by Sam Juliano
If a film professor in a college class entitled “Introduction to the Cinema” posed a question to his or her charges along the lines of “Give a comprehensive definition of screen comedy” one of a number of those in the know might play the game of sub-genre, coming up with a multitude of such illustrious phrases as “satire,” “screwball,” “slapstick,” “spoof or parody,” “comedy of manners,” “romantic comedy,” “black comedy.” or “gross out comedy.” More than any other single genre, the comedy is most often prone to overlap, and few films throughout the hundred-year run of the cinema are completely devoid of comic relief. The Our Gang comedy shorts that ran from 1922 to the mid 40′s fall into none of the aforementioned categories, yet by practically all baromters of measurement they have been enjoyed and appreciated as films that brought extensive laughter and a respite from Depression and war era hardships. The term ‘humanist comedy’ may not be automatically recognizable to either the student or the layman, in fact it’s esentially the domain of the character-driven series that ingeniously, but with seemingly little effort, combined laughter and tears to enhance each element with a life-affirming focus on the laudable concept of humor curing all ills. The Our Gang comedies were noted for their pathos, broken families, economic deprivation and gloomy prospects for advancement. The humor, often of a precocious, mischievious variety was invariably imbued with an aching quality that managed to envision the conviction that “I laughed so hard that I cried.” To be sure there is a fair dose of sentiment in this equation which is more prevalent in some of the shorts than others, but it’s applied in a manner that generates endearment instead of saccharine overload. The Our Gang kids are naturals who through their resilience and street-wise ingenuity are often able to eclipse their elders in overcoming some of the social ills and impovishment that maligned the population in the years the shorts were made.
As alluded to in length at the thread of the previous Our Gang short film that placed in the countdown (The Kid from Borneo at No. 98) race relations and suggested stereotyping play a big part in various roles and situations that made up the screenplays. As per a tabloid interview with the late Allen “Farina” Hoskins in 1975 the actor opined: “I think that for that time period, and even now, that it was a unique series. They were a bunch of kids, and even though there was a certain amount of stereotyping among the black kids, I’d go as far as to say that maybe it was the first time, using the public medium, that kids were shownh as just kids with a cross section of what makes up American kids, blacks and whites, and a few others thrown in. Even the whites were stereotyped. There was the classic fat boy, the freckle-faced boy, the little blond angel–all the usual stereotypes. But they related to each other as a bunch of kids, doing all the crazy things that kids do. There was a certain degree of stereotyping and there was quite a bit of dialect used. We might as well face it, thirty or forty years ago, a lot of our people were talking in dialect and a lot of them are still doing it now. I think that Bob McGowan and Hal Roach were ahead of their time; I can’t think of anything that compared to the series that showed the equal inner relationships among the races.” Hoskins’ conviction notwithstanding, the series was created at a time when race issues were undeniable, and whether innocuous or otherwise they reflected the accepted order at a time well before tensions escalated.
Dogs is Dogs, the 110th film in the series, combines humor and heartbreak in a story of broken marriage, child abuse, children trapped by fate and an indifferent system that allows the tyrannical guardianship to continue. Much like the equally popular and deeply-felt Pups is Pups (No. 100) the short’s humanist underpinning is showcased in the sincere attachment of boy to dog. The opening scenes show the film’s scene-stealing “Wheezer” frolicking with the patch eyed Pete the Pup in bed, despite the stern ban on such activity from a nasty step-mother who isn’t averse to enacting beatings for disobediance. Th tearful scenes at the dog pound are undoubtably the most moving in the entire series, and after 22 minutes or so of knowing Wheezer it’s practically impossible not to succumb. The basic story has Wheezer and his sister Dorothy living with the mean guardian (nicknamed “Old Hachet Face” by their enterprising African-American friend Stymie) and her obnoxious and spoiled son Sherwood. After absorbing a bare handed licking for allowing Pete into the house in a situation that no doubt was a common occurance, Wheezer is ordered to keep close watch on the pampered Sherwood, while she attends to some business downtown. Then in succession come two scenes that must surely rank among the finest in the Our Gang series. Stymie engineers a splendid bit of chicanery that delights both Wheezer and Dorothy, and the charmed audience. Sherwood is seen finishing a nice breakfast of ham and eggs for himself (quite a king’s banquet during the Depression, especially for poorer families) while Wheezer and Dorothy for the umteenth time are limited to “mush.” Sherwood rubs in the indignation by feeding his dog Nero his unfished ham. Stymie puts the situation in a lighter perspective when he announces: “What? Mush again? You know you’s the mushiest people I ever did see.” Stymie is rebuked by Sherwood who reminds him he’s not allowed in the house, but Stymie, sly and street-wise presses on, staying that he just wants to hand around by the door and “smell.” Licking his lips while eyeing some uncooked ham and eggs, he asks Sherwood if he knew that “ham and egg can talk.” Sherwood shoots back unconvinced with “Who ever heard of such a thing,” for which Stymie insists “Well I heard ‘em talking this morning.” Wheezer, flashing the winning smile that once had Our Gang creator Hal Roach proclaiming “That was a kid with great charm and wide appeal” immediately understood the scam and plays along with a grin and the question “What’d they say?” to which Stymie retorts with the classic “Well, the ham said to the eggs, ‘Move over there, white boy, you’s crowding me.” Wheezer continues with “Then what’d the eggs say?” Undaunted, Stymie reveals “Ham, I ain’t crowding nobody. I’m just nibbling’ around in this here grease.” Sherwood still is unconvinced and at that point grows impatient, when nothing happens. To a legion of younger Rascals fans, no doubt a first viewing of this film has many of them believing Stymie lock, stock and barrel, and fully expectant of a miracle. Finally Sherwood tells Stymie he’s crazy, and the smooth youngster responds “Yeah, you’re one of them wise guys, ain’t cha?” Stymie quickly lobbies for leverage and asks both Wheazer and Dorothy if they believe it and is rewarded with affirmative acknowledgements.
Finally Sherwood takes the bait and carries over the future meal waiting for the “conversation” to begin. Stymie continues the subterfuge in wholly convincing demeanor urging the spoiled but clueless youth: “You gotta kinds mess’ em up…..in a fryin pan…then they’ll talk! Already deep into the ruse Sherwood fries the ham and eggs, with Stymie serving as a coach to “You know ya gotta kinda turn ‘em over, shuffle em around a little bit.” After the food is cooked Stymie comes clean and implies he may have heard wrong. Sherwood leaves the house triumphantly telling him “He always knew they couldn’t talk” but in fact the real winners are the overjoyed kids led by Wheazer who happily announce “Let’s eat!” Stymie looks at his portion in response to a question from Wheazer about his original claim about the ham and eggs talking, stating “Well, they’re saying hello to my stomach r-i-i-i-ght now!”
Then comes the other priceless set piece, initiated while the kids are finishing their breakfast. The boys are told that Sherwood has fallen into a well, which is music to Wheazer’s ears, and reason to delay any effort to rescue his despised unrelated “sibling.” Eventually Wheazer heads over to hear a frantic Sherwood calling for his mother. Truth is Sherwood was pushed in my his own Nero, They offer the caged boy a rope and pull him nearly out, but quickly drop him back after hearing him promise to “tell Mama.” He recants, they pull him up again, but this time he is back on the group and renewing his old threats. Wheezer goes the philosophical route, stating “The dunking you got is worth the whipping I’ll get.”
The happy ending gave world-weary audiences of the day a welcome thrust of optimism at a time when survival and despair seemed to operate hand in hand. In any case there was a real aching believability to the film, and a coda of poetic justice that isn’t at all alien to the varies character dynamics at play. The closeness of the friends can be seen in that glorious final frame, though it certainly can be argured that Dogs is Dogs is as straight-forward and non-cinematic as any other early talkie. But this is hardly a liability, as the film transcribes emotions as persuasively as any short film, Our Gang or otherwise. In the end the gang are victorious against the evil that keeps them prisoner and out of reach of the family members that truly love them.
Exceptional performances from Hutchins, Stymie Beard, Blanche Payson as the mean stepmother and “Spud” Bailey as the bratty stepbrother add the authenticity of this especially riveting Our Gang film, and the breezy and rhythmic background music represents a stellar fusion of picture and sound. The catchy music often compliments the film’s pace and mood, with some of the colorful melodies worthy of stand alone exposure. Long obscured as stock company employees, LeRoy Shield and Marvin Hatley eventually received the recognition due them decades after they made one of the most vital and enduring contributions to the series, one that is as synonymous as any character or memorable situation. Dogs is Dogs shoots an arrow to the heart and only the hardest of hearts won’t be affected. The fact that it’s funny much of the way seems beside the point.
How Dogs is Dogs made the Top 100:
Frank Gallo No. 4
Peter M. No. 17