The Little Rascals Revisited
The Little Rascals was a staple of children’s television beginning in the 1950s. Many kids of that era thought Farina, Stymie, Darla, Alfalfa, and Buckwheat - and the other Rascals - were playmates created just for them.
Actually, "The Little Rascals" was launched in the 1920s by the Hal Roach Studios in Hollywood during its silent era.
First it was “Our Gang” – then “The Little Rascals” - one and two reelers – ten or twenty minute “shorts” that were run before the feature film in movie theaters.
The "Little Rascals" were hugely popular, and continued to be popular as “talkies” well into the 1930s - and beyond. In the 1950s, they were re-packaged for television, and a new audience.
This is the most fascinating part: The Rascals were black AND white children playing together in interracial harmony. But the films were also full of ugly racial stereotypes.
Were the ‘Rascals’ part of your childhood? Why did this fascinate you so much?
I grew up watching them in my living room. I grew up in Los Angeles and my parents were often at work. So my sister and I would sit in our living room and watch whatever was on TV.
It was as I got older that I would look back on the films with a great deal of nostalgia but also but also with a lot of questions since as I got older I started to see these problematic racial portrayals that many people commented on in later years.
Racial portrayals like what?
Things like the Buckwheat character, which is probably the most famous, because of Eddie Murphy. Watching “Saturday Night Live,” hearing Murphy making fun of the way Buckwheat was always incoherent and had this crazy hair and always considered a little bit clueless about things.
What I learned through my education is that there is a long legacy of these kinds of racial stereotypes in Hollywood. These are things that as a child I didn’t necessarily realize, but that have been quite stubborn and quite problematic stereotypes.
But when the series of shorts started, just having black and white kids playing together was a radical idea?
The series began in the early 1920s. And this was a period, it has been described as being the nadir of race relations in America. You have the Ku Klux Klan undergoing a period of resurgence. You have race riots. The so-called Red Summer of 1919 where you have riots throughout the country. And then you have the height of Jim Crow these laws that pretty much up hold segregation. So, the fact that you have black and white children on screen playing together, going to school together, playing baseball together when baseball would not be integrated for many more years is astonishing.
So did the series creator Hal Roach do this on purpose?
Roach honestly did not care. He wasn’t making a political statement. He was a producer. He wanted to make money. But he was also unconventional and didn’t think that there was anything wrong with black and white children playing together.
Did it make a difference that it was filmed in California?
I think it does. I mean early Hollywood was an unconventional place. Certainly, people still complained about differing treatments of black and white patrons say in the city of Los Angeles, but at the same time the West was considered comparatively tolerant compared to other places in the Deep South for example. And Hollywood itself was considered outside of the mainstream. So those who were attracted to Hollywood were those who were less likely to adhere to these views of separation of the races.
This was series originally built around a young man named Sunshine Sammy Morrison. Who was he and why was he the star?
He was a star. He was already a well-known child star at that point. He had begun career in Hollywood when he was just a child. His family moved from New Orleans when he was a baby. He was cast as a child actor in the Baby Marie Osborne films. She was an early silent movie star. He appeared in a couple of films with Hal Roach’s wife. And Hal Roach’s wife said, ‘Oh, he’s incredibly talented, easy to work with. You should sign him to a contract.’ So Roach signed Sunshine Sammy to the first long-term contract in Hollywood for an African American actor. And Sunshine Sammy was 7 years old at the time”
For the NAACP… Sunshine Sammy was a really important figure because, yes, even though he depicted a racial stereotype, he was a comparatively positive stereotype of the race in Hollywood. If you think of how “Birth of Nation” had been released in 1915 and this shows white men in black face as these brutes who are trying to rape white women and in comparison a young black boy who is a comic figure, but who is endearing and charming and plays with white children. That was considered a positive portrayal of the race.
What were the relationships between the kids?
