The Little Rascals were a summertime TV tradition when I was a kid. A solid two-hour block of the Rascals (originally known as Our Gang) aired along with The Three Stooges every weekday. I loved those films and it truly saddens me that the youngsters of today don’t get to experience these films like I did. Sure, many people today know the Our Gang characters, but they don’t know the films. So, let’s change some of that with a look at a late entry in the series (which lasted 220 films), 1938’s “Aladdin’s Lantern.”
The Our Gang films can be broken into three groups: the silent era from 1922 to 1929, the Hal Roach sound films from 1929 to 1938, and the MGM era from 1938 to 1944. “Aladdin’s Lantern” is one of the first of the MGM productions. These films are quite different in feel than many of the other films. They feature many of the same characters from the earlier films (Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, etc) but they don’t quite have the same rough-and-tumble feel that the series had during the Roach years.
“Aladdin’s Lantern” is one of those “hey gang, let’s put on a show” films. Every kid in the neighborhood has gathered in Porky’s basement to see the gang put on a production based on the story of Aladdin. Spanky plays the Cailph, Alfalfa is Aladdin, Darla is a dancing girl, and so on. The production gets off to a rough start when Buckwheat and Porky, not satisfied with their small roles as palace guards, take to the stage with their rendition of “While Strolling Through the Park One Day.” After they get dragged off the stage, the real show begins.
Aladdin comes to the palace to help cure the boredom of the Cailph. By rubbing his magic lamp, and with some special effects help from Waldo, the genie appears. Spanky requests dancing-girls and so Darla appears with a line of pint-size chorus girls. They sing “Your Broadway and Mine” and are even joined by a young boy tap dancer. The number is quite polished and is a good example of a change that happened with the gang after MGM took the reigns. Sure, during the Roach years there were musical numbers, but there was a different feel to them. Take the 1935 short “Beginner’s Luck,” in which Spanky’s mom forces him into a talent contest. There are several other kid acts on display, but at the same time, you can tell that Roach and his crew are taking a jab at the multitudes of stage mothers that I’m sure were regularly showing up at their studio. Though the dancers are enjoyable in this short, those extra little bits of humor are absent in the production number.
The number does come to an end when Porky and Buckwheat try to do their song again. As a result, Darla walks off the show and Spanky orders the two troublemakers to sit down and not move. Needing a replacement, Spanky dons one of Darla’s costumes to play the princess for Alfalfa’s big number. Alfalfa flies into the scene on a magic carpet, run by a pulley system, to sing his number. Unfortunately, he sets his magic lamp, lit with a candle, on the floor nearby. As he sings, the monkey (somehow the gang often had a monkey) messes with the pulley…always landing Alfalfa’s back side above the flame. As he runs off the stage, his pants smoking, Spanky yells at Porky and Buckwheat for not doing anything. Their response…take to the stage and save the show by singing their song.
“Aladdin’s Lantern” is an interesting transitional piece between the Roach years and the MGM years. It has the spirit of fun of the earlier shorts, but starts to drift toward the big production mindset of Leo the Lion and company. The gang does a great job, though. Alfalfa’s song is hilarious and his reactions as he sits above the flame are absolutely classic. I can’t help but wonder if he was actually reacting to a candle under his seat…some shots sure make it look like that is the case. This is also a great showcase for Porky and Buckwheat who show why they became such favorites among the scores of kids who were a part of Our Gang over the years.
Sadly, things started to go downhill for the series as the MGM years progressed, but this film still preserves the fun that made Our Gang so popular…for generation after generation.