This Week in Texas History:
A column by BARTEE HAILE
A small but prominent notice on the front page of the Apr. 11, 1933 edition of a Dallas daily let the whole town known five year old Tommy Bond was throwing a party for fellow “Our Gang” cast member Spanky McFarland, age three.
The idea for a comedy series based on kids just being themselves came to Hal Roach one afternoon in 1921. The silent movie pioneer was staring out the window of his Culver City, California office, when it suddenly dawned on him that a group of children at play had mesmerized him for a good 15 minutes.
No one in the short history of the motion picture industry had ever simply turned youngsters loose in front of the camera. That was, in essence, what Roach’s senior director did in bringing his boss’ radical concept to life on the silver screen.
As a rule, Robert F. McGowan did not show the script to the pint-sized actors, especially those who had not yet learned to read. Instead, he patiently explained the next scene seconds before calling “action” and directed the tiny thespians with a megaphone.
The end product was not the standard film fare of children pretending to be adults but kids in their “natural state” with grown-ups out of the picture. Audiences loved the captivating two-reel (20-minute) “shorts” right from the start, and reviewers beat the drum for “lots more of those ‘Our Gang’ comedies.”
“Hal Roach’s Rascals” was actually the original title, but the public as well as the news media insisted upon “Our Gang.” That’s why for the first ten years the comedy series had two official names until the creator finally abandoned his preference in 1932.
In the beginning, the cast was one of convenience consisting of the sons and daughters of studio employees and their friends’ offspring. The sole exception was Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, the first black actor of any age awarded a long-term contract, who soon gave way to Allen “Farina” Hoskins, the most popular “Our Gang” player of the 1920’s.
Hal Roach had the foresight and judgment to embrace change rather than resist it. He knew, for example, that moviegoers would love hearing the sound of their favorite “Our Gang” characters’ voices. The box-office receipts for the first “all-talking” episode in April 1929 proved him right and more than paid for the expensive new technology.
Roach also understood that child actors did not stay little and endearing indefinitely and that adolescence made most of them something other than adorable. He solved this unavoidable problem with a nonstop, nationwide search for fresh faces.
George McFarland already was an accomplished model at the tender age of three and a familiar face on billboards around Dallas as the poster child for Wonder Bread. Replying to a magazine-ad request for photographs of “cute kids,” McFarland’s aunt mailed professional pics of her nephew to the Hal Roach Studios in January 1931.
In short order, the Texas toddler was invited to California, given a screen test, which he aced, and put under contract. “Sonny,” as he was known back home, became “Spanky” and a scene-stealing addition to the “Our Gang” lineup.
At about the same time, a second Texan was discovered coming out of a Dallas movie theater with his mother. Tommy Bond was five going on six, when a talent scout informed his surprised parent, “He’s got a great face. You ought to take him to Hollywood to meet Hal Roach.”
Thanks to his grandmother, who drove him all the way to the West Coast over dirt roads and through flash floods, Bond did meet Roach in person. He was signed on the spot and initially cast as mild-mannered “Tommy” and later, after a two-year hiatus during which he returned to Dallas and public school, as the memorable bully “Butch.”
The third Texan to join “Our Gang” was Eugene Gordon Lee of Fort Worth. In 1935 the adopted son of an embalmer and a stenographer won the part of Spanky’s little brother due to his strong resemblance at 18 months to the star of the series.
Renamed “Porky,” he appeared in 42 comedies before a growth spurt turned him into a has-been at five. Even though McFarland was twice his age, the “baby brother” could now look him straight in the eye. His movie career over before he entered first grade, Lee was replaced by Mickey Gubitosi better known today as Robert Blake.
McFarland’s small stature and undeniable talent made it possible for him to play Spanky until the comparatively ripe old age of 14. When he departed at last in 1942, “Our Gang,” sold by Hal Roach to MGM in 1938, had only two years left in its remarkable run.
But television brought the timeless comedy back for a well-deserved encore in the 1950’s. A new generation of fans, the so-called “baby boomers,” laughed ’til it hurt at the antics of “The Little Rascals.”
Of the three Texas-born performers, Spanky McFarland benefited the most from the “Our Gang” revival before a fatal heart attack in 1993. Tommy Bond, who spent four decades behind the camera in television production, and Gordon Lee, who dropped out of sight until the 1980’s, were lifelong friends that died a month apart in 2005.
San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.