Our Gang, Julia Lee's new book on the history of the much-loved Our Gang comedies of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, has a provocative subtitle: A Racial History of the Little Rascals. Let’s face it, if you're old enough to have been a fan of the black-and-white shorts — which, like many things from that era, had their last real resurgence in the ‘90s, thanks to LaserDisc reissues — you've probably found yourself at one time or other wondering how American audiences during the more or less Klan-friendly 1920s and ‘30s respond to the racially mixed cast of kids making slapstick “mischief” together. Wasn’t white America uniformly piggish toward its Black citizens? Did bigoted adults just grin and bear it for the sake of a few laughs? Surely there must have been some riots in the movie theaters or lynchings in effigy. Actually, that wasn't the case. As Lee discovers in this deeply researched and colorful history, the answers to these questions turn out to be varied, nuanced, fascinating and, at times, surprisingly gratifying.
Lee could have cast a wider, whiter, more “holistic” lens on things, but that would have meant a much longer book. “It is the story,” she specifies, “of the four African-American stars of Our Gang — Sonny Hoskins, Ernie Morrison, Stymie Beard and Billie Thomas — the gang within the gang …” So instead of just another fan book, this is a cultural history of the Our Gang phenomenon, the public responses to the films and to the “racial aspects” of the comedies.
As it turns out (and as one would expect), there were indeed “racial reactions” to Our Gang’s seemingly out-of-whack egalitarianism, so odd and so “liberal” for the time as to seem downright subversive and, in the truest sense, avant-garde. As Lee informs us, 1922 was both the year the Our Gang comedies debuted and a peak year for the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States.
The double-edged, contradictory nature of that era can seem so glaring as to be downright confusing: here was a time when even popular black film stars were expected to “go through the back door” or “take the service elevator” to attend their own public events. Segregation ruled the nation. Even Los Angeles movie palaces installed separate, upper-balcony sections of less padded, less comfortable seats known by insulting nicknames like “crow’s nest” or “nigger heaven,” take your pick. And yet this was also a time when movie fandom first attained its hysterical-pitch level, when street parades, attended by both black and white fans, were held in honor of cute little “Negro” Our Gang kids. This happened to the first certified star of the series, Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison.
Lee reclaims the story of Sammy’s now-forgotten fame, which didn’t outlast the Silent era. “Sunshine Sammy” was not only the first of several generations of Our Gang’s little-black-boy stars, whose fame often outshone the white members of the Gang, he was also the first black actor ever signed to a long-term contract in Hollywood (making the equivalent of $2,000.00 a week). According to Lee, the original Our Gang, the first generation, was built around him. Hal Roach OK'd the production of a solo “Sunshine Sammy” film in 1921 (bearing the regrettable title, The Pickaninny); the film was a hit and Roach scrambled to assemble a crew of kids for what he originally planned to call his “Hal Roach Rascals.” Meanwhile, Sammy was hailed in the Black press as a “race benefactor” who made both black and white people “forget their troubles,” and W.E.B. DuBois, the famed author of The Soul of Black Folk, posed for pictures with him that were later published in his legendary magazine, The Crisis.
The word “pickaninny” pops up endlessly in this book’s first chapters, and the reader has to decide whether or not to give Hal Roach and company the benefit of the doubt — that he and the studio were just pandering to the popular prejudice of a mass audience — which Lee often does. Roach, she points out, would not stand for off-screen racial insults toward anyone on the “Lot of Fun,” a fact attested to later in life by “Stymie” Beard (he was the Gang’s kid of color in the mid-1930s who wore the signature bowler hat, a gift from his hero, Stan Laurel). As “Sunshine Sammy” recalled, “When it came to race, Roach was color-blind” … “we all got along. No problems. And when we weren’t working, we were playing. And when we were working, we were playing! It was a beautiful childhood.” Bob McGowan, director of the comedies for many years, is credited with having a similar affection for Farina, Buckwheat, Stymie and Sunshine Sammy.
Farina started back in the silent era and may not be known to many old-movie cultists even now, but Lee recalls he was so
popular in the mid-1920s as an on-screen toddler that President Coolidge was a known fan and Duke Ellington recorded a 78 titled “Li’l Farina, Everybody Loves You.” Little Farina (yes, he was named after a breakfast cereal) was early on cast as both a boy and a girl, in dresses and pigtails; once he got too old for the films, the trade papers announced he was going to be replaced by “another of similar hue.”
Since many of the Gang-sters were sought out as adults to be interviewed by reporters and film scholars, Lee’s jam-packed history contains quotes from several of her main subjects, recalling (and here things get really sad) the problem that affects all child actors, whatever their race: “turnover,” the unavoidable moment when the fact of having grown too old arrives. Stymie (Matthew Beard, whose post-Our Gang life was a sad tale of petty crime and addiction) remembered getting a “funny feeling” that “they’d brought Buckwheat in when I started getting too large just as they had brought me in when Farina started getting too large; and I knew that Farina had had the same feeling when I took his place.”
Julia Lee is an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, but Our Gang is not one of those academically written film books clogged with jargon, but a fully fleshed-out and colorful pop-culture history: of Hal Roach, of the Roach Studios lot and both early Hollywood and L.A. culture.
As a serious researcher, Lee dutifully lays out the various institutionalized and insulting black character-stereotypes from the earlier age of minstrel shows that were inherited by the Our Gang series. This meant “pickaninny” roles for toddler-age black kids (pigtails, a cotton “dress,” exaggerated dialect, “mammy” talk, etc). The audience, the director, everybody was laughing at the kid more than with him (for instance, a black child falling into a barrel of flour was also a standard gag). But “while the series did employ racial jokes,” Lee writes, “it also exhibited an ‘egalitarian tone’ where ‘the Negro became a peer of the Whites.’” By the late 1930s, the more broad racial jokes at a child’s expense were gone. On the other hand, when an adult black man or woman showed up in these films in small parts — well, you don’t want to know.
Our Gang also suggests that, at least for a while (going way, way back), L.A. really was a more relaxed, less nasty environment for black people to live in, especially coming from the south (Los Angeles schools were desegregated as early as the 1880s). The great W.E.B. DuBois visited here in the 1910s and wrote, “Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed,” describing black Angelenos as “an aggressive, hopeful group … full of push and energy.”
But again, the see-sawing of attitudes and history played itself out here just as it did everywhere else in terms of race. “We suffer almost anything (except lynching) right here in the land of sunshine,” Lee quotes one colored resident of Los Angeles as writing, in the bad old days of 1912. “You can’t bathe at the beaches, eat in any first-class place, nor will the street car and sight-seeing companies sell us tickets if they can possibly help it.” In fact, a designated beach existed in Santa Monica for black people during the 1920s, the very moment that the following editorial, quoted by Ms. Lee, appeared in the Los Angeles Times: “When you consider that, man for man, in every way — in thrift, in property, in education, in art, in literature and in the highest forms of culture, the American negro stands equal today with the American white man, how can you fail to honor and respect him?”