The central plot line of this silent Our Gang comedy will be familiar to fans who grew up watching their sound shorts on TV: the 1932 talkie Birthday Blues features Dickie Moore as a boy whose cheapskate father refuses to buy Dickie's mother a birthday gift, so the dutiful son and his friends come up with a scheme to raise money, and thus enable Dickie to buy her a dress he's seen in a department store window. (It's a Victorian-style dress, already an antique, but of course that's not the point.) Jubilo, Jr. tells a similar story, but does so in such an odd and unconventional way it ranks as one of the most unusual entries in the series' entire 22-year history.
Freckle-faced Mickey Daniels is the central player, the dutiful son who attempts to raise money to buy a gaudy, old-fashioned hat for his mother, since his tight-fisted dad refuses to celebrate her birthday. But however familiar the basic premise may seem to us from the remake, the structure of this silent version is quite different: the story is told in flashback by the grown-up version of Mickey, now apparently a tramp named Jubilo, who relates the story to three other hobos. The middle-aged Jubilo is portrayed by none other than Will Rogers, who first played this role in a feature film for Samuel Goldwyn in 1919. Audiences who saw this short on its initial release would certainly have remembered Rogers as the happy-go-lucky Jubilo, but even so, this retrospective framework is a little disturbing. While watching the story unfold we have a disquieting sense that the Mickey we see in flashback, the good boy who is earnestly attempting to raise money for his mother's birthday gift, will somehow wind up a tramp, homeless and shuffling down the road in ragged clothes, as we've seen in the opening sequence.
In any case, much of the film's running time is taken up with Mickey's efforts to raise $3.00 to buy that hat for his mother, and at first this involves typical chores such as "helping out" on construction sites—with disastrous consequences, of course—or serving as a grocer's delivery boy. But then in the film's second reel something completely unexpected pops up: Mickey decides to raise funds by staging a full-scale circus, complete with wagons, canvas tent, and a trapeze act! Suddenly we appear to be in a different movie. The kiddie circus sequence looks very much like other Our Gang comedies of the period, the ones where the kids would put on their own version of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," or Shakespeare, or a boxing match for paying customers, but in the context of this story it feels bizarre. If the kids can stage a circus on this scale, they could surely afford a three-dollar hat! The circus footage looks like it might have come from some other film—perhaps an unfinished project?—but as far as I can determine it is unique to this short, and remains something of a mystery.
The strangest part of all, however, is the ending. When Mickey brings home the gift there is a misunderstanding, and his angry father commences to beat him (which also happens to Dickie in the remake, Birthday Blues) but then the truth is revealed, and the boy's altruism is acknowledged. Father is suitably ashamed, while Mother, proud of her son, wears the gaudy hat to church. At last we return to the grown-up, ragged Jubilo telling this tale to the other hobos . . . and suddenly a crew member enters the scene indicating that the take was successful. It's revealed that we're on a movie set with a director, cameramen, and actors, and that "Jubilo" is the famous Will Rogers. And just as we're telling ourselves that everything we've seen is the plot of a film-within-a-film, Rogers' elderly mother arrives at the location in a chauffeur-driven limousine. Today is her birthday, and, in a little ritual she shares with her son, she dons the gaudy hat he bought her so many years earlier! Apparently, the story he has told his fellow "hobos," i.e. the other actors, is meant to be a taken as a recollection from Rogers' own boyhood.
I guess it goes without saying that this double-twist ending, however intriguing, doesn't stand up under scrutiny. In reality Will Rogers' mother died in 1890 when he was 11 years old, and his boyhood on the plains of Indian Territory (i.e. Oklahoma before statehood) was quite different from the suburban hi-jinx of Mickey and the other kids we see here. Presumably the folks at the Hal Roach Studio who made Jubilo, Jr. simply wanted to bring Will together with the Our Gang kids in an offbeat and entertaining way, and in this they succeeded. This short is unlike anything else the gang ever made, fascinating for buffs and well worth seeking out.
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