Reviews, Vintage Vault — July 3, 2014 at 3:00 pm

VINTAGE VAULT: BEGINNER’S LUCK

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beginners luck 1When Hal Roach created the Our Gang gang series of comedy shorts he had a big hit on his hands. For 22 years an ever-changing of cast young actors and actresses made up the gang. The downside for Roach, though, was that he was often having to deal with a barrage of stage mothers parading their moppets in front of him, each convinced their child was a star-to-be. The 1935 short Beginner’s Luck was likely Roach’s way of getting back at those parents who wouldn’t leave him alone.

This short stars Spanky, about six years old at this point, who is performing a scene as Caesar for one of his mother’s social gatherings. Mother (Kitty Kelly) is convinced that Spanky is the next Barrymore and announces that he will be appearing in a talent show where he is sure to claim the whopping $10 prize. However, Spanky knows that winning the show will doom him to life as an actor, so he arranges to have the gang (which includes Stymie, Scotty Beckett, Sidney Kibrick, and a very young Buckwheat) sabotage the proceedings.

beginners luck 2The show includes many young performers, some of whom are quite talented and others who get an E for Effort. Most notably, are two boys billed as the Arizona Nightingales who sing a spirited version “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain.” This turns out to be Alfalfa, along with his real-life brother Harold, in his first appearance with the gang. Meanwhile backstage, Spanky meets a young girl who is desperate to win the prize (she needs the money to pay for her dress). When she freezes up on stage, though, she has no chance of winning. Spanky now determines that he wants to win so he can give her the money, problem is the gang still plans to turn his performance into an unintentional comedy.

Right as this short begins we see the world of child actors through Roach’s eyes. Spanky’s mother is as awful and pretentious a stage mother as they come. Roach must’ve had to deal with mothers like this nearly every day and he clearly is taking great joy in letting this character get what’s coming to her as the short progresses.

beginners luck 4The talent show portion of the short is the highlight of the film and features young performers both talented and not-so-much. The strangest is a group of little girl dancers who do a sort of baby burlesque number. They sing and dance to the song “Honolulu Baby.” One dancer on the end especially struggles to keep up with the other young ladies. Director Gus Meins wisely focuses his camera on this one energetic, but directionally challenged, girl rather than trying to capture the whole group. It makes the sequence all the more hilarious. Heck, the girl even starts to walk off the stage in the wrong direction when the act is over.

beginners luck 3Likewise, Meins takes his camera in close and focuses on the face of the young Carl Switzer for what would be his star making moment. Carl would soon be known as Alfalfa and it’s no wonder that he was made a full-fledged member of the gang for the next film in the series. The range of facial expressions that Alfalfa gives as he sings is incredible, and 100% natural. There’s no acting there, he’s giving it everything he’s got! But we also see hints of what a talented comedic actor Alfalfa was in his brief interaction with Spanky where the two are enemies. There is an interesting dynamic between the two as antagonists which I would’ve loved to see more of in other films.

Of course, Spanky proves in this film why he would go down as the most famous of all the rascals. He shows great comedic skill in his interactions with both his adult and child costars. He also proves to be quite comfortable with being the butt of the joke as he spends much of the last 5 minutes of the film fending off spit balls. Beginner’s Luck is a classic of this time in Our Gang history and the one that ushered in the new era of Alfalfa.

♥♥♥♥♥

5 Comments

  • Great short ! One of the best Little Rascals. They taught Spanky’s mom a lesson for sure. You can stick a fork into Spanky’s mother at the end as her goose has been cooked!

  • I have a few questions regarding the final act.
    How much of the torn dress routine was staged?
    Could the curtain been so properly placed to lift only her dress and not her long slip? I don’t think so.
    How many times did they rehearse this or was it ad lib.
    Secondly, if you watch in slow motion. You don’t see any of the dresses buttons pop or on the floor.
    How was the upper dress torn across both arms. Also, as her shirt is lifted, it seems so uniform while her hat remains fixed.
    I would have loved to have seen them piece this together. Notice her slip never moves throughout this whole violent tearing. Why?

  • I think what makes this short is the many ironies that occur in it. When she is telling her friends she had a big surprise for them saying he was going on the stage and the surprise is she will wind up on the stage herself. Telling the MC her son was too much of am artist to open the show so he forces them to be the final act. Spanky telling the girl the dress was in the bag. Spanky’s Mother saying to the MC she wouldn’t have her son laughed at .Then the MC telling the Mother that she couldn’t break up that act and the mother saying OH NO. The grandmother and the MC laughing at Spanky in the front of the stage and laughing at the rescue attempt of Spanky’s Mother behind the curtain. Of course the best line the Grandma taps the MC on the shoulder points to the ropes of the back stage curtain saying ” Here’s where we stop the show “!

  • I have always thought that Spanky’s Mother was to into what people thought of her. Her son was visibly upset hearing she had put him into the show without his knowledge. When she has the run in with the MC she tells him her son was too much of an artist to open a show. When Spanky is waving for the gang to cheer Daisy on the Mother is told by the MC to stop and she grabs him by the collar and yanks him back like someone would do with a dog on a leash. The comeuppance she received was very severe but I honestly believe she well deserved what she got.

  • What most people don’t realize is this short is the classical Greek comedy\tradegy. Spanky is the everyman caught between two powerful characters. His Mother is the most powerful one, she is a blocking character. She always gets her way. The grandmother is a less powerful character but is a helping character. Once she has signed him up to reciete his grandmother tries to save him but it’s his friend’s who hatch a sabotage plan. Once Daisy flops he knows he must win and give Daisy the prize money. At this point Spanky and his Mother have allied for the first time. When his act has turned into a laugh riot she decides to save him. The granny sees her chance and asks the MC if she could raise the back curtain. As she does she hooks Spanky’s mother’s dress hem and starts to haul it up with the curtain.Spanky frees his visor to see his mom fighting to keep her dress on. At this point Spank and his mom both realize that the prize is her dress. As it goes higher the audience laughter increases. The mom who tried to stop the audience laughing at her son has accomplished it by being an even bigger laughing stock herself. As her dress tears off her and heads up it waves like a flag of surrender as her dress represents her place in society and that rank has been ripped off her. Spanky must cover his mom from prying eyes so he pulls the prop in front of her. She is petrified and frozen stiff from her experience and continues to kneel on the stage gawking up at her torn dress. The prop turns out to be the body of a lion and with her head on top makes the classic Greek sphinx out of her. The mother is defeated by granny,the gang and the MC. Trying to cover her with the prop Spanky winds up stripping her even more.The MC who sets up Spanky’s act as the finalale
    to punish Spanky’s mother for not having him ready to go on, gets more luck when he goes on and walks out of the spotlight and falls his mom asks for the house lights to be turned up, of course this means the audience gets a better look at her when she makes her stage debut. The MC also sees how the audience loves his act and won’t listen as she begs for him to take her son off the stage. He knows this kid is money in the bank for the theater. Then he watches as she tries to get him off with the pole and his the audience laughs their heads off at this as well. Then the icing on the cake the granny striking and tearing the mother’s dress off and does the audience love that scene. So the MC proved to be the most powerful character in defeating and humiliating Spanky’s mother.

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