal Roach Classic Our Gang Series. They aired 48 hours of short films  from the silent movies era and other shorts I the 1930’s. Hal Roach created allot of comic shorts, but the Our Gang/Little Rascal s became more famous than any other  shorts. 

When I was in middle school  in Columbus, Ohio I  rushed  home every day  after school to watch the Little Rascals . I had some what of a  consciousness   of how racism  was displayed  in the series, but I enjoyed the creative  storylines in the time period of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Watching the series again frequently brought back good feelings and bad.

When I study history I always try to look at the time period  and social atmosphere that5863rascalsa   surround historical events. During the 1920’s and 30’s the Jim Crow law of 1876 were in full swing with no hope of turning back. America was heading toward the Great Depression. The  innovative short films brought to life the amusement, realities, and painful truth of society response to racism. The Arts have a way of documenting the trouble of every day society turmoil. The truth about the social climate  takes nothing away from Hal Roach ingenuous ability to capture the struggling life of poor kids during that decade.

Hal Roach  starting filming  the shorts in 1922 – 1944. Over 220 shorts were filmed by him in the Our Gang Series. He recorded them in sound for the first time in 1929. His ability to capture little people behaving and processing the world as adults in poverty and emotions was unique to his series.  Some commentaries  I read state  that the actors were on equal footing because  of the poverty depicted in  films at the time. The actors are all portrayed as poor, with the exception of a few rich characters that the gang constantly  fights with. The black actors that  are in the Our Gang series were just as poor as the white characters. However some of the slap stick routines  unitized racial stereotypes to push the buttons. In many of the series short Farina is  always left out or left behind. He is an outcast to the gang though he  is  also a part of the  gang. I know that feeling very well.

gang2 When I was young I wanted to attend a local pool to swim in, not to far from our house. There was a huge sign that said “ No Colors Allowed”.  I can recall riding my bike by the pool on a hot summer day wanting to swim. My white friends that I went to school with all year long would watch me from inside the pool. I considered them my friends all year during school. However  during summer  I remembers  the same kids piercing at me from inside the pool calling me, spook, nigger, darkie, and spear chucker. It was a very hateful experience. I would slowly turn  my bike around and head back home in tears. I never learned to swim.  When school started back up in the fall they carried on as my friend as if the event near took place. I was in the gang again.(Painting Crystal Pool by Janie McGee 2003)

imagesCAV3FN2J The Our Gang series had  several black cast members. In the early shorts they  were seen a great deal both in the gang and outside the gang. There were several Asian  actors also in the series – Sing Joy, Allen Tong, and Edward Zoo Hoo. The poverty for  all of  Our Gang  children was equal. I thinks as a  child I notice more the struggle of humanity than I did the racial divide. As a adult I watch the series and could see even more the diversity and racism, but I put it in  the in the context of American  history. It was  rare to see black in films during that time period. Such great actor and directors as Clarence Muse , Oscar Micheaux, and Spencer Williams tried to present a face for  blacks in films. The Birth of Nation was met with a  the film by John W. Nobles called the Birth Of A Race. I learned about Clarence Muse because in directing a play I wrote, his granddaughter was lead in it.( Dion Muse – below Clarence Muse with Bing Crosby)(Photo Hal Roach in black face)

The Our Gang actors  present the cuteness of childhood and the harsh reality of the decade of  living a hard life. The ingenious way Hal Roach used slap stick to make the best of a poor childhood is worth noting. Children should not have forego  such simple things as food  and having basic need met. The series captured the childhood experience wrapped up in the devastating poverty. It is the human will and desire to enjoy life  that is so captivating in his series. The humorous scene  in the  series adjust the emotional disturbing reality of the   lack of wealth among the kids. Many of the actors lived like the life they were filming. They were not like the new Hollywood  child actors we see today. There were picked up by a bus, tutored on set ,and went back home to life that was still a struggle.

List of Black Actors In Our Gang 1922 – 1938
  1. Allen “Farina” Hoskins                                                                                                                         Eugene “Pineapple” Jackson (replaced Sammy in 1925)                                                                  Matthew “Stymie” Beard (joined in 1930, became Farina’s replacement in 1931)

