March 11, 2017

THE LITTLE RASCALS

THE LITTLE RASCALS
(ABC, September 25, 1982-December 2, 1983)


Hanna-Barbera Productions, King World Productions


MAIN CAST:
B.J. WardButch, Waldo                                   
Peter CullenPete the Pup, Officer Ed


             While working on a film in 1921, comedy producer Hal Roach found himself watching an argument by some kids in the lot across the street over some sticks they wanted to play with. After realizing just how long he had been watching them, he figured that a series of theatrical shorts about kids just being themselves could be a success.

The original Our Gang cast.

            Our Gang, initially known as Our Gang Comedies: Hal Roach Presents His Rascals In…, focused on a group of young kids just being kids. The original cast of Rascals were children recommended to Roach by his studio employees, with the exception of Ernie Morrison, who was under contract with Roach. Morrison had previously been the star of Roach’s previous shorts series as “Sunshine Sammy” until theater owners became wary of running shorts based entirely around a black boy. The Our Gang shorts were originally helmed by director Robert F. McGowan who worked around his stars’ inabilities to read by describing situations for them from the scripts and letting them improvise. Roach previewed the first short in several theaters around Hollywood and the audience clamored for more. The self-titled debut short was released on November 5, 1922.

Title card featuring the MGM logo.

            Our Gang became a staple in theaters, traversing the changing landscape of cinema from silent pictures to sound. The Rascals line-up continually shifted as the actors began to grow too old for their roles or left, but one notable thing about those line-ups were the fact that white and non-white characters were interacting with each other as equals; something virtually unheard of at the time. There were also some transitions behind the scenes, as McGowan had grown increasingly stressed out having to work with children and left the series. One of his first replacements was his nephew, Robert A. McGowan (credited as Anthony Mack). Roach also ceased distributing through the Pathe company and went with the newly-formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in order to have the shorts shown with MGM’s features in the Loew’s Theatres chain.

Alfalfa, Darla, Porky, Buckwheat and Spanky.

1936 introduced the most well-known line-up of Rascals: George “Spanky” McFarland, the breakout star of the series who became the central lead; Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, who was most identifiable by his perpetual cowlick and bad singing; Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas, one of the younger members of the group who often performed errands for the older kids; Darla Hood, a gifted singer with a crush on Alfalfa; Eugene “Porky” Lee, Spanky’s little brother and Buckwheat’s best friend who tagged along as the older kids’ sidekick; Darwood “Waldo” Kaye, the Anti-Rascal who was studious, well-behaved, and came from a privileged background; Gary “Junior” Jasgur, Darla’s little brother; Henry “Spike” Lee, the sergeant-of-arms of their He-Man Woman-Hater’s Club; Leonard Landy, Junior’s red-headed friend who always wore a farmer’s hat and overalls; Shirley “Muggsy” Coates, Darla’s close friend and primary competition for Alfalfa’s affections; Patsy May, Spanky and Porky’s baby sister; Harold Switzer, Carl’s older brother who was a background player in all of his appearances; and Peter the Pup, the gang’s pet dog. Tommy Bond, who had been one of the Rascals from 1931-33 before leaving to return to public school, rejoined the cast as neighborhood bully “Butch.” Sidney Kibrick, brother of Leonard Kibrick who had become a rascal in 1935, joined the group in late 1935 but was renamed “The Woim”, Butch’s sidekick. Butch and Waldo would eventually become rivals with Alfalfa for the affections of Darla.

General Spanky poster.

While Our Gang was popular during the 1920s and 30s, many theaters began dropping 20-minute comedy shorts in favor of running double feature programs. Roach had considered ending the series in 1936, but MGM head Louis B. Mayer convinced him to continue it. Roach shortened the Our Gang shorts to 10 minutes and produced a feature film, General Spanky, in an effort to have the series transition to that format. However, the film focused more on the adult characters featured than the actual Rascals and became a box office disappointment. Roach would continue the series until 1938. The continuing decline of theatrical shorts increasingly diminished the profit Our Gang was generating, meaning Roach could no longer afford to keep producing them. MGM wanted the series to continue and offered to take over production. Roach sold the rights to Our Gang, the entire production crew, and the actors’ contracts to MGM for $25,000 (roughly more than $430 million today) and joined United Artists. Hide and Shriek marked the final Roach-produced Our Gang short, and his final short in general.

