Hal Roach's "Our Gang" is growing up: capable of knowing glances--as Spanky shares with his grandmother their mutual disdain for his stage-mother's praises and aspirations; and noble gestures--Spanky again, assuring the little cutie-pie that the prize money is "in the bag," so that she can buy the dress she wears in her failed attempt at radio stardom.
But the rollicking gang in the audience, planted there by Spanky to ruin his chances at winning--weary as he is of "reciting"--reminds us that this is still a private club, one that recognizes the adult world's schemes. When Spanky has his change of heart and decides to win the ten bucks, he makes the mistake of sending out his mother to convey the news. The gang interprets his okie-dokie follow-up as the "high sign"--that is, "ignore the grown-up" (a safe bet in most cases), and they carry on--alarmingly, spinning their rattles, pelting with peas, forcing the very atmosphere to burst, as the pianist's toupee flies from his dome. Spanky, exerting all his thespian powers, tries desperately to inform "friends, Romans, countrymen" that their ears must be lent--but becomes a floundering fool--and, of course, the winner of the prize, bringing down the house.
Watching these children grow, in sudden jumps--like distant nephews and nieces who visit perhaps once a year--I am struck with movie-nostalgia, built instantly for an immediate past--the Gang as virtual orphans, unfettered by their own need to perform, free in all their cheerfully rough glory. They scamper through a nondescript edge-of-Hollywood early-morning landscape of scraggly fields, stagnant ponds, dirt paths, alleys, and culverts cluttered with handy brickbats suitable for bouncing off dog catchers' and truant officers' bald pates, and of course home to inexplicably available mules. They race between the legs of cruel adults, some of whom are actually armed, others merely squinting with Edgar Kennedy-esque certainty of delinquency; and I am filled as well with Stymie's hunger, broad and blatant, but real, even when he literally licks his lips in anticipation, because I understand the feeling: Anything--everything!--but mush.
But their greatest appetite is for each other. They know how vital it is for children to, like good revolutionaries, hang together to avoid hanging separately. Exclusion from the gang is a bitter, tearful, panicky business; and their friendships demand a calm port after the storms of school and romance, capture and flight. While some adults extend affectionate or charitable hands--the nice ladies whose back porches Stymie approaches to beg for food, or shopkeepers and passers-by who indulge the children's whims--"borrowing" apples for an unsuccessful lesson in arithmetic (doomed to failure because of the apples themselves: they are, after all, food, not academic abstractions)--and of course the lovely Miss Crabtree, still the single most charismatic educator in film history (goodbye, Mr. Chips, you bet)--most grownups in the Gang's world are active threats, far removed from the absolute values of childhood: appetite and loyalty.
To understand--well, remember--those values, all I need consider is the would-be truant, Breezy Brisbane, who, speaking out of the corner of his mouth, rejects his mother's hope that he become President in favor of his own dream to become a street car conductor: "Boy, do they take in the nickels!" He listens to a hardworking man at his "grim forge" describing how he dutifully studied and was first in his class, all in the service of his own aspiration to reside in the White House. But as Brisbane observes with finality, "And you ended up a punk blacksmith." They seem to yearn for a perfected state, one that provides a justification for their appetites, a kind of vacant-lot-as-Pure-Form, that places them out of the reach of starched shirts and outraged dowagers and allows them room to see the world as it is really is--or at least as they are always imagining it, which by the end of the second reel means a full belly, a safe pooch, and arms draped over each others' shoulders, as ready to give one another a kiss as a raspberry, in the safety and freedom of a partly hidden world at knee-level, little but not forlorn.
As Brisbane regrets his truancy, weeping as the Gang often do--and not only because he has let down his mother and the radiant Miss Crabtree, but because, as an expelled student, his freedom means the loss of his pals--he accepts his punishment: to recite a sickly sentimental poem, a rapturous ode to his teacher. He stands at the front of the room, expelling the awful words in shame, while the other kids howl their cleansing derision, drawing him back--and I don't think into simple conformity to adult authority, but to a far better place, where the clubhouse leans and Petey waits with Spanky--so fond of pointing out deviations from the Code of Loyalty with a sarcastic, drawn-out, "My pal"--and Stymie and Weezer and Farina, while that theme music, surprisingly plaintive, more goodbye than hello, reworks the past in its own grainy, mugging, double-take image.
My children wanted to see Readin' and Writin' again, and again, which gave me the opportunity to commit to memory Brisbane's punishment-poem. I copy it out for posterity--and as a warning to all truant tykes.
High up grew a daffodil,
I couldn't hardly reach her.
Said I to me, "I think I will
Get it for my teacher!"
I climbed to get the daffodil
Out on a limb so thin.
I tumbled down like Jack and Jill
And skinned my little shin.
And here's the pretty daffodil
I brought to my dear teacher.
I love her dear and I always will--
I'm awful glad to meet cha!