16 March 2002 | wmorrow59
A sweet, engaging comedy from the silent-era Our Gang kids
Baby Boomers who grew up watching the "Little Rascals" on TV will remember the line-up as Spanky, Darla, Buckwheat, Pete the Pup with the ring painted around his eye, and of course Alfalfa, with his dorky hair and off-key singing. Some of those viewers might be surprised to learn that the Hal Roach Studios had been producing Our Gang comedies (as they were originally called) for over a dozen years by the time that particular group of kids was in place. In fact, plenty of silent Our Gang films were made before Spanky or Alfalfa had even been born. The series entries of the early 1920s bear a family resemblance to the later shorts, but are markedly different in some respects. Derby Day is one of the earliest and most enjoyable of the Our Gang films which feature the original silent era kids, and is well worth seeking out.
Perhaps the biggest difference in the silent comedies is the general looseness of the proceedings. Where the Alfalfa/Darla talkies of the late '30s are tightly plotted sitcoms, sometimes with a moralistic bent (especially after the series moved to MGM in 1938), the silent shorts are more spontaneous, even haphazard. The kids themselves are refreshingly scruffy, and generally don't look like well-scrubbed, cutesy child actors. And of course, they don't have to memorize and recite dialog like the kids of the talkie era. The gang is racially mixed, which occasionally leads to some stereotypical sight gags and dialog titles in thick dialect, but, at least in most of the entries I've seen, the atmosphere tends to be pretty good natured. There are two African-American child actors present in Derby Day, Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison and Farina Hoskins (still a toddler at this point), and they're very much accepted as members of the gang. This film also features a Chinese boy who appeared in two or three other Our Gang comedies of the period, and although we might wince when the title card tells us he's popular with the gang because they can all beat him up, in the scenes that follow he's treated in a friendly enough fashion. For the Hollywood of 1923, that's about as progressive as we can expect where race relations are concerned.
Derby Day follows a simple two-part structure: in the first half the kids witness an actual horse race, and in the second half they stage one of their own, with tricycles and neighborhood pets pulling wagons. The climactic race is quite enjoyable to watch, although animal-lovers might get a little uncomfortable with the rugged handling inflicted on some of the pets. Still, it appears that no one, child or beast, got hurt. In fact, they all look like they're having a pretty good time.
Maybe the best thing about the silent Our Gang comedies is that you don't have to hear Alfalfa sing. I'm one Baby Boomer who feels they ran that routine into the ground.