Hand color tinted photo of Carl Dean Switzer “Alfalfa”, The Little Rascals, Our Gang
Carl Dean “Alfalfa” Switzer (August 7, 1927 – January 21, 1959) was an American child actor, professional dog breeder and hunting guide, most notable for appearing in the Our Gang short subjects series as Alfalfa, one of the series’ most popular and best-remembered characters.
Early life and family
Switzer was born in Paris, Illinois, the second son, fourth and last child of Gladys C. Shanks (née Doerr) and G. Frederick Switzer. He was named Carl after the Switzer family and Dean after many relatives in his grandmother’s family. He and his older brother, Harold Switzer, became famous around their hometown for their musical talent and performances; both sang and played a number of instruments.
The Switzers took a trip to California in 1934 to visit with family members. While sightseeing they eventually wound up at Hal Roach Studios. Following a public tour of the facility, 8-year-old Harold and 6-year-old Carl entered into the Hal Roach Studio’s open-to-the-public cafeteria, the Our Gang Café, and began an impromptu performance. Producer Hal Roach was present at the commissary that day and was impressed by the performance. He signed both Switzers to appear in Our Gang. Harold was given two nicknames, “Slim” and “Deadpan,” and Carl was dubbed “Alfalfa.”
The Switzer brothers first appeared in the 1935 Our Gang short, Beginner’s Luck. By the end of the year, Alfalfa was one of the main characters in the series, while Harold had more or less been relegated to the role of a background player.
Although Carl Switzer was an experienced singer and musician, his character Alfalfa was often called upon to sing off-key renditions of pop standards and contemporary hits, most often those of Bing Crosby. Alfalfa also sported one of the most famous cowlicks in pop culture history.
Switzer’s country-boy sense of earthy humor could often be cruel. He enjoyed playing tricks on his fellow cast and crew members. One incident occurred when he put fishing hooks in the pants of Our Gang co-star George “Spanky” McFarland, and McFarland suffered severe cuts that resulted in his receiving stitches. Switzer tricked co-star Darla Hood into putting her hand in his pocket, telling her he had a ring for her, but in reality it was a switchblade knife. Hood almost lost her fingers from that incident.
By the end of 1937, Alfalfa Switzer had supplanted Spanky McFarland, the series’ nominal star, in popularity. While the two boys managed to get along (save for Switzer’s pranks), their fathers fought and argued constantly over their sons’ screen time and salaries. Ironically, Switzer’s best friend among the Our Gang kids was Tommy Bond, who played his on-screen nemesis “Butch”. In Bond’s words, he and Switzer became good friends because “neither of us could replace the other since we played opposites.”
After Hal Roach sold Our Gang to Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) in 1938, the now-adolescent Switzer’s behavior was even more extreme, and he often sabotaged the production of the Our Gang films. Once, during a break in filming, Switzer urinated on the set’s lights. When filming resumed, the lights heated up and filled the set with such a stench that filming had to be halted for the rest of the day. On another occasion, intending to get back at a rude cameraman, Switzer forced the other kids to chew as much gum as they could, and stuffed wads of spent chewing gum inside the camera. Switzer’s attitude towards authority impressed one of his younger Our Gang co-stars, Robert Blake, who, as an adult, became known for his disposition as an iconoclast.
The tenure of both Switzers in Our Gang ended in 1940, when Carl was twelve. Carl continued to appear in movies in various supporting roles, including I Love You Again, Going My Way, Courage of Lassie, and It’s a Wonderful Life and starred in the John Wayne film Island in the Sky where he coined the phrase “Whatever’s customary,” about the only line he spoke throughout the film, but one he repeated several times in it.
Switzer’s last starring roles were in a brief series of imitation-Bowery Boys movies; he reprised his “Alfalfa” characterization, complete with comically sour vocals, in PRC’s Gas House Kids comedies of 1946-1947. He returned to supporting roles, including a short stint as B-western sidekick “Alfalfa Johnson.” Switzer preferred not to recall his Our Gang work; in his 1946 resume he referred to the gang films generically as “M-G-M short product.”
Switzer had a fleeting cameo in the 1954 musical film White Christmas where his picture was used to depict an Army buddy (named “Freckle-Faced Haynes”) of lead characters (Wallace and Davis) played by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye and also the brother of the female leads (the Haynes Sisters) played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. He also did some acting for television.
His final film role was in 1958’s The Defiant Ones and on the television series The Roy Rogers Show, where he was called upon to reprise his off-key “Alfalfa-like” singing. Switzer’s difficult reputation and his typecasting as “Alfalfa” made it difficult for him to find quality work.
In the early 1950s, Switzer moved to Kansas. He lived and worked on a farm at Pretty Prairie, west of Wichita. There he met and married Diane Collingwood, the heiress of grain elevator empire Collingwood Grain. The marriage only lasted four months, but did result in the birth of a son whose name was a well-kept secret. In 2002, it was revealed that his son’s name is Lance, per his cousin’s statement on ancestry.com. In 1987, Spanky McFarland recalled a meeting with Switzer concerning the farm:
“ The last time I saw Carl was 1957. It was a tough time for me, and him. I was starting a tour of theme parks and county fairs in the Midwest. Carl had married this girl whose father owned a pretty good size farm near Wichita. When I came through town, he heard about it called. He told me he was helping to run the farm, but he finally had to put a radio on the tractor while he was out there plowing. Knowing Carl, I knew that wasn’t going to last. He may have come from Paris, Illinois, but he wasn’t a farmer!
