DirectorRobert McGowan, Anthony Mack, James W. Horne
Release Date(s)1929-1930 (June 1, 2021)
Studio(s)Hal Roach Studios/MGM (ClassicFlix)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: C
Though they debuted as regular short subjects in movie theaters in the 1930s and 40s, most members of Generation X (and younger Boomers) have fond childhood memories of watching Hal Roach’s classic Our Gang comedy shorts on TV. Rebranded as The Little Rascals, the shorts began their long syndication run in 1954 and were a nearly constant presence on American television over the next five decades, starting with UHF broadcasts and eventually moving to cable on TBS, TNT, American Movie Classics, and more recently TCM.
What made the shorts so compelling to kids (by which I mean kids of all ages) was that the humor was universal, the settings and stories were relatable, and the young stars were just poor and lower-middle class kids not unlike those you played with every day. They were the underdogs in every story, a direct reversal of the old Scooby-Doo cliché: The kids were constantly chafing against their meddling parents and other adults. Their adventures and capers were good-natured, with loyal animals (like Petey the Pup) as constant companions. And while the shorts have been rightly criticized for promoting racial stereotypes, particularly involving the Black cast members (including Allen Hoskins’ Farina, Matthew Beard’s Stymie, and Billie Thomas’ Buckwheat), it’s also important to note that Our Gang was one of the film series ever to have an integrated cast and to depict its Black and White children as equals. A few of its young stars went on to have longer film careers, including Jackie Cooper, Carl Switzer, and Robert Blake. And filmmakers Frank Capra, Walter Lantz (creator of the animated Woody Woodpecker), and Charley Chase began their careers as writers for the series.
ClassicFlix’s The Little Rascals: Volume 1 Blu-ray includes the following 11 shorts (note that the running times listed include brief new ClassicFlix branding ahead of the original studio logos and title cards):
- Small Talk (1929 – 25:04)
- Railroadin’ (1929 – 18:53)
- Lazy Days (1929 – 20:30)
- Boxing Gloves (1929 – 17:28)
- Bouncing Babies (1929 – 20:45)
- Moan and Groan, Inc. (1929 – 20:41)
- Shivering Shakespeare (1930 – 20:26)
- The First Seven Years (1930 – 20:10)
- When the Wind Blows (1930 – 19:47)
- Bear Shooters (1930 – 20:29)
- A Tough Winter (1930 – 20:35)
These are the earliest of the Hal Roach Studios/MGM “talkies” (93 silent shorts were produced earlier and distributed by Pathé, but several of those are now believed to be lost). They were shot on 35 mm photochemical film using nitrate stock at an aspect ratio of 1.37:1 (1.33 was the typical silent film ratio, while 1.37 was formalized by the Academy for sound films in the early 30s). For this new Blu-ray release—the funds for which were crowd-sourced on IndieGoGo—ClassicFlix sought out the best original film elements available for scanning and restoration at 2K. The good news is that ClassicFlix was able to use original nitrate film elements for many of the shorts. The remainder were scanned from fine grain prints or other safety elements, as the nitrates were either lost or too badly deteriorated. One short (Railroadin’) utilizes a mix of the two.
I’m thrilled to report that the result is a marvel. Just as a starting point for comparison, I went back to the 2008 DVD release from Genius Products and RHI Entertainment. As presented in SD on those discs, the image was often cropped too tightly, and it suffered from scratches, dust, dirt, bad splices, flutter, gate weave—just about every film image defect you can image. On top of this, the compression was terrible, leaving the image riddled with artifacting. The new HD presentation from ClassicFlix offers the cleanest and highest-resolution image available and by a wide margin; it’s almost literally a night and day difference. Contrast is greatly improved and there’s so much more detail visible now than I’ve certainly ever seen in old TV broadcasts. The grain texture appears to be intact and its organic—never static or artificial looking. What’s more, their digital restoration team has cleaned away a blizzard of scratches, nicks, dust, bad splices, and other defects. To be fair, the result can’t be called perfect. That’s to be expected given the age and condition of these elements. Some shots are slightly out of focus, once in a while there’s a frame or two missing, and once or twice I spotted faint traces of the remastering work. But wow… I’ve been watching these shorts my entire life and I feel as though I’ve never really seen them properly until now. Even better, these shorts are uncut, with none of the egregious King World Productions edits. (They are of course a product of their time, so do keep that in mind.)
Unfortunately, the original nitrate sound elements were unusable, so ClassicFlix has utilized the best available second or third generation recordings. But their audio restoration is impressive too, presented here in 2.0 mono in DTS-HD Master Audio format. There’s still plenty of analog hiss, and some of the kids’ lines are indistinct due to the poor quality of the recording hardware at the time. Occasionally, bits of audio are missing. But lots of pops, clicks, and crackle have been digitally removed. The audio quality is certainly improved over the previous DVD release, though it’s not quite as much of an improvement as the image. Optional English subtitles are also included.
The Blu-ray includes two special features, as follows:
- Restoration Comparison (HD – 4:33)
- Zenobia Trailer (HD – 3:52)
The restoration clip is remarkable, as it allows you to compare the raw film scans to the final restored image for scenes from a few of the shorts. When you see just how much work was required to bring the image back from its poor current condition, I think you’ll agree with me that the result is close to miraculous. There’s also a trailer for the restored Oliver Hardy film Zenobia (1939) and while it looks great, it brings up my only complaint about this disc: The trailer auto-plays when the disc spins up and it’s just too long. You can skip it by pressing >>I, but neither the Menu or Top Menu buttons work while it’s playing. I love that the trailer is available in the special features, but auto-playing it on start-up is a mistake that future volumes of The Little Rascals from ClassicFlix hopefully won’t repeat.
Ultimately, at a rate of 10-11 shorts per disc, expect 7 or 8 volumes for ClassicFlix to release all 80 of The Little Rascals/Our Gang sound shorts on Blu-ray. But you can definitely count me in for each and every one. The remastered image is just beautiful and the shorts are a hoot, as charming today as ever. If you’re as fond of them as I am, or just appreciate great film restoration work, this release is highly recommended. I heartily salute the team at ClassicFix for taking up this project, and every one of you out there who supported it with your IndieGoGo contributions.
- Bill Hunt