17 September 2005 | wmorrow59
The Our Gang kids invade a movie studio and become Auteurs
For those of us who grew up watching TV in the Cold War era any mention of Our Gang (or "The Little Rascals" as they were known on the tube) summons up memories of Spanky, Darla, Buckwheat, and of course Alfalfa, forever singing off-key in homeroom class. It's the gang of the 1930s and early '40s we remember, since those were the shorts replayed so often in syndication packages, but meanwhile the Our Gang kids of the silent era have been neglected. Many latter-day viewers may not know about the first generation of once-famous rascals, including Mickey Daniels, Joe Cobb, Mary Kornman, "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison, and toddler "Farina" Hoskins. Producer Hal Roach launched the series in 1922, and although the earliest shorts aren't so easy to find they're generally quite enjoyable, and well worth tracking down. The tone is different from the later, more polished talkies; in these silent shorts the kids are scruffier-looking and their adventures are somewhat rougher. Dogs of War, the fourteenth release, is a delightful and unusual comedy that in my opinion ranks with the series' best entries. And although general audiences will certainly enjoy it for its own sake, it's a special treat for movie buffs, rife with inside jokes and layers of meaning.
The first portion details the Battle of Kelly's Tomato Patch, i.e. an elaborate game of war between the familiar kids and a rival gang. When these kids play war, they don't mess around: they fight in trenches lined with barbed wire, their officers wear makeshift Doughboy uniforms and helmets, and the "enemy" soldiers wear Kaiser Wilhelm-style spiked helmets. They have lots of toy guns, and for the startling climax they reveal their secret weapon: a home-made tank! Meanwhile, Mary serves as a Red Cross nurse in the Infirmary, and the boys are not above faking injury in order to be treated by her. Although this sequence is funny it works on a darker level, too: the comic battle depicted here is taking place only five years after the Armistice ended the Great War in Europe, and it's a little chilling to watch as these innocent kids lightheartedly re-enact a cataclysm they're too young to remember, and would only have seen in the movies. The sequence moves along briskly with lots of gags without dwelling on any unpleasant matters, but the heavier undercurrent is there.
Early on, there's a striking detail for those watching closely: adjacent to Kelly's Tomato Patch, serving as a backdrop of sorts for the children's war game, there is a movie lot labeled the "West Coast Studios." This is in fact the Hal Roach lot, coyly renamed for the occasion, and its undisguised visibility introduces a new element into the mix: we're given to understand that the kids we see in Dogs of War are Hollywood kids, kids who just happen to live and play near a movie studio, where playacting on a much grander scale is taking place all the time. Although it could be said that any children playing soldier in a backyard are like actors in a self-created scenario, here we have kids who are re-enacting a war drama just outside the gates of a factory where such dramas are actually produced -- and of course, these children just happen to be the famous Our Gang kids, playing outside the very studio where they are employed. There's a Pirandello quality to all this (i.e. actors playing actors, in a play-within-a-play) that someone could turn into a dissertation . . . to which the Little Rascals themselves would respond with a resounding raspberry.
At any rate, the plot thickens when Mary's mother arrives and takes her daughter off to earn $5 a day as a film actress, and here is where the world of the kids' playacting and the world of the grown-ups' playacting overlaps. After eluding an ineffectual security guard the gang invades the studio, where they dash through sets and ruin takes. They play on a treadmill before a Sennett-style diorama, they are menaced by a man in a bear suit -- a bored actor, I guess -- and then they encounter Mary on the set of a film entitled "Should Husbands Work?" This little epic is a comic highlight, an absurd pastiche of silent melodramas featuring hammy acting and clichéd, disjointed dialog, including a parody of Theda Bara's most famous line: "Kiss me, my Fool!" (Within a couple of years Miss Bara would be working on the Roach lot, satirizing herself in a good-natured fashion.) After they've been banished from the set the kids sneak back and make their own movie, which is then shown with the rushes in the projection room to the assembled studio staff. As in Buster Keaton's The Cameraman of 1928, the kids' accidental opus is a surreal mini-masterpiece of double exposures, visual puns and camera tricks, one final cinematic inside joke in a film full of them. And speaking of great silent comics, there's even a brief cameo by Harold Lloyd, seen on the set of his feature Why Worry?, which happened to be his last collaboration with his long-time producing partner Hal Roach.
Dogs of War is an original, a comedy so packed with inventive bits and unexpected twists that it hardly seems possible it's only about twenty minutes long. This is a must-see for silent film buffs, and should provide a pretty good time for non-buffs, too.