Title card to the first entry in the MGM-era.

            MGM’s series debuted on August 6, 1938 with The Little Ranger, directed by Hal Roach StudiosGordon Douglas. George Sidney became MGM’s permanent director for the series for the remainder of MGM’s 52 entries. The MGM era was largely considered inferior to the Roach era by fans, critics and cast members alike. MGM couldn’t grasp the brand of slapstick comedy the series had become famous for, the cast’s performance was criticized as being stilted and stiff, the mayhem caused by the kids was significantly toned down, adult situations became the driving force behind most of the action, and MGM insisted on keeping on Alfalfa, Spanky and Buckwheat well into their teen years. After suffering losses on six of the shorts, MGM finally ended Our Gang with Dancing Romeo on April 29, 1944.

The new name for Our Gang.

            A term of Roach’s sale to MGM gave him the option to buy the rights to the Our Gang trademark provided he didn’t create any children’s comedies. Roach forfeited those rights when he produced the films Curley in 1947 and Who Killed Doc Robbin in 1948. Both films performed poorly, and Roach turned his studio away from feature productions to focus solely on the budding medium known as television. In 1949, MGM sold Roach back the rights to the Our Gang shorts from 1927-38 with the stipulation that all references to the title, MGM and Loew’s be removed from the reissued film prints. Roach used a modified version of the series’ original name and rechristened it The Little Rascals. Monogram Pictures and Allied Artists reissued the shorts to theaters in 1951 and Allied Artists to television syndication in 1955.

The Rascals in Claymation.

            The Little Rascals enjoyed a renewed popularity, spawning a new wave of merchandising. MGM was inspired to release the shorts they retained to television as well, having the Rascals and Our Gang competing against each other for decades to come. Some stations bought both packages and ran them together on the Rascals blanket title. The silent films were sold to various distributors and they began airing on television under titles such as The Mischief Makers and Those Lovable Scallawags with Their Gangs. When Hal Roach Studios filed for bankruptcy in 1963, struggling syndication agent Charles King purchased the rights to The Little Rascals and their success led to his company, King World Productions, being able to grow into one of the largest television syndicators in the world. British studio Bura & Hardwick also recreated several of the shorts in Claymation form.

Stymie, Porky, Spanky, Darla and Alfalfa in the Christmas Special.

            Over the years, many people tried to bring The Little Rascals back into production; former Rascal Jackie Cooper even produced a pilot himself. The most successful attempt came in 1979 when Murakami-Wolf-Swenson produced the animated The Little Rascals Christmas Special. The special featured the voice work of Hood (who died before it aired) and Matthew “Stymie” Beard, who was a Rascal from 1930-35. This version of Rascals would be used for a series of 156 Public Service Announcements.

Alfalfa, Spanky, Darla, Porky, Buckwheat and Pete.

            Three years later, Hanna-Barbera Productions would acquire the rights to produce a new animated series based on The Little Rascals. The series largely drew inspiration from the 1936 incarnation of the Our Gang series, with the characters of Alfalfa, Porky (both Julie McWhirter), Darla (Patty Maloney), Spanky (Scott Menville), Buckwheat (Shavar Ross), Waldo, Butch (both B.J. Ward), The Woim (also McWhirter) and Pete the Pup (Peter Cullen). Iwao Takamoto and Bob Singer designed the characters by tracing over photographs of the original characters and then simplified their appearances for animation.

Character model sheet featuring the kids' swim wear.

