This two-reel comedy is more than just an amusing film, it's a milestone: Saturday's Lesson was the last silent Our Gang short produced for the Hal Roach Studio before the series switched to the full talkie format. Happily, it's a worthy finale, a high energy romp that gives each kid a good moment or two, and leaves the viewer with a warm glow.
"When little boys have been in school all week," says the opening title card, "they have their own ideas about Saturday" Surprisingly, this introduces a scene of luxury, in which a well-dressed Farina is served a sumptuous meal by a uniformed servant. Needless to add, it turns out to be a fantasy. All too soon, he's awakened by his angry Mama, who puts him to work beating rugs. The other kids are equally unlucky: Harry and his siblings Wheezer, Mary Ann, and Jean must eat spinachwhich, of course, they hateand then do chores. Joe's mother is angry with him over some unspecified infraction, and orders him to chop wood in the back yard as punishment. And all the rascals are warned that if they don't behave, the "devil man" will get them. Before long, the kids manage to escape their imprisonment, meet in a park, and lament their sad lot in life.
Meanwhile, a strange fellow in a devil costume is roaming the city sidewalks, advertising space heaters. (It's claimed they're "hotter than hot.") We get the sense this guy is rather eccentric; he doesn't merely advertise the product, but actually throws smoke bombs at spectators, and performs back-flips for his own amusement. He too winds up in the park, and overhears the children as they discuss shirking their choresand also hears Farina express curiosity about the "devil man." Recognizing his cue, he appears before the astonished kids in a puff of smoke, and orders them to perform their chores. They rush home to do so, terrified, in a wild frenzy of activity. Amused, the costumed devil follows them, issues more commands to the now-compliant kids, and makes sure they follow through.
A simple description of the story cannot fully convey the appeal of this short. Where the Our Gang series is concerned, the charm of these child actors who make up the cast is crucial. (If you don't believe it, try watching some of the many pseudo-Gang comedies produced in the '20s; those other kiddie shows never rise to the same level of quality.) Farina has one of the best moments, when he first sees the alleged devil and, without further ado, simply faints dead away. Joe Cobb has several terrific, highly expressive close-ups, and so too do the girls. The best Our Gang shorts are true ensemble efforts, and Saturday's Lesson is no exception.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to enjoy this film with a full audience, at a recent silent comedy festival at NYC's Museum of Modern Art, and can attest that it scored a real hit. Although there were lots of entertaining Our Gang comedies made in the talkie era, I tend to prefer the silent shorts of the '20s. It's nice to find that this chapter of the series' history came to a close with a real winner.
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