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In 1922 legendary producer Hal Roach unveiled his latest comic creation, Our Gang, the stories of a ragtag group of children and their varied hijinks and escapades. Roach, who first experienced success by launching Harold Lloyd's career several years earlier, would later go on to even greater triumphs with such comedy acts as Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy. But Our Gang, with its charismatic pint-sized actors like Farina, Buckwheat, and Stymie, charmed the nation in a series of single and twin-reelers, numbering over 220 between 1922 and 1944. In 1936, Roach decided it was time for the major Our Gang players to make their feature film debut. General Spanky, clocking in at 72 minutes, was released to great expectations, but it wasn't successful enough to inspire any sequels and remains the only full-length film for the Our Gang characters.
Not only was the film the only feature length showcase for Our Gang, it was also the only production with a period setting, that of the Civil War. The film came on the heels of the Shirley Temple vehicles The Littlest Rebel and The Little Colonel (both 1935), and hoped to capitalize on the then-popular Confederate-styled theme (in fact, the working title of the movie was Colonel Spanky). The film actually borrowed Civil War stock footage from Buster Keaton's The General (1927) and the D.W. Griffith film Abraham Lincoln (1930) for many of its scenes.
General Spanky was co-directed by Gordon Douglas and Fred C. Newmeyer; it was the first full length film for Douglas, who had just helmed what would be a 1937 Oscar winner for Best Short Subject - an Our Gang twin-reel offering entitled Bored of Education (1936). Gordon would go on to direct such films as the sci-fi classic Them! (1954) and the Rat Pack fave Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964). Newmeyer was known more for his direction of several Harold Lloyd shorts, but in an ironic twist, he had actually directed the original Our Gang pilot which was scrapped and re-shot with another director.
General Spanky employed the talents of many: Our Gang regulars Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas and Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer stepped into their famous roles to join the star of the flick, George "Spanky" McFarland. Dapper thirties leading man Phillips Holmes and prolific character actor Irving Pichel played feature roles, as did Ralph Morgan, the brother of Frank Wizard of Oz Morgan. Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the casting were the supporting roles played by two early pioneers of black film acting, Willie Best and Louise Beavers. Best, derogatorily nicknamed "Sleep n' Eat," was a regular fixture in many Charlie Chan films as the character "Chattanooga Brown." Beavers had made her film debut in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927), but her masterpiece is widely regarded as Imitation of Life (1934). Starring alongside Claudette Colbert, Beavers wowed audiences with a breakthrough performance during a time when blacks were often portrayed in a racist and stereotypical light. Other bit players of note include Slim Whitaker, the prolific B-western actor, and Ham Kinsey, a.k.a. Stan Laurel's stand-in.
General Spanky was a family affair of sorts: Hal's brother, Jack Roach, scouted the locations for the water scenes, settling on the Sacramento River as a stand-in for the mighty Mississippi. He also chartered an old steamboat, The Cherokee, to help capture an authentic feel for the deep South. Musical backgrounds in the film were provided by the Elk Chanters, a group affiliated with a local Los Angeles Elks Club. Although falling short of its expectations, the film did pick up a Best Sound Oscar nomination for Elmer Raguse, the head of sound at Hal Roach Studios. You may notice, however, that Raguse's name was inadvertently omitted from the credits!
General Spanky was intended to mark the end of the Our Gang shorts and be the first of many feature length films, but due to its muted success, Hal Roach returned to the shorter format and once again found success on screen, and later on television, with his Little Rascals.
Producer: Hal Roach
Director: Gordon M. Douglas, Fred C. Newmeyer
Screenplay: Richard Flournoy, John Guedel, Hal Yates, Carl Harbaugh
Cinematography: Art Lloyd, Walter Lundin
Editing: Ray Snyder
Music: Marvin Hatley
Cast: George "Spanky" McFarland (Spanky), Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer (Alfalfa), Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas (Buckwheat), Phillips Holmes (Marshall Valiant), Ralph Morgan (Yankee General), Irving Pichel (Simmons), Rosina Lawrence (Louelia), Louise Beavers (Mammy Cornelia), Willie Best (Henry), Hobart Bosworth (Colonel Blanchard).
by Eleanor Quin