THOSE JOLLY RASCALS KNOWN AS "OUR GANG"
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Although Hal Roach's Young Comedians Are Past
Masters in the Art of Merry-Making in the Movies
They Are Honest-to-goodness Children
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By Neil Anthony
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"Hail! Hail! 'Our Gang's' all there!"
We don't know of any song bearing this title, but the statement is 100% true in respect to the popularity of Hal Roach's little rascals in Pathecomedies. As far back as we can remember, when a jolly bunch get together for merry-making they usually express their joy by singing, "Hail! Hail! The Gang's All Here", and when it comes to providing some of the funniest movie comedies on the screen, there is no doubt that audiences would all join in singing, "Hail! Hail! 'Our Gang's' all There!", (here's an idea for some song writer).
"Shivvering [sic] Spooks!" and "Thundering Fleas!" - but "Our Gang" is funny!
We'll bet that you'll second the above statement just as emphatically as we have - and at that we've merely repeated two recent titles of "Our Gang's" "movie operas" for Pathe.
Greetings Farina, Joe, Jackie, Mary, Mickey, Johnny, Jay, and Scooter! No doubt your ears are burning now for we're going to tell a lot about you all. Our readers know each and every member of the world's most famous group of juvenile comedians.
A favorite trick of grown-ups is to tell a child to go and do something and neglect to tell him how to do it. The fun is in seeing just how the child will puzzle out a way of doing the thing in question. This very trick has a lot to do with the astuteness of "Our Gang". Robert McGowan is their director and he has been since the inception of the "Our Gang" idea, and from him we learned something of the methods he uses to induce the rascals to perform cleverly before the camera.
"They're just kids", McGowan told us. "And they are real kids on the lot as well as off. They're a great bunch of little troupers and are a pleasure to direct. I have no temperament to contend with like some of my fellow directors have with stars of adult age. They don't 'walk out on me', never threaten to 'take it up with their lawyers' and never get hysterical. All I have to do is to keep them natural. If I only gave them one rule of conduct before the camera it would be 'no acting'. As soon as a kid thinks he's a movie actor, he's spoiled as far as I am concerned", declared the director.
"Our Gang" has made fifty-four Pathe comedies in a little over four years. Their school teacher has been the same for about three years -- Mrs. Fern Carter, a woman who sympathizes with them in the matters of lessons just as Mr. McGowan understands them in their film work.
Mrs. Carter has been very successful in schooling the "gang". Put children in a school room day after day and they want to look out of the window - put them outside the window "where things are going on" and they'll pay closer attention to their text books. This novel viewpoint concerning educational problems as expressed above comes from none other than Mrs. Carter.
Just six of the eight members of "Our Gang" are old enough to attend school. They have their own private class room at the Hal Roach Studios in California, as quiet and secluded as can be. With one teacher for six children, their work is naturally rapid and thorough.
"Doesn't the necessity of giving them their schooling sometimes on location distract from the concentration?" a visitor asked Mrs. Carter.
The teacher explained that in the school room their minds, as the minds of all children, naturally wonder after their glances to the windows, just what is going on outside. But sitting in a bus or around the set on location, it is different - "They have everything that is 'outside the window' before them and they can see, without difficulty, that it's really not interesting at all", Mrs. Carter said. "You see, a child inside a school room with windows as his only avenue of contact with things happening outside is constantly irritated with curiosity. An unusual noise or a whisper of something happening outside will make every child want to go to the windows to see, and being prohibited from that they can't concentrate on their lessons. But put them outside and then a casual glance around assures them that 'all is well' and nothing exciting is happening - then a school book becomes interesting by contrast".
"However, the public must not get the idea that these children are over-educated and sophisticated. Such is far from the case. Their brightness is natural child smartness and not the weary wisdom of child prodigies. Hal Roach laid down the policy at the very start that none of the "gangsters" should be forced to study more than "school requirements" or be induced to talk or act like adult standards dictate.