We hadn’t seen each other since we left the gang. So we had lunch, we talked—about all the things you’d expect. And then I never saw him again. He looked pretty much the same. He was just Carl Switzer; kind of cocky, a little antsy, and I thought to myself he hadn’t changed that much. He still talked big. He just grew up.
” In addition to acting, Switzer bred hunting dogs and guided hunting expeditions. Among his more notable clients were Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (Switzer’s godparents), and James Stewart.
In January 1958, he survived being shot in the arm while getting into his car (his assailant was never identified.) Months later, Switzer was arrested in Sequoia National Forest for cutting down 15 pine trees. He was sentenced to a year’s probation and ordered to pay a $225 fine.
Prior to a hunting guide job, Switzer had borrowed a hunting dog from Moses “Bud” Stiltz. When the dog was lost, Switzer offered a $50 reward for the dog’s return. A man found the dog a few days later and brought it to the bar where Switzer was working. Switzer paid the man $35 and bought him $15 worth of drinks from the bar. Several days later on January 21, 1959, Switzer and his friend Jack Piott decided that Stiltz owed $50 paid to the man who found the dog. The pair allegedly arrived drunk at Stiltz’s home in Mission Hills to collect the money Stiltz “owed” Switzer.
He banged on Stiltz’s front door, demanding, “Let me in, or I’ll kick in the door.” Once Switzer was inside the home, he and Stiltz got into an argument. Switzer informed Stiltz that he wanted the money owed him, saying “I want that 50 bucks you owe me now, and I mean now.” When Stiltz refused to hand over the money, the two engaged in a physical fight. Piott allegedly struck Stiltz in the head with a glass-domed clock, which caused him to bleed from his left eye. Stiltz retreated to his bedroom and returned holding a .38-caliber revolver, but Switzer immediately grabbed the gun away from him, resulting in a shot being fired that hit the ceiling. Switzer then forced Stiltz into a closet, despite Stiltz having gotten his hands back on the gun. Switzer then allegedly pulled a switchblade knife and screamed, “I’m going to kill you” and was attempting to stab him with it, but just as Switzer was about to charge Stiltz, Stiltz raised the gun and shot Switzer in the groin. Switzer died of massive internal bleeding and was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
Jack Piott gave a second version of events to investigators. According to Piott, he and Switzer went to collect a debt from Stiltz, when an argument broke out. Piott said a brief struggle ensued and Stiltz brandished a gun and shot Switzer, who was unarmed at the time, in the groin. Then, according to police reports, only by begging was Piott able to save his own life.
The killing was held to be a justifiable homicide. Switzer had allegedly pulled a knife; therefore, the shooting was judged to be self-defense. During the inquest regarding Switzer’s death, it was revealed that what was originally reported as a “hunting knife” was in fact merely a penknife. It had been found by crime scene investigators under his body, but with no blade exposed.
On January 25, 2001, a third witness came forward and gave his version of the events of January 21, 1959. The witness, 56-year-old Tom Corrigan, son of Western movie star Ray “Crash” Corrigan and stepson of Moses Stiltz, was present the night Switzer was killed.
“It was more like murder,” Corrigan told reporters. He said he heard the knock on the front door and heard Switzer. Corrigan’s mother, Rita Corrigan, opened the door to find a drunk and demanding Switzer complaining about a perceived, months-old debt. Switzer entered the house followed by Jack Piott and stated that he was going to beat Stiltz. Stiltz greeted Switzer with a .38-caliber revolver in his hand. Tom Corrigan claimed to witness Switzer grab the revolver and the two began struggling to gain control over it. Piott broke a glass-domed clock over Stiltz’s head whose eye swelled shut. During the struggle the gun fired into the ceiling and Tom Corrigan was struck in the leg by a piece of shrapnel. After the initial shot, his two younger sisters ran to a neighbor’s house to call for help. “Well, we shot Tommy, enough of this,” he remembers Switzer saying before Switzer and Piott started to retreat. Corrigan had just stepped out the front door when he heard a second shot go off behind him. He did not see his stepfather shoot Switzer, but when he turned around he saw Switzer sliding down the wall with a surprised look on his face — shot in the groin. Corrigan said he spotted a closed penknife at Switzer’s side which he presumed fell out of his pocket or his hand. He then witnessed his stepfather back Piott into the kitchen counter and threaten to kill him, but as the man begged for his life, they heard emergency sirens which is why Corrigan believed Stiltz did not shoot him. Corrigan recalled that his stepfather lied in his account of the event to the authorities.
Following the shooting, Corrigan claims a now-deceased Los Angeles Police Department detective, Pat Pow, interviewed him and asked him if he would testify before a judge. Corrigan claims to have agreed, although for unknown reasons he was never called before the coroner’s jury. “He didn’t have to kill him,” Corrigan said.
