When 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Likewise, 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.