While the series would continue to focus on the antics of the kids, it took some liberties with the source material. Unlike the Christmas Special that was set during Depression-era America, Hanna-Barbera’s series updated the setting to contemporary times and included things like computers and televisions. Buckwheat became an inventor and created a variety of devices for the gang. Darla’s underwear-revealing miniskirts were replaced by a knee-length dress and was given a modern hairstyle (her hair was also a lighter brown and her eyes blue instead of hazel, but as the shorts were in black and white those changes wouldn’t be known by casual audiences). Porky was given an obsession with food and a speech impediment that often resulted in his statements needing translation by Buckwheat. Though he didn’t talk, Pete was given human-like mannerisms and often attempted feats that resulted in slapstick disaster. Waldo’s family was heavily implied to be wealthy; a fact that was carried over to future Rascals productions. Their primary hangout became a treehouse, and they got around town on a cobbled-together cart that resembled a 1920’s car pulled by Pete. The show also used an entirely new theme composed by Hoyt Curtin.

Pencil drawing of their "car".

            The Little Rascals began airing on ABC on September 25, 1982 after its premier was delayed by two weeks due to an animator’s strike. However, the first episode actually aired was the segment “Beauty Queen for a Day” as part of The Pac Preview Party special hosted by Dick Clark on September 19th. The show was broadcast as part of The Pac-Man/Little Rascals/Richie Rich Show 90-minute programming block. The Rascals episodes were broken up into two 11-minute segments aired at the start and the middle of the block, with a 30-second vignette immediately following the second segment. Although largely original stories, episodes would feature callbacks to the various shorts and even the feature film through actions and wardrobe choices.

Meeting in the tree house.

            When Pac-Man was moved to his own half-hour, he was replaced in the block by The Monchichis resulting in its being renamed The Monchichis/Little Rascals/Richie Rich Show. A second season of The Little Rascals was ordered, but only nine 11-minute segments were produced with four from the previous season being used to round out the broadcast package. Although each respective show would cease production by the end of 1983, they continued airing through 1984. The low ratings prompted The Monchichis to be split off to its own half-hour with the other two remaining paired up as The Little Rascals/Richie Rich Show.

Darla checking to see the result of the lawsuit, no doubt.

            In March of 1984, Eugene Lee filed a lawsuit against Hanna-Barbera over the use of his likeness for Porky. Lee’s lawyers, Mike Burg and Scott Eldredge, wrangled up the remaining surviving Rascals and proceeded to pursue action that would net them adequate compensation from the cartoon. Ultimately a discrepancy was discovered in the contracts that didn’t allow Hanna-Barbera to use the likenesses of the actors, and King World had to pay out all of the profits (which weren’t vast due to the show’s poor performance in ratings) to the actors in a settlement. Burg documented the particulars of the case in his 2016 book Trial by Fire: One Man’s Battle to End Corporate Greed and Save Lives. Before that point, none of the actors had received any kind of compensation for their work in the series outside of their original salaries.

It's hard to find the Rascals on TV.

            King World repackaged the series into 17 episodes; each containing two 11-minute segments and one of the vignettes. “The Zero Hour” was omitted from this package. The series was rebroadcast across Europe as late as 2014. The French version even received its own theme song. In North America, however, after its initial airing reruns of the show were never seen, nor have there been any home video releases likely as a result of the fallout from the lawsuit. While the various shorts continued to be shown sporadically on retro stations, the Rascals franchise continued on in two films by Universal Pictures: the 1994 theatrical feature The Little Rascals, which was a moderate success, and the 2014 direct-to-video feature The Little Rascals Save the Day


EPISODE GUIDE:
Season 1:
“Rascal’s Revenge / Yachtsa Luck / Fish Fright” (9/25/82) – Butch and Woim lure the Rascals to a haunted house. / The Rascals try to retrieve Waldo’s treasure from crooks. / Spanky and Alfalfa go fishing.

“Grin and Bear It / Beauty Queen for a Day / The Serenade” (10/2/82) – While camping, Porky is abducted by the Phantom Lumberjack. / Darla enters a beauty pageant after the boys fall for a new girl in town. / Alfalfa serenades Darla and his singing scares Pete away.