Carl Switzer is interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California. His death went virtually unnoticed in the media, as Switzer died on the same day as Cecil B. DeMille. Switzer received only minor footnotes in most newspapers, while DeMille’s obituary dominated the columns.
Our Gang, also known as The Little Rascals or Hal Roach’s Rascals, was a series of American comedy short films about a group of poor neighborhood children and the adventures they had together. Created by comedy producer Hal Roach, Our Gang was produced at the Roach studio starting in 1922 as a silent short subject series. Roach changed distributors from Pathé to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in 1927, went to sound in 1929 and continued production until 1938, when he sold the series to MGM. MGM in turn continued producing the comedies until 1944. A total of 220 shorts and one feature film, General Spanky, were eventually produced, featuring over forty-one child actors. In the mid- 1950s, the 80 Roach-produced shorts with sound were syndicated for television under the title The Little Rascals, as MGM retained the rights to the Our Gang trademark.
The series is noted for showing children behaving in a relatively natural way. While child actors are often groomed to imitate adult acting styles, steal scenes, or deliver “cute” performances, Hal Roach and original director Robert F. McGowan worked to film the unaffected, raw nuances apparent in regular children. Our Gang also notably put boys, girls, whites and blacks together in a group as equals, something that “broke new ground,” according to film historian Leonard Maltin. Such a thing had never been done before in cinema but was commonplace after the success of Our Gang.
About the series
Unlike many other motion pictures featuring children that are based in fantasy, producer/creator Hal Roach rooted Our Gang in real life: the majority of the children were poor, and the gang was often put at odds with snobbish “rich kids”, officious adults and parents, and other such adversaries. The series was notable in that the gang included both African-Americans and females in leading parts at a time when discrimination against both groups was commonplace.
Senior director Robert F. McGowan helmed most of the Our Gang shorts until 1933, assisted by his nephew Anthony Mack. He worked hard to develop a style that allowed the children to be as natural as possible, downplaying the importance of the filmmaking equipment. Scripts were written for the shorts by the Hal Roach comedy writing staff, which included at various times Leo McCarey, Frank Capra, Walter Lantz and Frank Tashlin, among others. The children, some of them too young to read, very rarely saw the scripts; instead McGowan would explain the scene to be filmed to each child immediately before it was shot, directing the children using a megaphone and encouraging improvisation. Of course, when sound came in at the end of the 1920s, McGowan was forced to modify his approach slightly, but scripts were not adhered to until McGowan left the series. Later Our Gang directors such as Gus Meins and Gordon Douglas used a more streamlined approach to McGowan’s methods, in order to meet the demands of the increasingly sophisticated movie industry of the mid to late 1930s. Douglas in particular was forced to streamline his films, as he directed Our Gang after Roach was forced to halve the running times of the shorts from two reels (20 minutes) to one reel (10 minutes).
Finding and replacing the cast
As the children grew too old to be in the series, they were replaced by new children, usually from the Los Angeles area. Eventually, Our Gang talent scouting was done using large-scale national contests, where thousands of children (often at the behest of their parents) tried out for one open role. Norman “Chubby” Chaney (who replaced Joe Cobb), Matthew “Stymie” Beard (who replaced Allen “Farina” Hoskins) and Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas (who replaced Stymie) all won major contests to become members of the gang. Even when there was not a massive talent search going on, the Roach studio was bombarded by requests from parents who were certain their children were perfect for the series. Among these were future child stars Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Shirley Temple, all of whom never made it past the audition stage.
African-Americans in Our Gang
The Our Gang series is notable for being one of the first times in cinema history that blacks and whites were portrayed as equals, though a number of people, including members of the African- American community, do not look favorably upon the characters of the black children today. The four black child actors who held main-character roles in the series were Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, Allen “Farina” Hoskins, Matthew “Stymie” Beard and Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas. Ernie Morrison was, in fact, the first black actor signed to a long-term contract in Hollywood history, and was the first major black star in Hollywood history as well. In the 1940s he was the only black cast member in the popular East Side Kids film series.
In their adult years, Morrison, Beard and Thomas became some of Our Gang’s staunchest defenders, maintaining that its integrated cast and innocent story lines were far from racist. They explained that the white children’s characters in the series were similarly stereotyped: the “freckle-faced kid,” the “fat kid,” the “neighborhood bully”, the “pretty blond girl,” and the “mischievous toddler.” “We were just a group of kids who were having fun,” Stymie Beard recalled. Ernie Morrison stated that “when it came to race, Hal Roach was color-blind”. Other minorities, including Asian Americans (Sing Joy, Allen Tong, and Edward Zoo Hoo) and Italian Americans (Mickey Gubitosi), were also depicted in the series, with varying levels of “stereotyping” – commonplace in the stylized, slapstick comedy tradition in which the Our Gang films are firmly rooted.
According to Roach, the idea for Our Gang came to him in 1921, when he was auditioning a child actress to appear in one of his films. The girl was, in his opinion, overly made up and overly rehearsed, and Roach patiently waited for the audition to be over. After the girl and her mother left the office, Roach looked out of his window to a lumberyard across the street, where he saw a group of children having an argument. The children had all taken sticks from the lumberyard to play with, but the smallest child had taken the biggest stick, and the others were trying to force him to give it to the biggest child. After realizing that he had been watching the children bicker for 15 minutes, Roach thought a short film series about children just being themselves might be a success.