Therefore, being just natural children, their treatment at the hands of their director is worth relating in some detail. First of all, Mr. McGowan never loses patience with them visibly. He may turn his back and say things to the cameraman, Arthur Lloyd, or his assistant, Charley Celze, that aren't the most peaceable expression of his feelings, but he refrains from showing the children anything but perfect good nature at all times.
Upon starting a sequence - or section - in a story, he is likely as not to say, "Now listen kids - I've got a great idea but it isn't finished. I want you to go in this scene and play like you're having a game of baseball, only I want you to have a lot of fun with it and act as funny as you want to. I don't care what kind of a game of baseball you make it, just do what you want to. Now - what are you going to do? Let me see you do it, will you"?
Director McGowan tells the kids to enter the scene from a certain side or dictates where their exit will be, but he never rehearses them in the exact course of their action. That is pretty much up to them. Of course, he really leads them to do certain things, but they don't realize he is doing it. They think they are doing it themselves, consequently they always have ideas about scenes which are good ideas -- and numerous.
Stories are never written down on paper in exact scenes. McGowan goes away from the studio for a few days when he is preparing a new story and thinks up the various angles of plot which he will use. Several gag men of the staff of F. Richard Jones, director-general, assist him with ideas which he molds into one complete story -- but in his mind, not on paper.
The reason why there is no written scenario is that youngsters are not natural in a scene unless you let them think up bits of action of their own with which they can embellish the director's orders. If a written scene is the object and a director makes a determined attempt to get it as written, likely as not he'll have an awful muddle of film on his hands, with the children acting like so many sticks of wood.
Mr. McGowan carries the story in his head - a myriad ideas with their continuity largely a matter of skill and close attention.
This director has made gag development a "sporting proposition" with the youngsters. To keep them interested in their work and encourage each and every member of the "gang" to thoroughly enter into the spirit of the film scenes, he has a standing offer of twenty-five cents reward for each gag suggested that is used before the camera.
How the "gang" responds to the gag prize idea is shown by a recent experience at the studio. All the troupe had asked their director to use Mary Kornman's baby sister Mildred in a comedy. So, McGowan offered his usual reward to the member who suggested the best gag to introduce little Mildred. Joe Cobb, the fat boy, won a prize by suggesting a "gag" or situation device whereby little Mildred could be introduced into a picture. The result is shown in "The Fourth Alarm", a new Pathecomedy.
"Why not have her sick with worms an' have me givin' her medicine ever' fifteen minutes with 'n' alarm clock around my neck to go off that often and help me remember to give her her medicine"? he offered.
So that's the gag on which Mary's little sister, Mildred, made her debut. Nine out of ten babies simply can't do a thing in front of a camera -- they're too interested in the camera and the people around it. But Bob McGowan and the baby's mother coached her patiently and long, and finally were rewarded by some of the funniest closeups ever obtained of a baby. Mildred Kornman is a "hit" and the other members of "Our Gang" yell "We tolja so -- we tolja to use her!".
McGowan's working plan closely resembles that of an efficiency engineer in a large industrial organization who played "dumb" to the workmen and asked a surprisingly large number of questions. This efficiency engineer would go into a branch of the factory and ask questions. Half the workman thought he was a very nice "guy" but that he didn't know a whole lot about the business. However, his questioning started them writing suggestions and sending them in to him and he would pay bonuses for ideas that were really based upon his own - inspired by clever questioning.
Director McGowan's plan is identical and any wise director of child actors knows it is a good method. He asks Farina, Mary, Johnny, Jay, Mickey, Scooter or Joe, "Now how would it be if you did it this way? Isn't that fine? What's that? You want to do it this way? Sure! That's a splendid idea - but listen, would it work out all right, do you think, if you went around the corner first"?
Thus we may conclude that TACT is the great requisite of a director of children in the movies and that Director McGowan possesses tact PLUS.
"Our Gang" has plenty of fun between scenes and at other moments of leisure. They stage anything from a concert to a wrestling match. Here is what took place when the little troupe put on a wrestling match which drew a star audience to the ring:
"Here's ten on Mickey -- look at that red-headed Irishman's grip".
"Five you're wrong! Ten it lasts three minutes more".
"Look at Johnny Down's face! That kid will bust in a minute".