“Big City Rascals / Alfalfakazam! / Scoop Dupes*” (10/9/82) – The Rascals visit Darla’s uncle’s farm. / Alfalfa appears to be turned into a rabbit during a magic show. / Porky’s ice cream cone ends up larger than the others’.
*This segment was delayed and aired during the reruns of this episode. “Sea Song” aired originally in its place.

“Showdown at the Rascal Corral / Poached Pooch / Ice Escapades” (10/16/82) – While playing cowboy, Alfalfa is arrested for singing in a no-singing zone. / Butch and Woim steal Pete’s license. / The Rascals figure out a creative way to go ice skating during a heat wave.

“Porky-O and Julie-Et / Just Deserts / No Hit Wit” (10/23/82) – Porky falls for the daughter of a man involved in ice cream. / The boys attempt to make Darla’s entry for a baking contest when she gets ill, but they can’t read her recipe card. / NO SYNOPSIS AVAILABLE.

“Alfalfa for President / Rock and Roll Rascals / A Swimming We Will Go” (10/30/82) – Alfalfa and Waldo run for class president. / Darla wants to get an autograph from a famous musician. / Officer Ed finds the boy swimming in a prohibited pond.

“The Irate Pirates / All the Loot That’s Fit to Print / The Spare” (11/6/82) – The Rascals deal with two bullies playing pirate. / The Rascals start their own newspaper and Alfalfa unknowingly spends some phony money. / NO SYNOPSIS AVAILABLE.

“Alfalfa’s Athlete Feat / Darla’s Dream Dance / Fiscal Fitness” (11/13/82) – Butch challenges Alfalfa to a pentathlon. / Darla organizes the school dance. / NO SYNOPSIS AVAILABLE.

“Cap’n Spanky’s Showboat / Case of the Puzzled Pals / Go Cart Go” (11/20/82) – The Rascals clean up an old steamboat. / Alfalfa sets out to find Darla’s doll. / Butch rides Buckwheat’s go cart.

“Falling Heir / Flim Flam Film Fans / Do or Diet” (11/27/82) – Spanky inherits a haunted castle. / When a director comes to town, Darla ends up tied to a railroad gate. / Darla wants to know how many meals Porky eats a day.

“Trash Can Treasures / King of the Hobos / Out on a Limb” (12/4/82) – Darla adopts a horse while the Rascals find a lamp. / After eating all their food, Porky runs away and befriends a hobo. / Alfalfa gets distracted by Darla while pushing Spanky in a swing.

“Tiny Terror / Science Fair and Foul / Sea Song*” (12/11/82) – Butch has the Rascals babysit his brother. / Buckwheat builds a robot. / Alfalfa decides to serenade his friends as they swim.
*Originally aired on October 9th in place of “Scoop Dupes”.

“Big Top Rascals / Class Act / He Who Runs Away” (12/18/82) – Unable to attend a real one, the Rascals start their own circus. / The Rascals enter Pete into a dog show and he ends up kidnapped. / NO SYNOPSIS AVAILABLE.

Season 2:
“Wash and Werewolf” (9/10/83) – After seeing a horror movie, Alfalfa believes he’s a werewolf.

“Save Our Treehouse!” (9/17/83) – A used car dealer has his sights set on the Rascal’s treehouse.

“Horse Sense” (9/24/83) – Waldo challenges Alfalfa to a horse race for Darla, but Alfalfa doesn’t know how to ride.

“After Hours” (10/1/83) – The Rascals get a job in a warehouse.

“Not so Buenos Dias” (10/15/83) – Alfalfa doesn’t trust Darla’s friend Maria.

“Fright Night” (10/29/83) – The Rascals go trick-or-treating.

“The Big Sneeze” (11/12/83) – Alfalfa is allergic to the goat the Rascals meet.

“Pete’s Big Break” (11/19/83) – Pete saves a dog from drowning and that ends up getting him put into a dog food commercial.

“The Zero Hero” (12/2/83) – After Darla wins a date with a TV superhero, Alfalfa attempts to impress her by becoming one himself.

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