Under the supervision of Charley Chase, work began on the first two-reel shorts in the new “kids- and-pets” series, which was to be called Hal Roach’s Rascals, later that year. Director Fred Newmeyer helmed the first version of the pilot film, entitled Our Gang, but Roach scrapped Newmeyer’s work and had former fireman Robert F. McGowan re-shoot the short. Roach tested it at various theaters around Hollywood. The attendees were very receptive, and the press clamored for “lots more of those ‘Our Gang’ comedies.” The colloquial usage of the term Our Gang led to its becoming the series’ second (yet more popular) official title, with the title cards reading “Our Gang Comedies: Hal Roach presents His Rascals in…” The series was officially called both Our Gang and Hal Roach’s Rascals until 1932, when Our Gang became the sole title of the series.
The first cast of Our Gang was recruited primarily from children recommended to Roach by studio employees, including photographer Gene Kornman’s daughter Mary Kornman, their friends’ son Mickey Daniels, Roach child actor Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison and family friends Allen “Farina” Hoskins, Jack Davis, Jackie Condon and Joe Cobb. Most of the early shorts were shot outdoors and on location, and also featured a menagerie of comic animal characters, such as Dinah the Mule.
Roach’s distributor Pathé released One Terrible Day, the fourth short to be produced for the series, as the first Our Gang short on September 10, 1922; the pilot Our Gang was not released until November 5. The Our Gang series was a success from the start, with the children’s naturalism, the funny animal actors, and McGowan’s direction making a successful combination. The shorts did well at the box office, and by the end of the decade the Our Gang children were pictured on numerous product endorsements.
The biggest Our Gang stars in this period were Sunshine Sammy around whom the series was structured; Mickey Daniels; Mary Kornman; and little Farina who eventually became both the most popular member of the 1920s gang, and the most popular African-American child star of the 1920s. Mickey and Mary were also very popular, and were often paired together in both Our Gang and a later teenaged version of the series called The Boy Friends, which Roach produced from 1930 to 1932. Other early Our Gang children were Eugene “Pineapple” Jackson, Scooter Lowry, Andy Samuel, Johnny Downs, and Jay R. Smith.
After Sammy, Mickey and Mary left the series in the mid-1920s, the Our Gang series entered a transitional period. McGowan was often sick and unable to work on the series, leaving nephew Robert A. McGowan (credited as Anthony Mack) to direct many of the shorts from this period. The Mack- directed shorts are considered to be among the lesser entries in the series. New faces included Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins, Harry Spear, Jean Darling and Mary Ann Jackson, while stalwart Farina served as the series’ anchor.
Also at this time, the Our Gang children acquired an American Pit Bull Terrier with a ring around his eye; originally named “Pansy”, the dog soon became known as Pete the Pup, the most famous Our Gang pet. During this period, Hal Roach ended his distribution arrangement with the Pathé company, instead releasing future products through newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM released its first Our Gang comedy in September 1927. The move to MGM offered Roach larger budgets, and the chance to have his films packaged with MGM features to the Loews Theatres chain.
Some of the shorts around this time, particularly Spook Spoofing (1928, one of only two three- reelers in the Our Gang canon) contained extended scenes of the gang tormenting and teasing Farina, scenes which helped spur the claims of racism which many other shorts did not warrant. These shorts marked the departure of Jackie Condon, who had been with the group from the beginning of the series.
The sound era
Starting in 1928, Our Gang comedies were distributed with phonographic discs that contained synchronized music-and-sound-effect tracks for the shorts. In spring 1929, the Roach sound stages were converted for sound recording, and Our Gang made its “all-talking” debut in April 1929 with the 25 minute Small Talk. It took a year for McGowan and the gang to fully adjust to talking pictures, during which time they lost Joe, Jean and Harry, and added Norman “Chubby” Chaney, Dorothy DeBorba, Matthew “Stymie” Beard, Donald Haines and Jackie Cooper. Jackie proved to be the personality the series had been missing since Mickey left, and he was featured prominently in three 1930/1931 Our Gang films: Teacher’s Pet, School’s Out, and Love Business. These three shorts explored Jackie’s crush on the new schoolteacher Miss Crabtree, played by June Marlowe. Jackie soon won the lead role in Paramount’s feature film Skippy, and Roach sold Jackie’s contract to MGM in 1931. Other Our Gang members appearing in the early sound shorts included Buddy McDonald, Bobby “Bonedust” Young, and Shirley Jean Rickert. Many also appeared in a group cameo appearance in the all-star comedy short The Stolen Jools (1931).
Beginning with When the Wind Blows, background music scores were added to the soundtracks of most of the Our Gang films. Initially, the music consisted of orchestral versions of then popular tunes. Marvin Hatley had served as the music director of Hal Roach Studios since 1929, and RCA employee Leroy Shield joined the company as a part-time musical director in mid 1930. Hatley and Shield’s jazz-influenced scores, first featured in Our Gang with 1930’s Pups is Pups, became recognizable trademarks of Our Gang, Laurel and Hardy, and the other Roach series and films. Another 1930 short, Teacher’s Pet marked the first use of the Our Gang theme song, “Good Old Days”, composed by Leroy Shield and featuring a notable saxophone solo. Shield and Hatley’s scores would support Our Gang’s on-screen action regularly through 1934, after which series entries with background scores became less frequent.