            Dorothy Dandridge

        Hattie McDaniel as Buckwheat’s mother (1935-1936)                                                                          Betty Jane Beard – Stymies sister/Matthew Beard  1929                                                                          Carlena Beard– Also Stymie sister 1931 Original “Buckwheat” was female  later given to a male                     Thomas Bobbie  Beard – Played “Cotton” 1932-34                                                                                Johnnie Mae Beard – Stymies mother played his mother  1934                                                                 Renee Beard  – Stymie brother  1940

stymie1 Stymie’s paycheck was used to help support his East Los Angeles family, including his 13 brothers and sisters. After Stymie renamed his younger brother Bobbie “Cotton” (which was also used as Bobbie’s Our Gang character name), his parents allowed him to name all of the rest of his siblings as they were born. He named one “Dickie” after his best friend, child actor and Our Ganger Dickie Moore. Four other members of the Beard family would appear in the Our Gang comedies. After Stymie left the series in 1935 at the age of ten, he went on to score some minor roles in feature films like,Jezebel with Bette Davis and Stormy Weather with Lena Horne. By the time he was in high school, he had retired from acting. Falling into drug use and street life, Stymie became addicted to heroin, and spent most of his early adult life in and out of jail because of it. In the 1960s, he checked himself into Synanon, a drug rehabilitation facility in Los Angeles, and got himself cleaned up. After leaving Synanon, he made a small comeback, appearing in small roles in feature films like,Truck Turner,and The Buddy Holly Story and episodes of television shows such as Sanford & Son and Good Times. He also traveled around the country, giving lectures on drug abuse awareness.
He died of pneumonia on January 8, 1981 in Los Angeles, California.

OurGangPic The cast of the Our Gang series was in constant transition as the actors grew up. The black actors  maintain a presence of some type in the series. They were replaced with a another black actor when they transition out of the short films. It is said  the series was “far from racist”  because of stereotypes  used were consistent with  America’s landscape on race and gender at the time. However that does not mean it did not  have  racist overtone. It just  means that it was acceptable to use stereotypes  in folks eyes in that light  of the racial problems in America . For example in  one short  Farina is ran over by a  train about 5 times before  being rescued. His  hair is sticking up with  white string tied around them in “comic fear”. The racist concept that black people get scared with big eye and flying hair is a stereotype.

Is it comical to watch? But in the back of your mind you will  feel disturbed.  There are also comical scene of white character doing “poor white” stuff that could be seen also as problematic, but not racist. Socially there  are part of the series that would not be acceptable. That time period is full of politically incorrect film. Take for instance Jimmy Cagney pushing a grapefruit in a women face. There  is a short of two men shooting a  guns at each other over this kids head in one Our Gang short. Is it  comical? In regard to the scene ,is it funny ? But there is a  thin lines of  danger that the short cross. I always  wondered “ where are these children parents?”

huck-finn I have watched so many of the shorts that I am not offended by the stereotype  because I understand it documented  history during that  time. The recent controversy over the rewriting of Mark Twain book “ The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn”  is another similar   issue. It document the time period that Mark Twain  wrote about  American’s history. I don’t think the books should be reedit to take out the  words that cause issue.  It looks at  history  with a verbal understanding of the  racism that was in America. In its own framework, it tells America’s story just as it is. It provoked conversation and dialogue about race that is needed.220px-Babybrother01  However I believe in freedom of speech. If it is not  to someone  liking, that is their  prerogative. It is however  a missed opportunity to deal with race. I respect both choices.

The Our Gang series does  such a similar thing. He provokes thought and conversation on  several area: racism, black Hollywood, white Hollywood, stereotype, poverty in America, disenfranchisement, and social  inequalities. It would take away from the truth that documents  America’s struggle with race and poverty  if the shorts  did not exist. The pleasant thing about the series  while  examining all of the intense topics ,you can  laugh at the  ingenious slapstick comedy.

 

 

The Our Gang series in many way paved the way for black child actors to have a place in Hollywood.  Stymies brothers , sisters, and mother worked in the series. It was in the family. It many have had heavy issues to deal with, but it helped bring a black  image to the screen –  both good and bad. It pioneered  for a presence  in films today . I have to give it credit for that.

gang2 Rather than take my word, check out some of the silent shorts  and judge  for yourself. There is even clip below of Eddie Murray SNL Buck Wheat to balance out  a different  view point on the Our Gang series. I will still watched them and enjoy the for what they where  with a understanding of history. It is the inventive way the  actors survived in the shorts  that  fascinate me more than anything. There took nothing and made something out of innocent  child play with an adult mindset of the world. The Our Gang series is Their Gang and Our Gang  shorts showing  American life through the  eye of children in the 1920’s and 30’s. It is  our history!

 

Blood of Jesus by Spencer Williams

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One thought on “Your Gang and Some of Our Gang

  1. Pingback: Western Suburbs Family Edition – Two or Five Open-Play Visits | 4 Real Cheap

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