Friday, September 28, 2012

The Little Racists: "General Spanky" (1936)

"General Spanky" is one of those films that will have you sitting in stunned silence, not knowing exactly what you are watching.

First of all, a history lesson: the "Our Gang" film series ran for over twenty years, and produced over 200 shorts for producer Hal Roach, and later MGM. All the entries concerned a group of elementary school-age kids getting into minor trouble. What was groundbreaking about the series is the fact that black and white children were shown playing together, as were girls and boys (according to film critic and historian Leonard Maltin, who wrote a great book about the short films). Over forty children would eventually become members of the Gang, with a few of them seeing untimely deaths, and problems transitioning to adulthood.

George "Spanky" McFarland was arguably the most popular member of "Our Gang," with tight competition from Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer. The films were syndicated on television as "The Little Rascals" and there are still many fans of the kids today. The shorts are very naive, but often hysterical. I had always read of a "lost" "Our Gang" feature film. It turns out this film was not "lost," so much as it was "racist" and "very politically incorrect."

On the eve of the U.S. Civil War, Spanky is shining shoes on a riverboat on the Mississippi. He meets the unlikely named Marshall Valient (Phillips Holmes), and discovers a card cheat taking Valient's friends' money. Valient is indebted to the little boy, but is on his way to an important meeting with the father of his true love Louella (Rosina Lawrence).

Buckwheat (Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas) is a slave on the same riverboat, and is constantly getting into trouble. His master and the other slaves go ashore without him, and when Buckwheat hears that all runaway slaves should be shot, he begins looking for a new master to take him in, in one of those infamous film scenes that must be seen to be believed. Buckwheat and Spanky meet, both fall off the riverboat, and find their way to Valient's plantation, where Valient invites them to stay.

Valient doesn't want to fight a war with the better prepared North, and is thrown out of Louella's father's home. Valient does relent, and ends up on the front. A Yankee general (Ralph Morgan) and the villainous Captain Simmons (Irving Pichel) and their men arrive and take the surrounding plantations. Spanky and the kids, now including Alfalfa, have a free pass around the soldiers. Spanky fancies himself a general (he almost defeats Simmons in a battle), and after Valient returns home, hurt, Spanky and Buckwheat do what they can to keep him hidden from the Union troops.

The film is not as blatantly racist as "The Birth of a Nation," or even the stunning minstrel number from "Babes in Arms," but I see a lot of explaining to children who might catch this and begin asking questions. The screenwriters (it took four to write this?) treat slavery and the Civil War as inconveniences. I realize this is a film made for the family, and there are a number of funny episodes strung together, but watching little Billie Thomas asking strange men if they would be his new master, or having Spanky claim Buckwheat as his slave to avoid a fight with other kids, is still something I had never seen onscreen before, and trust me, I thought I had seen it all.

McFarland, Thomas, and Switzer are nothing short of adorable, and were some of the best child actors to ever work a movie screen. The subplot about Valient and Louella's love is pure treacle, and the battle scenes are mild. I'm not sure why two directors are credited, unless one of the men held the camera's tripod while the other nailed it to the floor. This film was recently screened on Turner Classic Movies' (one of my favorite networks) "31 Days of Oscar" because it was nominated for a 1936 Best Sound Academy Award (losing to "San Francisco").

There has been talk of an "Our Gang" curse over the years, thanks to the early deaths of some of the performers, and the cast of "General Spanky" could be used as examples. Holmes was killed a few years later in a mid-air collision during World War II. Pichel would later direct, before dying of a sudden heart attack. Switzer infamously died young, stabbed during an argument over some money, Thomas died before the age of 60 in 1980 of a heart attack, and Spanky lived until 1993.

I don't know how audiences received this film when it was released, but something must have happened for this to be the only feature length film to come from the popular series. "General Spanky" is a definite relic, seek it out to satisfy your curiosity, and to hold your hand to your mouth and think "I cannot believe I just saw that" for an hour and ten minutes. (* * *) out of five stars.