In 1930, Roach began production on The Boy Friends, a short-subject series which was essentially a teenaged version of Our Gang. Featuring Our Gang alumni Mickey Daniels and Mary Kornman among its cast, The Boy Friends was produced by Roach for two years, with fifteen installments in total.
Jackie Cooper left Our Gang in early 1931 at the cusp of another major shift in the lineup, as Farina, Chubby, and Mary Ann all departed a few months afterward. Our Gang entered another transitional period, similar to that of the mid-1920s. Stymie, Wheezer, and Dorothy carried the series during this period, aided by Sherwood Bailey and a few months later by Kendall “Breezy Brisbane” McComas. Unlike the mid-20s period, McGowan was able to sustain the quality of the series with the help of the several regular children and the Roach writing staff. Many of these shorts include early appearances of Jerry Tucker and Wally Albright, who later became series regulars.
New Roach discovery George “Spanky” McFarland joined the gang late in 1931 at the age of three and, excepting a brief hiatus during the summer of 1938, remained an Our Gang actor for the next eleven years. At first appearing as the tag-along toddler of the group, and later finding an accomplice in Scotty Beckett in 1934, Spanky quickly became Our Gang’s biggest child star. He won parts in a number of outside features, appeared in many of the now-numerous Our Gang product endorsements and spin-off merchandise items, and popularized the expressions “Okey-dokey!” and “Okey-doke!”
Dickie Moore, a veteran child actor, joined in the middle of 1932, and remained with the series for one year. Other members during these years included Mary Ann Jackson’s brother Dickie Jackson, John “Uh-huh” Collum, and Tommy Bond. Upon Dickie’s departure in mid-1933, long-term Our Gang members such as Wheezer (who had been with Our Gang since the late Pathé silents period) and Dorothy left the series as well.
In late 1933, Robert McGowan, worn out from the stress of working on the children’s comedies, left the series and the Roach studio, going over to direct features at Paramount. With the large turnover from the departures of Dickie, Wheezer, and Dorothy, McGowan’s last two Our Gang comedies, Bedtime Worries and Wild Poses, focused heavily on Spanky and his parents, played by Gay Seabrook and Emerson Treacy. After a four-month hiatus in production, German-born Gus Meins assumed directing duties starting with 1934’s Hi’-Neighbor!. Gordon Douglas served as Meins’s assistant director, and Fred Newmeyer alternated directorial duties with Meins for a handful of shorts. Meins’s Our Gang shorts were less improvisational than McGowan’s, and featured a heavier reliance on dialogue.
Scotty Beckett and Wally Albright joined the gang at the start of Meins’s tenure as director, as did Billie Thomas. Within a few months of joining the series, Thomas began playing the character of Stymie’s sister “Buckwheat” (even though Thomas was a male). Buckwheat was first portrayed by Stymie’s sister Carlena Beard for one short, and by Willie Mae Taylor in three others, before the part became Thomas’s. Also, semi-regular actors such as Jackie Lynn Taylor, Marianne Edwards, and Leonard Kibrick, as the neighborhood bully, joined the series at this time. Tommy Bond and Wally Albright left the gang in the middle of 1934; Jackie Lynn Taylor and Marriane Edwards would depart by 1935.
Early in 1935, Carl Switzer and his brother Harold joined the gang after impressing Roach with an impromptu performance at the studio commissary, the Our Gang Cafe, which was open to the public. While Harold would eventually be relegated to the role of a background player, Carl, nicknamed “Alfalfa,” eventually became Scotty Beckett’s replacement as Spanky’s sidekick. Stymie left shortly after, and the Buckwheat character morphed subtly into a male. The same year, Darla Hood and Eugene “Porky” Lee also joined the gang, as Scotty Beckett departed for a career in features.
The final Roach years
Our Gang was hugely successful during the 1920s and the early 1930s. However, by 1934, many movie theater owners were increasingly dropping two-reel (twenty minute) comedies like Our Gang and the Laurel & Hardy series from their bills, and running double feature programs instead. The Laurel & Hardy series was switched from film shorts to features exclusively in mid-1935. By 1936, Hal Roach began debating plans to discontinue Our Gang until Louis B. Mayer, head of Roach’s distributor MGM, convinced Roach to keep the popular series in production. Roach agreed, and began producing shorter, one-reel Our Gang comedies (ten-minutes in length instead of twenty). The first one-reel Our Gang short, Bored of Education (1936), won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (One Reel) in 1937. Bored of Education also marked the Our Gang directorial debut of former assistant director Gordon Douglas.
As part of the arrangement with MGM to continue Our Gang, Roach got the clearance to produce an Our Gang feature film, General Spanky, hoping that he could possibly move the series to features as he had done with Laurel & Hardy. Directed by Gordon Douglas and Fred Newmeyer, General Spanky featured Spanky, Buckwheat, and Alfalfa in a sentimental, Shirley Temple-esque story set during the Civil War. The film focused more on its adult leads (Phillip Holmes and Rosina Lawrence) than the children, and was a box office disappointment. No further Our Gang features were made.
