Caught in the rut of semi-employment Don Draper sits home in the afternoon watching syndicated TV reruns and mindlessly munching Ritz Crackers. The show we see him watching is The Little Rascals, a program made up of packaged-together Our Gang shorts from the 1930s and 1940s - shorts that young Dick Whitman almost certainly watched when going to the movies.
Our Gang started when comedy legend Hal Roach decided he was tired of auditioning overly-rehearsed, totally phony child actors. He wanted to see kids being more naturalistic on screen, and he wanted to see kids who reflected the children he saw on the streets every day. The Our Gang shorts started in 1922 and went on until 1944. There were 220 shorts and one feature, and over the course of Our Gang’s 20 years 41 child actors were featured. Our Gang was so popular that when one of the kids would age out tens of thousands of non-actors would audition to replace them.
By 1969 the racial content of some of the Our Gang shorts had drawn controversy; in 1971 King Features, who now owned the rights, would trim some of the more egregious shorts out of their The Little Rascals rerun packages. That didn’t stop them from airing - I grew up watching The Little Rascals in the late 1970s and the early 1980s and I saw all of the shorts that drew the most ire, including The Kid From Borneo (Spanky and the gang are menaced by a cannibal ‘Wild Man of Borneo,’ who chants “Yumm Yumm Eat ‘Em Up” as he chases the kids) and A Lad an’ A Lamp (where, when given a lamp he thinks may contain a genie, Stymie repeats, “I wish I had a watermelon” and thinks he turns his kid brother into a monkey).
But even those choices were controversial to the now-grown child actors who had played the three main black Rascals, Farina, Stymie and Buckwheat. "We were just a group of kids who were having fun, " the adult Stymie told Leonard Maltin in his book The Little Rascals: The Life And Times Of Our Gang.
It’s hard to deny that the portrayals in the Our Gang shorts can be troubling, but Roach was legitimately making racial history at the time. Ernie “Sunshine” Morrison, the first black cast member of the Our Gang troupe, was also the first black actor to sign a long-term contract in Hollywood. He got into show business literally as a baby, and in 1919 Roach signed him to a deal; he joined Our Gang by default in 1922 (when the shorts were still silent). That quietly made the Our Gang shortshugely historic - they were integrated at a time when such things didn’t happen. Black kids and white kids played side by side on screen, something that could not be seen elsewhere.
Morrison is largely forgotten today because he left the series before they transitioned to sound; the silent Our Gang comedies never played in the syndicated packages that kept the characters alive for multiple generations. He was replaced by Allen “Farina” Hoskins, who got into the gang when he was only one year old and by the age of six was making more money a year than most adult Americans. Farina (named after the cereal) began a strange tradition that Buckwheat would continue - he played ambiguously gendered at first. Being a toddler Farina could pass for either sex, and the look Roach’s team gave him - nightgown, pigtails - could pass either way. His look also unfortunately matched the popular image of the pickaninny - the grotesquely caricatured representation of black children that was repopularized in Hollywood’s early days. In many ways Farina represented the strange double edged sword of race in the Our Gang shorts - he was a main character who drove stories, but he was also portrayed in ways that would give us panic attacks in the 21st century.
Farina was replaced by Matthew “Stymie” Beard, possibly the most comedically accomplished of all the Our Gang members. Stymie’s look was defined by an oversized bowler cap on his big bald head; the hat had been a gift from Stan Laurel, who also worked with Hal Roach. Stymie was far more central to the shorts, often portrayed as a fast-talking leader of the gang, and he had some of the best verbal and slapstick comedy moments in his episodes. While Farina is well-known to hardcore Our Gang history buffs, Stymie stuck with the series long enough to appear with the characters who would become the core of the group’s pop iconography, including Spanky and Alfalfa.
Like Farina, Stymie made more money than most Depression-era Americans could imagine. He used that cash to support his family, which included 13 brothers and sisters. Stymie’s parents decided that he would get the honor of naming his siblings; three of them would eventually show up in the Our Gang shorts (his mom cameoed as well!)..
Stymie was replaced by the black Our Gang member who became the best known of the four main black performers: Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas. Alongside the chubby Spanky, the cowlicked Alfalfa, the sweet Darla and the croak-throated Froggy, Buckwheat is part of the cultural image of Our Gang that still lives on. With his big afro and trademark “Otay,” Buckwheat came to be seen as the plucky underdog of the Our Gang ensemble, often butting heads with the very authoritarian Spanky.
The Our Gang shorts had their own rudimentary continuity, which is why Buckwheat began his career playing a girl. The Buckwheat character had been introduced in the 1934 short For Pete’s Sake (featuring Pete the dog) as Stymie’s sister, and was played by Matthew Beard’s real sister, Carlena. Another actress, Willie Mae Walton, played the character in three other shorts. When Thomas took over Roach’s team kept the character female and made him play in drag.
