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 that 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.
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)
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
Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas (joined in 1934, became Stymie’s replacement in 1935)
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
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.
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?”
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. 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 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.
Blood of Jesus by Spencer Williams