After years of gradual cast changes, the troupe standardized in 1936 with the move to one-reel shorts. Most casual fans of Our Gang are particularly familiar with the 1936–1939 incarnation of the cast: Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Buckwheat, and Porky, with recurring characters such as neighborhood bullies Butch and Woim and bookworm Waldo. Tommy Bond, an off-and-on member of the gang since 1932, returned to the series as Butch beginning with the 1937 short Glove Taps. Sidney Kibrick played Butch’s crony, The Woim. Glove Taps also featured the first appearance of Darwood Kaye as the bespectacled Waldo. In later shorts, both Butch and Waldo would become Alfalfa’s main rivals in his pursuit of Darla’s affections. Other familiar situations in these mid-to-late 1930s shorts include the “He-Man Woman Haters Club” from Hearts Are Thumps and Mail and Female (both 1937), the Laurel and Hardy-ish interaction between Alfalfa and Spanky, and the comic tag-along team of Porky and Buckwheat.
Roach produced one last two-reel Our Gang short, a high-budget musical special entitled Our Gang Follies of 1938, in 1937 as a parody of MGM’s Broadway Melody of 1938. In Follies of 1938, Alfalfa, who aspires to be an opera singer, falls asleep and dreams that his old pal Spanky has become the rich owner of a swanky Broadway nightclub, where Darla and Buckwheat perform and make “hundreds and thousands of dollars.”
As the profit margins continued to decline due to double features, Roach could no longer afford to continue producing Our Gang, and MGM, not wanting the series discontinued, agreed to take over production. On May 31, 1938, Roach sold MGM the Our Gang unit, including the rights to the name and the contracts for the actors and writers, for $25,000. After delivering the Laurel & Hardy feature Block-Heads, Roach ended his distribution contract with MGM as well, moving to United Artists and leaving the short subjects business. The final Roach-produced short in the Our Gang series, Hide and Shriek, was also Roach’s final short subject production.
The MGM era
The MGM-produced Our Gang shorts were not as well-received as the Roach-produced shorts had been, due to both MGM’s inexperience with the brand of slapstick comedy Our Gang was famous for and MGM’s insistence on keeping Alfalfa, Spanky, and Buckwheat in the series until they were in their early teens. On loan from the Roach studio, a frustrated Gordon Douglas completed only two Our Gang shorts for MGM before returning to his home studio. In replacing him, MGM began using Our Gang as a training ground for future feature directors. George Sidney, Edward Cahn, and Cy Endfield all worked on Our Gang before moving on to features; another director, Herbert Glazer, remained a second-unit director outside of his work on the series. Nearly all of the 52 MGM-produced Our Gangs were written by former Roach director Hal Law and former junior director Robert A. McGowan (also known as Anthony Mack, nephew of the series’ main director back at Roach, Robert F. McGowan). Robert A. McGowan was credited for these shorts as “Robert McGowan”; as a result, moviegoers have been confused for decades about whether this Robert McGowan and the senior director of the same name back at Roach were two separate people or not.
The Our Gang films produced by MGM are considered by many film historians, and even the Our Gang children themselves, to be lesser films than the Roach entries. The children’s performances are often stilted, with the fully scripted dialogue now being recited stiffly instead of spoken naturally. The stories were more heavy-handed, with adult situations driving the action, and the films usually incorporated a moral, a civics lesson, or a patriotic theme.
Porky was replaced in 1939 by Mickey Gubitosi, later better known by the stage name of Robert Blake. Butch, Waldo, and Alfalfa all left the series in 1940, and Billy “Froggy” Laughlin (with his Popeye-esque trick voice) and Janet Burston were added to the cast. By the end of 1941, Darla had also departed from the series, and Spanky followed her within a year. Buckwheat remained in the cast until the end of the series as the only holdover from the Roach era.
Exhibitors noticed the drop in quality, and often complained that the series was slipping. When six of the 13 shorts released between 1942 and 1943 sustained losses rather than turning profits, MGM discontinued Our Gang, releasing the final short, Dancing Romeo, on April 29, 1944.
Since 1937, Our Gang had been featured as a licensed comic strip in the UK comic The Dandy, drawn by Dudley D. Watkins. Starting in 1942, MGM licensed Our Gang to Dell Comics for the publication of Our Gang Comics, featuring the gang, Barney Bear, and Tom and Jerry. The strips in The Dandy ended three years after the demise of the Our Gang shorts, in 1947. Our Gang Comics outlasted the series by five years, finally changing its name to Tom and Jerry Comics in 1949. In 2006, Fantagraphics Books began issuing a series of volumes reprinting the Our Gang stories, most of which were written and drawn by Pogo creator Walt Kelly.
Later years and The Little Rascals revival
The Little Rascals television package
When Hal Roach sold Our Gang to MGM, he had retained the option to buy back the rights to the Our Gang trademark, provided he did not produce any more children’s comedies in the Our Gang vein. In the mid-1940s, he decided that he wanted to create a new film property in the Our Gang mold, and forfeited his right to buy back the Our Gang name in order to produce two Cinecolor featurettes, Curley and Who Killed Doc Robbin. Neither film was critically or financially successful, and Roach instead turned his plans toward re-releasing the original Our Gang comedies.