But Buckwheat slowly and surely became a boy. At first he had that same pickaninny look that would make Farina’s work so hard to watch today, but in the sole feature length Our Gang movie - General Spanky, a Civil War period piece where, I shit you not, Buckwheat plays a runaway slave - he got his famous untamed afro, a look he kept for the next decade. That famous Buckwheat outfit, including a striped shirt and suspenders, was really a slave costume, adding an uncomfortable dimension to all his appearances.
Buckwheat stayed with Our Gang until the end, when production shut down in 1944. And like many of the other cast members the rest of his life was filled with struggle and hardship. Some say there’s a curse on the Little Rascals - many died young, many violently (or in the case of Robert Blake ended up accused of murdering his wife). The three most famous black Our Gang cast members share a strange connection later in life - Stymie, Farina and Buckwheat all died within months of each other. Allen “Farina” Hoskins served with distinction in WWII but never got back into acting. After years of doing menial jobs he found his way into a career working with the disabled. He died of cancer in July of 1980, only 59. He was buried in an unmarked grave, which has since had a headstone placed on it.
Buckwheat was the next to go. Billie Thomas also served in WWII, and he also left acting behind - but he stayed in the movie business, working at Technicolor. In 1980, months before he died, he attended a Little Rascals reunion where he was brought to tears by the enthusiastic standing ovation he received. In October of that year he was dead of a heart attack. He died on the anniversary of the day his mother brought him to audition for Hal Roach.
Stymie took a harder road. Matthew Beard left acting after high school and picked up a smack habit. His heroin addiction kept him going in and out of prison until he managed to clean up in the 1960s. After that he began appearing in some TV shows, like Sanford and Son, but suffered a stroke in 1981. He died in January of that year, and was buried with that bowler hat Stan Laurel gave him.
Billie Thomas may have died in 1980, but Buckwheat lived on in the unlikeliest ways. Eddie Murphy, new to Saturday Night Live, did a version of Buckwheat on the show, lampooning the character’s garbled speech and wide-eyed optimism. It’s hard to imagine this happening now, but Murphy started doing Buckwheat not long after Thomas died. Nobody seemed too upset except Spanky McFarland, one of the few Rascals to make it to a ripe old age. He vigorously attacked Murphy’s version of the character, saying it was a negative stereotype and was hurtful to Thomas’ family.
SNL’s Buckwheat wasn’t long for this world, though, and in one of the best series of sketches the show has ever done he was assassinated on live TV. SNL’s version of Buckwheat got a hilariously disproportionate send-off - Nixon, Ford and Princess Diana attended his funeral - unlike the real world Billie Thomas.
Maybe nobody got offended by this because nobody knew Buckwheat was dead in real life. That’s how Bill English conned 20/20 in 1990. He claimed to be the elderly Buckwheat, reduced to bagging groceries, and the news show did a feature on him. Spanky saw it and confronted English on live television, telling him he knew for a fact that Buckwheat had died ten years prior. It was a bizarre moment of drama.
The specific short that Don watches is one called Waldo’s Last Stand, and in it Spanky and the gang try to help their friend Waldo make money with his lemonade stand. Spanky’s idea, in grand Little Rascals style, was to put on a show and sell lemonade there. The short isn’t very good, and it’s filled with way too many song and dance numbers and too little comedy. There’s definitely a Mad Men connection there, as Spanky’s attempt to sell doesn’t work - he doesn’t really understand his audience.
But the element of this episode that struck me was the struggle that faces Dawn, and the way the show expertly portrays the staggered, slow momentum of racial progress in this country. Dawn ends up as the head of personnel only after getting tossed off her desk by jerky Lou Avery and then taken off the front desk by crypto-racist Bert Cooper. The desire to keep her black face away from reception leads to her getting a position of true power. There’s a comparison to be made here with the black performers in Our Gang - while dressed in outfits that make us blanch today, they were integrated alongside white kids in ways that would be groundbreaking for decades to come (Hal Roach attempted to follow up Our Gang with a new movie series called Curley, featuring Stymie’s kid brother. Tennessee banned the movie in 1947 because it featured black and white children playing together).
There are moments in time when old attitudes collide with new attitudes and the result can be confusing. The late 60s was one of those times, and the span of Mad Men lets us see that as women find themselves in positions of power in the company while still being treated as inferiors and black employees have finally pierced the whiteness of the firm, but face prejudice at every turn. The 1930s and 40s of the Our Gang were another, as Hal Roach broached color barriers while at the same time reinforcing offensive stereotypes that lingered on from the days of slavery. We like to think that progress is a straight line, that people stop having regressive attitudes overnight, but that just isn’t the case.