In the 1920s, especially, I would say that the kids were absolutely friends off and on the set. They were already familiar with each other from just playing on the Hal Roach lot. Somebody like Sunshine Sammy had already been working on the lot for years and then some of the other children who were cast were also occasional actors in Hal Roach comedies and so they already knew each other they already played with each other and so part of the charm is that they weren’t really acting when they were put on film they were just doing what they would have done without the cameras rolling.
How did that change later?
The series ran from the 1920s to the 1940s. And in the 1930s, I would say the kids still got a long but I would have to say by then the Little Rascals had become this brand. It was now staffed by professional child actors. Previously, some of the actors they weren’t professional. It was more natural. By 1930s, the Little Rascals was a big business. It was a famous brand. And so the children, they got along but I think there was always the sense that they were off pursuing their professional careers. And someone like Stymie did mention that the parents, the stage mothers, the stage grandmothers, would get involved. And sometimes things took on a racial edge.
Why did they include these racial stereotypes like the mammy and pickaninny?
It’s important to remember that especially in the silent film era film was in its infancy and minstrelsy, black-face minstrelsy, was ubiquitous at the time and saturated early film. It was highly influential. It was theatrical form that easily made the leap to film. These were all culturally available stereotypes. Black kids, foolish minstrelized older black men, for example the Sambo figure, these were familiar comic stereotypes. And so filmmakers adopted them. It was an easy thing to integrate if they wanted to make to make a film that supposedly “funny.”
Did it ever occur to the children that it was odd to portray these stereotypes?
I think they felt that tension. I think as child actors they realized they were responsible for supporting their families. I think they were also aware that there is a public personae and a private personae that they had to negotiate. They were representatives of their race to the black community, but they also recognized that some of these acts this what they needed to do in order to support themselves and their families.
The story of Sunny “Farina” Hoskins goes to that idea and shows how the Talkies helped his career:
Farina Hoskins started when he was 1 year old on Little Rascals. Most of the children aged out by the time they were 8 or 9 years old. They were replaced by younger actors. And somebody like Farina was getting quite old by the time the Talkies transition occurred. He was probably 8 or 9. That’s the thing these child actors have tragically short careers in many ways. A lot of people started to speculate that Farina was going to be retired with many of his colleagues, and yet, he ended up sticking around for at least another year or so because he was so good at the Talkies. He was one of the most natural speakers. Lots of critics noticed it. Lots of people remarked on the fact that he spoke more naturally than anybody else. But the other thing I discovered is that he also secured some longevity because he was black, because he fulfilled or he was performing this stereotype of a young black child. And therefore his voice, they were very interested in having him speak in dialect and sounding kind of like the stereotypical, minstrelized pickaninny. And people were enamored with this. They said ‘wow! He sounds just like he looks!” Even though, Farina was born in Boston and moved to the Los Angeles when he was a child. So he did not have a minstrelized, Southern accent.
Watching some of these shorts, they are disturbing from the modern perspective not just because of the racial stereotypes but also because of how were the children treated?
It’s important to remember the cultural expectations of the parents and children. It shows how things have changed today. You think, ‘wow! How much of it is this bunch of kids playing together in a junkyard with no parental supervision.’ Which today in this era of helicopter parents, you think that seems negligent. I think there is a sense that, ‘Oh, it was innocent time. They were getting into good, clean fun. It’s no big deal.’ There are moments were some of the shorts you see the kids they’re orphans and they’re being separated from each other. And the adults are not kind and they don’t care and they’re not nurturing.”
These shorts and the series were done before laws designed to protect child actors and their money? So what happened to these kids?
A lot of them had difficult transitions to adolescence and adulthood. They lived in a bubble. They were trained to please adults. It was very hard for a lot of them to become friends with other kids their own age that were not in Hollywood. Many of them had run-ins with the law or drug problems. All of the stereotypes, even today, when we think of child actors who struggle with the transition to adulthood certainly happened to the kids on the Little Rascals.
Does the series still work today?
There is still something about the improvised mayhem of these kids that appeals to little kids today. A lot of the stuff is still as funny today as it was in 1920.
Julia Lee - Photo credit: R. Marsh Starks
Julia Lee, author of "Our Gang: A Racial History of The Little Rascals."