In 1949, MGM sold Hal Roach the rights to the 1927–1938 Our Gang silent and talking shorts. MGM retained the rights to use the Our Gang name, the 52 Our Gang films it produced, and the rights to the feature General Spanky. As per the terms of the sale, Roach was required to remove the MGM Lion studio logo and all instances of the names or logos “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer”, “Loews Incorporated”, and Our Gang from the reissued film prints. Using a modified version of the series’ original name, Roach packaged the 80 sound Our Gang shorts as The Little Rascals. Monogram Pictures and its successor, Allied Artists, reissued the films to theaters beginning in 1951. Allied Artists’ television department, Interstate Television, syndicated the films to TV in 1955.
Under its new name, The Little Rascals enjoyed renewed popularity on television, and new Little Rascals comic books, toys, and other licensed merchandise was made available for purchase. Seeing the potential of the property, MGM began distributing its own Our Gang shorts to television in 1956, and as a result, the two separate packages of Our Gang films competed with each other in syndication for three decades. Some stations bought both packages and played them alongside each other under the Little Rascals show banner.
The television rights for the original silent Pathé Our Gang comedies were sold to National Telepix and other distributors, who distributed the films under titles such as The Mischief Makers and Those Lovable Scallawags with Their Gangs.
King World’s acquisition and edits
In the 1960s a then-new distributor named King World Entertainment (now CBS Television Distribution) returned the films to television, and the success of The Little Rascals paved the way for King World to become one of the biggest television syndicators in the world.
In 1971, because of controversy over some of the racial humor in the shorts, as well as other content deemed to be in bad taste, King World made significant edits to its Little Rascals TV prints. Many of the series entries were trimmed by two to four minutes, while several others (among them Spanky, Bargain Day, The Pinch Singer and Mush and Milk) were cut down to nearly half of their original length.
At the same time, eight Little Rascals shorts were removed from the King World television package altogether. Lazy Days, Moan & Groan, Inc., the Stepin Fetchit-guest-starred A Tough Winter, Little Daddy, A Lad an’ a Lamp, The Kid From Borneo, and Little Sinner were all deleted from the syndication package because of perceived racism, while Big Ears was deleted for dealing with the subject of divorce. The early talkie Railroadin’ was never part of the television package because its sound tracks (recorded on phonographic records) could not be found and were considered lost.
In the early 2000s, the 71 films in the King World package were re-edited, reinstating many (though not all) of the edits made in 1971 and the original Our Gang title cards. These new television prints made their debut on the American Movie Classics cable network in 2001.
New Little Rascals productions
In 1977, Norman Lear tried to revive the Rascals franchise, taping three pilot episodes of the The Little Rascals. The pilots were not bought, but they were notable for giving an early start to Gary Coleman.
1979 brought The Little Rascals Christmas Special, an animated holiday special produced by Murakami-Wolf-Swenson, written by Romeo Muller and featuring voice work from Darla Hood (who died before the special aired) and Matthew “Stymie” Beard. Hanna-Barbera brought the animated gang back from 1982 to 1984 in a series of Little Rascals television cartoons for ABC Saturday Mornings. Many producers, including Our Gang alumnus Jackie Cooper, made pilots for new Our Gang TV shows, but none of them ever went into production.
In 1994, Amblin Entertainment and Universal Pictures released The Little Rascals, a feature film based upon the series and featuring interpretations of classic Our Gang shorts, including Hearts are Thumps, Rushin’ Ballet, and Hi’-Neighbor! The film, directed by Penelope Spheeris, starred Travis Tedford as Spanky, Bug Hall as Alfalfa, and Ross Bagley as Buckwheat; and featured cameos by the Olsen twins, Whoopi Goldberg, Mel Brooks, Reba McEntire, Daryl Hannah, Donald Trump, and Raven -Symoné. The Little Rascals was a moderate success for Universal, bringing in $51,764,950 at the box office. Critics and fans alike were quick to note that no surviving members of the original Our Gang appeared in the film.
Legacy and influence
The characters in this series became well-known cultural icons, and could often be identified solely by their first names. The characters of Alfalfa, Spanky, Buckwheat, Darla, and Froggy were especially well-known. Like many child actors, the Our Gang children were subsequently typecast and had trouble outgrowing their Our Gang images.
Several Our Gang alumni, among them Carl Switzer, Scotty Beckett, Norman Chaney, Billy Laughlin, and Bobby Hutchins, met with untimely deaths before the age of forty. This led to rumors that there was an Our Gang/Little Rascals “curse”, a rumor popularized by a 2002 E! True Hollywood Story documentary entitled The Curse of the Little Rascals. The Snopes.com website debunks the rumor that there is an Our Gang curse, stating that there was no evidence of a pattern of unusual deaths when taking all of the major Our Gang stars into account, despite the tragic deaths of a select few.
