Back when the Our Gang kids looked like Fagin's pickpockets
Hal Roach launched his Our Gang series in the early 1920s, and it continued to run in various forms (with considerable cast turn-over, naturally) for over twenty years. When TV came along the series had a whole new lease on life, and several generations of baby boom children grew up with the sound era shorts. I enjoyed those comedies when I was a kid, but when I discovered the silent era Our Gang comedies I found I liked them even better. This is one series that produced some of its best entries right out of the starting gate, with the original cast. The first thing you notice about these early films is that the kids inhabit a distinctly hard knock world -- they're scruffy little street urchins, not well-scrubbed suburban children -- and the films themselves are looser and more spontaneous than the carefully staged sitcoms with Spanky, Darla, and Buckwheat of later days. The early comedies also tend to move fast, and they're often really funny! There's a lot of rough-housing, memorable sight gags and witty title cards.
The Champeen is a fine example of what made the series so popular from the start. It kicks off with some rowdy action involving the kids stealing apples from a fruit stand, and nearly getting nabbed by a cop. The cop turns out to be a nice guy, however, and decides to scare our protagonist, Sammy, into obeying the law by painting a vivid picture of life in prison. (Sammy was played by the gang's first African American boy, Ernie Morrison, who projected a pleasant, low-key charisma on screen.) Instead of getting hauled off to jail Sammy is told he must repay the grocer one dollar, so in order to raise the money he decides to exploit the ongoing rivalry between Mickey and Jackie by pitting them against each other in a boxing match. As the bout's promoter, Sammy stands to earn the dollar he needs and perhaps even turn a profit. The big bout is the highlight, with non-stop gags and a subplot involving a snobby rich kid who shows up at ringside and gets clobbered on general principle.
The plot is simple enough to allow plenty of time for comedy, and happily it all seems to spring naturally from the situation and the kids' characters. We never get the sense that the kids are performing routines imposed on them by grown-up gag writers, which was sometimes the case in the sound shorts. I'd say the only problem with some of these early comedies, including this one, is that the kids occasionally come in for pretty rough handling (and sometimes, so do their pets) to the extent that we worry about their well-being. At one point in The Champeen little Farina, who looks barely old enough to walk, is put into the boxing ring with another toddler for a sparring match. They're both wearing big padded boxing gloves, but when the other kid hits Farina he bursts into tears, and it sure doesn't look like he's "acting." Fortunately, the moment quickly passes and our attention switches back to the older children. Several of the kids from these very early series entries (The Champpen was only the ninth Our Gang comedy produced) rank with the most talented and photogenic kids of the entire series, including Sammy, Farina, cute little Mary Kornman, freckled Mickey Daniels, and a boy named Jackie Condon who had a mop of blonde hair and an oddly demonic quality. He looks like the kind of kid who was capable of raising some serious hell when he put his mind to it.
At any rate, this is a highly enjoyable two-reel comedy from the Our Gang's early heyday, and well worth seeking out. I only wish the Hal Roach/Pathé shorts were easier to find, so here's hoping somebody puts out a good DVD collection one of these days that includes this one, Dogs of War, Derby Day, and some of the other goodies from this period.
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