The gang packs up for a camping trip to Cherry Creek two miles from their home, but to them it is the wilderness. After night falls, the hooting owls and croaking frogs conjure up visions ... See full summary »
Matthew 'Stymie' Beard,
I'm not a major fan of Hal Roach's "Our Gang" comedies -- the so-called Little Rascals -- and I usually avoid the Rascals in any movie that shows them eating. I have no desire to watch their table manners, and most of the "gags" are very predictable: close-up of white kid with dark food smeared on his face, followed by close-up of black kid with white food smeared on his face. So, the title "Free Eats" did not whet my appetite.
Fortunately, the Rascals are in good hands here: "Free Eats" is directed by Leo McCarey's unjustly-obscure brother Raymond, and the dialogue is by Roach stalwart H.M. "Beany" Walker.
An opening shot of a newspaper informs us that Mrs Stanford L Clark is throwing a free feed for the local kids, to help her husband's political campaign for the mayoralty.
Now, there are these four crooks who decide to crash the kids-only party. All four crooks are adult men, but two of them are midgets disguised as babies. The other two men pretend to be the "parents" of the babies, with Paul Fix in female disguise as the mama. Oh, mama! Over the decades of his long career, veteran character actor Paul Fix had a wide range of roles: he was Liz Taylor's father in 'Giant', and he was cast as chief medical officer aboard the Starship Enterprise until he got replaced by DeForest Kelley. I was very impressed with Fix's performance in the 1929 drama 'Lucky Star'. Here, disguised as a woman, he gives a much more plausible performance than I would have expected. Fix actually attempts a few gestures that are convincingly feminine rather than effeminate.
The two midgets (one of them twice the size of the other) aren't very plausible as babies. They keep showing off their adult teeth. (Harry Earles, another adult midget who was sometimes cast as a genuine baby, purposely avoided showing his teeth while in infant roles.) Both midgets are spectacularly ugly. At least one speaks in a dubbed voice, probably because most midget performers aren't very good actors. (They tend to get cast for reasons unrelated to acting ability.) The two midgets steal the jewellery of Mrs Clark and her society friends ... knowing that, if they're caught in the act, they'll be mistaken for innocent babies snatching pretty objects.
The alleged 'father' of the midgets is veteran actor Billy Gilbert, giving a surprisingly subdued performance. Gilbert typically overacted and often played blustering idiots, but he was actually a highly intelligent man: I suspect that, finding himself here cast alongside two midgets and a female impersonator, he was smart enough to realise he should play it straight this time.
What really strained credulity for me is that we see Fix and the midgets ALREADY disguised as a woman and her two babies when Billy Gilbert finds out about the party. Do they live in these disguises full-time? Hmmm...
I was intrigued to see good performances here from a couple of kid actors whom I don't recognise from other 'Our Gang' movies. Dorothy DeBorba (looking a little bit like Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzler) is bright and pop-eyed as the head girl. Sherwood Bailey, nicknamed Spud and dressed as a jockey, is the leader of the kid gang. The climax of the movie is genuinely suspenseful, with Bailey getting into a knock-down fight with the nastier of the two midgets. Here we see an adult criminal (admittedly a midget in nappies) trying to beat up a child, and we recognise that Spud is in genuine peril. Bailey gives an excellent performance: why didn't he catch on as one of Our Gang?
I'm never amused when Matthew 'Stymie' Beard or some other black child is used as the butt of racial humour in these crude comedies. In 'Free Eats', intriguingly, young Stymie proves himself a brave and resourceful detective. He's the first to realise that the 'babies' are not what they seem, and he comes up with a clever method of unmasking them ... or maybe undiapering them. 'Free Eats' is one of the more original Our Gang comedies, and this non-fan happily rates it 8 out of 10.
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