The children’s work in the series went largely unrewarded in later years, although Spanky McFarland received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame posthumously in 1994. Neither he nor any of the other Our Gang children ever got any residuals or royalties from reruns of the shorts or licensed products with their likenesses. The only remittances they received were their weekly salaries during their time in the gang, which ranged from $40 a week for newcomers to $200 or more a week for stars like Farina, Spanky, and Alfalfa.
One notable exception is Jackie Cooper, who was later nominated for an Academy Award and had a full career as an adult actor. Cooper is best known today for portraying Perry White in the Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve, as well as for directing episodes of TV series such as M*A*S*H and Superboy.
The 1930 Our Gang short Pups is Pups was deemed “culturally significant” by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2004.
Imitators, followers, and frauds
Due to the popularity of Our Gang, a number of imitation kid comedy short film series were created by competing studios. Among the most notable of these are The Kiddie Troupers, featuring future comedian Eddie Bracken; Baby Burlesks, featuring Shirley Temple; the Buster Brown comedies (from which Our Gang received Pete the Pup and director Gus Meins); and Our Gang’s most successful competitor, the Toonerville Trolley-based Mickey McGuire series starring Mickey Rooney. Some less notable imitations series include The McDougall Alley Gang (Bray Productions, 1927–1928), The Us Bunch and Our Kids.
After its original run was over, Our Gang continued to inspire works in various media focusing on children. These include, but are not limited to, films such as The Bad News Bears, The Goonies and The Sandlot.
In later years, a large number of adults falsely claimed to have been members of Our Gang. A long list of people, including persons famous in other capacities such as Nanette Fabray, Eddie Bracken, and gossip columnist Joyce Haber have all claimed to be or have been publicly called former Our Gang children. Bracken’s official biography was once altered to state that he appeared in Our Gang instead of The Kiddie Troupers, although he himself had no knowledge of the change. There are many other persons who have falsely claimed to have been Our Gang characters such as Spanky, Alfalfa, Froggy, and often other characters who never existed.
Among the most notable Our Gang impostors is Jack Bothwell, who claimed to have portrayed a character named “Freckles”, and went so far as to appear on the game show To Tell The Truth in the fall of 1957 perpetuating this fraud. In 2008, a Darla Hood impostor, Mollie Barron, passed away claiming to be one of the “Darla” actresses cast in the Our Gang series. Her AP obituary reported her as an Our Gang cast member. Another is Bill English, a grocery store employee who appeared on the October 5, 1990, episode of the ABC investigative television newsmagazine 20/20 claiming to have been Buckwheat. Following the broadcast, Spanky McFarland informed the media of the truth, and in December, William Thomas, Jr., the son of Billie Thomas, the actual actor who played Buckwheat, filed a lawsuit against ABC for negligence.
Another child actor of the era who claimed to have portrayed a character named “Freckles” in Our Gang was Wesley Barry. In the 1979 book Behind Japanese Lines: With the OSS in Burma, author Richard Dunlop, a former OSS member, made this statement about then-OSS member Wes “Berry.” Barry was in fact a child actor of the time who acted in films similar to the ‘Our Gang shorts, and was particularly known for his freckles. While it does appear likely that Barry did serve in the OSS in Burma in 1944, there is no evidence that he appeared in the Our Gang movies apart from this source.
Persons and entities named after Our Gang
A number of other groups, companies, and entities have been inspired by or named after Our Gang. The folk-rock group Spanky and Our Gang was named in honor of the troupe, but had no other connection with it. In addition, there are a number of (unauthorized) Little Rascals and Our Gang restaurants and day care centers in various locations throughout the United States. Ren and Stimpy, the animated stars of Nickelodeon’s The Ren and Stimpy Show, were first created as supporting characters on a proposed cartoon show called Your Gang about a group of children.
Our Gang children, pets, and personnel
The following is a listing of the best-known child actors in the Our Gang comedies. They are grouped by the era during which they joined the gang. Persons marked with an asterisk (*) are still living. The surviving members are Dickie Moore, Jackie Cooper, Dorothy DeBorba, Marianne Edwards, Jean Darling, Mildred Kornman, Robert Blake, Jerry Tucker, Sidney Kibrick and Jackie Lynn Taylor.
Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison (1922–1924)
Mickey Daniels (1922–1926)
Mary Kornman (1922–1926)
Jackie Condon (1922–1928)
Allen “Farina” Hoskins (1922–1931)
Joe Cobb (1922–1929)
Jay R. Smith (1926–1929)
Jean Darling (1926–1929)
Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins (1926–1933)
Mary Ann Jackson (1927–1931)
Pete the Pup (1930–1938)
Norman “Chubby” Chaney (1929–1931)
Jackie Cooper (1929–1931)
Shirley Jean Rickert (1931)
Dorothy DeBorba (1930–1933)
Matthew “Stymie” Beard (1930–1935)
George “Spanky” McFarland (1932–1942)
Tommy Bond (1932–1934 as Tommy, 1937–1940 as “Butch”)
Scotty Beckett (1934–1935)
Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas (1934–1944)
Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer (1935–1940)
Darla Hood (1935–1941)
Eugene “Porky” Lee (1935–1939)
Jerry Tucker (1931–1938)
Mickey Gubitosi (Robert Blake) (1939–1944)
Billy “Froggy” Laughlin (1940–1944)
Janet Burston (1940–1944)