01/24/03
Hal Roach and Our Gang
    by John Cech

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You're hearing the famous theme song from the 1930s movie series that we know as "The Little Rascals," played by a present-day Dutch dance band called the Beau Hunks. That a whole CD would be devoted to Little Rascals music gives you an idea of how deep the fan base runs for this enduring, endearing string of films about children in particular and childhood in general.

The Little Rascals were the brainchildren of Hal Roach, one of the early producers of comedies in Hollywood. Roach would have been a hundred and eleven this month; as it is, he was an even hundred when he died in 1992. He was the son of Irish immigrants and took that fabled advice as a young man and went west, first to Alaska to pan for gold, and then migrating south into California, working at whatever he could find, he ended up as an extra on a Hollywood movie lot. Almost immediately he met the comedian Harold Lloyd, and soon they were making pictures together. And that, as they say, was that.

In 1922, when Roach was thirty, he happened to be watching a bunch of kids playing with a stick of wood. According to one report, he was transfixed by what the children were doing, and it suddenly occured to him that if such a simple scene held him in its grip, it just might work for a movie audience, too. So he began searching out everyday, non-actor type kids to play in these silent comedy slices of everyday life, which he originally titled "Our Gang." He would make 88 of these films, and then another 80 sound films before he finally sold the Our Gang name to MGM studios in 1938. When the movies went on television in the 1950s, Roach renamed the originals, to which he still owned the rights, "The Little Rascals."

Together, these films gave us a constellation of indellible archetypes -- nice kids and bullies, show-offs and tag-alongs, rich kids and ragamuffins. There were teachers like Miss Crabtree, whom all the kids adored, and little girls with names like Darla, who had all the boys mooning. The kids played hookey and put on talent shows and saved grandmothers from scurrilous landlords. They fought and teased and forgave and gave their hearts away -- to faithful dogs with circles round their eyes, to new girls in school, and to each other. For whatever else these movies were about, they were always about friendship and the boundless love of children spilling over into everything they did.

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Copyright 2003 John Cech

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Tuesday, 07-Jan-2003 21:26:22 EST


"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."