Tuesday, February 21, 2017

OVP: General Spanky (1936)

Film: General Spanky (1936)
Stars: Spanky McFarland, Phillips Holmes, Ralph Morgan, Irving Pichel, Carl Switzer, Louise Beavers
Director: Fred Newmeyer and Gordon Douglas
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Sound Recording)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Ooph, when it comes to early cinema, there's dated and then there's "wow-that just happened."  I try as much as I can to assume the best intent and escape outside of what is clearly a heinous moment in American history when I see a movie, but sometimes it's hard to assume the best, and that was probably the case with General Spanky, one of the stranger nominees I've noticed in the early years of the Academy (then again, Suicide Squad made it this year so AMPAS never totally grows out of "guess what's actually Oscar-nominated?").  The first Our Gang feature film ever made, and a Box Office disappointment, it scored a random nomination for Best Sound Recording but is more marred in its troubling racial politics.

(Spoilers Ahead) For those unfamiliar, the film centers around some of the more beloved figures in the Our Gang universe, though instead of the He-Man-Woman-Haters-Club, we get them in the days of the old Confederacy, and while a couple of members of the gang are randomly in the background, we really only focus on Alfalfa, Buckwheat, and Spanky in the titular role.  Spanky, a shoeshine boy who outsmarts most everyone around him either through guise or cuteness, comes across Buckwheat after he runs away from his master (Buckwheat being a slave in this narrative), and then they come across a kindly Captain Marsh (Holmes), who takes them in but is a confederate soldier who objects to the Civil War, drawing much ire from those around him.  In the end, he is nearly killed but Spanky saves the day by befriending a general who pardons Captain Marsh.  The film is filled with a number of hijinks and physical comedy up until that point.

I get that it's all in good fun, and there are some site gags that work (McFarland in particular was a solid child actor with definite on-screen charisma).  But for me it was weird and always a bit disconcerting to see the children marching around, being in danger, in what was an actual war.  Particularly concerning was watching the treatment of Buckwheat, some eighty years after the end of the war, being portrayed as a gimmick and a minstrel-type figure.  There's one scene where the little boy goes around asking people to be his master that feels like something out of The Birth of a Nation-it's repugnant, and impossible to get past even if you're aware that the movie is over 80 years old at this point.  Even in 1936 it feels like they should have known better.

The film received a sole Oscar nomination, for Best Sound Recording, and I have to admit I'm still a little thrown as to what nabs early films like this random sound citations.  There's no obvious gimmick or work on display here, though Elmer Reguse would eventually become something of an Oscar staple (8 nominations in total).  Perhaps it was for the many outdoors scenes or the large amount of onscreen music involved?  Either way, I'm hoping there's better.

Those are my thoughts on this movie-what about yours?  Are you with me that it's a bit troubling, even if you get that it's of a time-and-place?  Do you ever find other movies whose politics you just can't move past?  And who was your favorite member of the Our Gang films-share in the comments!

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