"Huh-- Mickey Daniels ain't sleeping through it-- you can't see a freckle, his face is so red".
"If this isn't the year's best wrestling match I'm Ben Hur. Hey, Leo McCarey! Come here and pick your man if you wanta argue. This is a battle to the death. Look at Joe Cobb sweat as if he was doing the wrestling-- he must have a soda pop up on Mickey".
"Charley Chase! Ten dollars says I can pick the winner".
With Charley Chase, Glenn Tryon, Jimmie Finlayson, Tyler Brooke, Martha Sleeper, Vivien Oakland and two of the lot's directors--Leo McCarey and Robert McGowan-- in ringside position among the seventy or eighty spectators, the best wrestling match of the season was staged between Mickey and Johnny. No doubt Frank Gotch could have learned a lot if he had been there, and all these funny men with a flock of Z's, and K's in their names, lost by not being at the show.
Mickey and Johnny are practically the same size and age. Mickey has the advantage by a few ounces and weeks. Johnny is fast on his feet and has good balance.
The audience, when the question of superior wrestling skill came up for settlement, was fast on its feet but balance was lacking. It went hog-wild and bets flew like snowflakes.
Both wrestlers have fully recovered from their vaccinations and had eaten steak and eggs for lunch.
They did a Spring dance and then a Charleston, according to the version offered by Warren Doane, general manager, until an unforeseen propulsion precipitated their clinch. Johnny's balance was a little better so he managed to locate himself about eight inches from the ground, with Mickey interfering with the laws of gravity. But Mickey got one of those holds around Johnny's neck which are the favorite motif for sport writers' wisecracks and for seven minutes and twenty-two seconds, by Glenn Tryon's watch, they remained so despite the efforts of either to change the situation. At the end of that time Mickey remembered his correspondence school technique and stood on his head with an unexpectedness which found Johnny unprepared. Without a single subtitle Mickey was transplanted to Johnny's chest. "Down!", said Johnny weakly, "but I'll go you again for two out of three".
A conference of the Parents' Association at this point brought a proclamation that further bouts would have to be staged later. Johnny was broken-hearted, but he and Mickey talked it over while drinking out of the same soda pop bottle and agreed on a tentative date for a renewal of the debate.
Every second person one meets wonders just how children are chosen for "Our Gang" and if many children are given try-outs for the troupe. We can best answer this in the words of McGowan:
"Just because 'Our Gang' is so successful about every third youngster in Los Angeles and for miles around is regarded as promising material and potential stars - by their parents. The descend upon me in hordes, waylay me when I least expect it and make my life one terrible burden.
"I don't mind seeing the youngsters, so much, but those who have them in charge! My word, I'm just about a fit subject for the padded cell. Sometimes it's the father, but nine times out of ten it is the proud mama who brings her offspring to me, determined to make her dear little girl or her precocious son a member of our juvenile troupe. Did you ever try to talk to the mother of the most wonderful child actress in captivity -- for that's what they all are, every last one of them - and try to tell them just why it is you can't use their child in your next picture? Well, it's a hopeless job, for they are absolutely convinced that their boy or girl is positively talented and that we are trying to work some conspiracy to keep Johnny or Nellie off the screen.
"If we used one-tenth of all the youthful talent offered us each month, our 'Our Gang' comedies would look like a battle scene from 'The Birth of a Nation'," concluded Robert McGowan - "Our Gang's" Daddie - as he autographed his photographs.
The popularity of "Our Gang" has proven a handicap to their location work. Anywhere Robert McGowan takes the Hal Roach troupe of youngsters, crowds gather.
One day recently important scenes were being shot at the busy intersection of Washington, Main and Van Buren in Culver City, early in the morning, and it became necessary to call for additional aid from the Culver City police department to keep the spectators out of the scenes who were standing in "mass formation" staring at the kids.
Also, McGowan had to "alibi" several youngsters of Culver City who were late to school that morning!
A wire from the Coast has just informed us that the "Gang" is making a lively two-reel comedy called, "Telling Whoppers" and something tells us that it is going to be released some time near Washington's Birthday or thereabouts.