Saturday, February 14, 2009

Rascals Rule!

Only a cultural event of seismic proportions could cause me to depart from my usual meanderings on music. I’m referring, of course, to “The Little Rascals-The Complete Collection”. No, not the Young Rascals. I’ll get to them some other time. “The Little Rascals”, also known as “Our Gang”.

I’m occasionally tempted to go back and relive certain things from my childhood, like comics and TV shows. The results have been mixed. On one hand, reading the earliest reissued Spiderman comics has been a joy because I never read them all to begin with. It was a blast filling in the story gaps and bringing back some of the original pleasures.

Not so with some trips down TV memory lane via DVD. I rented “The Time Tunnel”, which you may remember was on ABC on Friday nights. It was a precursor to “Quantum Leap”, with the time traveler having the extraordinarily bad luck of ending up on the deck of the Titanic (I guess it beats landing half a mile to the left of it, though.), the fall of Jericho, Pearl Harbor, etc. The effects back then were cheesy and the sets minimal to the point of non existent. I got to the third episode and gave up.

“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”, alas, was even worse - so much so that I’m even thinking of passing on my old fave “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and “I Dream of Jeannie” (although a Barbara Eden screen-saver isn’t a bad idea.)

Ah, but the eight disc “The Little Rascals - Complete Collection” has been a joy nearly from start to finish.

Only in Rascal-land, can you give a kid (with a history of run-ins with the law, no less) a box of matches, tell him to go burn some paper, and everything turns out all right anyway.

Only in Rascal-land can a little boy in all innocence complain about getting kissed and hugged in bed by his sleeping older brother (who is hot for teacher), and suggest that he just sleep with the teacher instead.

Discs one and two cover the Jackie/Wheezer/Chubby/Mary/Farina Era. In it, Farina transforms from complete stereotype to veritable wise man. Chubby is surprisingly tough, even if often dressed like a girl. Wheezer evolves from cute baby to annoying younger brother to jaywalker and finally to black marketeer. Jackie is the supposed ringleader, but it’s Mary who is tough, tough, tough.

Meanwhile, Officer Murphy does for Irish cops what Stepin Fetchit does for African Americans.

And then there’s the Miss Crabtree trilogy. First, there’s her intro as the replacement for the supposedly irreplaceable Miss McGillicutty, then her getting surrealistic answers to history questions (Q: Who was the Hunchback of Notre Dame? A: Lon Chaney), and finally when Jackie and Chubby try proposing to her.

But there was also time for social justice, as the rascals save Grandma from losing her store and her house.

The relationships change, with Mary being Jack’s love interest (and kicking his ass), and then his sister (not much better).

Now you may not like the overall film quality, but where else can you get a Boston cream pie (in the face) with your Shakespeare?

Disk three introduces some new characters, like Brisbane - a real hard case, and pretty boy Dickey Moore. Wheezer’s still hanging in there. And then there’s Dorothy, the annoying little sister who repeats everything you say (am I being redundant?), who morphs into one tough chick, kicking ass here, sticking up for Stymie there. More crazy answers - and a donkey - for Ms. Crabtree. Even dog Petey has some close calls. A train ride from hell (or heaven, if you’re a kid), Stymie as the inventor of chiropractic, two of the ugliest babies ever and the dawn of the Spanky era. And mush.

On disc four, we learn that even five-year-old chicks go for the guy with the nice fire truck. We also learn more about Spanky’s complex relationship with monkeys, the evils of Limburgher cheese (although anyone familiar with Abbott and Costello or the Three Stooges would already know this) and the downside of hooky.

On disc five, Spanky is the unchallenged ruler of the group, even though he’s at least a foot shorter than everyone else. (Even Wheezer never rose to such heights.) He and Scott comprise a duo whose dialog seems lifted from Waiting for Godot.

Who knew that (eating) lemons was good for your freckles (which were crucial for telling the good kids from the bad kids, moustaches not yet being an option)? Let alone that two people who liked to eat them would be sitting next to each other? In front of the kid trying to play the trumpet? (Oh yeah? You try it!)

And horseradish. How else would I have ever learned about horseradish?

By the way, at this point in time, Buckwheat appears to be a girl.

There’s also more Shakespearean influence, this time in the sophisticated dialog:

Rascal 1: Oh yeah?

Rascal 2: Yeah!

And what’s that on the horizon? Why, it looks like a planet with a radio tower on it. No, it’s, it’s… Alfalfa, or as I call him “Crazy Eyes”. It takes a while before he becomes citified, but before he is, he pioneers a new use for lard while the world waits for Brylcreem to be invented.

Disc six is more or less the Alfalfa show. He breaks into song at the drop of a hat, and believe me, there are a lot of them dropping. He always starts off in a high register and goes up from there. If he ever did the “Star Spangled Banner”, my beer bottle would shatter.

But there’s more: In walks Darla, who rocks everybody’s world. She, Alfalfa and Spanky will form what to my mind at the time was an ideal threesome. To be with Darla, us guys were even willing to be Alfalfa, and we’d have settled for being Spanky.

And don’t forget Porky. Otherwise he’ll eat your lunch. Literally.

With his hair now released from confinement, Buckwheat is now officially a guy.

And look out! Here comes Butch!

On disc seven, neighborhood bully Butch casts a shadow over the proceedings comparable to that of the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. It is because of him that I took an immediate dislike to David Johanssen.

Sexual politicals are now in full swing as the He Man Woman Haters club tries to get off the ground a couple of times, with at best mixed results.

Porky is revealed as the true originator of “Otay!” He and Buckwheat together create their own unique language, whose single grammatical law is to drop as many consonants as possible.

And I couldn’t quite notice that there’s quite the bit of cross-dressing.

Disc eight contains some very early silent episodes that are cute, but a little slow for me. It also has a lot of commentary that I can take or leave. So you could safely skip it.

As the series progressed, and the film quality improves, the episodes become shorter and less anarchic. The adults become more and more in charge of the situation. The plot lines start repeating with only slight variations. And the rascals themselves go from very poor city kids to almost middle class suburbanites.

Some other things I learned:

1. It’s really not a good idea to have the kids hang out in a train yard

2. Place the burglar alarm more than a foot off the ground

3. Try to keep the mothballs out of the soup

4. Children (and by extension, chimpanzees) don’t necessarily make the best caddies.

If you’ve never seen the Rascals I can’t guarantee that you’ll love watching them now, but if you’ve seen them before and want to relive them, you’re in for a treat. And if you think you’re above it all, I challenge you to use the word "isthmus" in a sentence.

So marvel at the fashion sense, be appalled at the poverty, appreciate the integrated cast, but be shocked at the casual racism, even in this well meaning setting. But above all have a good laugh.

When you watch these discs, I guarantee you’ll say “Isthmus be my luck day!”

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