Today (1/5/11) I notice TCM is airing “Our Gang” comedy shorts all day long. Out of fondness for memorabilia, I watched an episode in which the enterprising youngsters earned money using their hand-made, “automated” shoe shine stand, complete with a binocular-like viewer, through which passersby could supposedly see the inner workings. No one could see anything when they pressed their faces against the viewing lenses, but they each left with dark circles around their eyes. The film was silent and didn’t even have the dialogue printed because the jokes were all visual.
Hal Roach, the film’s creator, was a genius when it came to reaching broad audiences. You don’t need to speak english to get the jokes. And the creative antics of children always have a universal appeal. The only present-day children’s show that even comes close is Timmy Time by Aardman, in which the animated pre-school characters simply make cute animal sounds, and yet the story is clear, without requiring the use of language.
Another thing that Our Gang and Timmy Time share in common is something adults would probably call “diversity”. In the case of Timmy Time, the children are all different animals — a sheep, a pig, an owl, etc. In the Our Gang episode I watched, 2 black children played with the white children, who didn’t seem to treat them any different from anyone else. It speaks to the fact that racial attitudes have to be learned, and that most young children haven’t learned them yet. An experience from my own life illustrates this.
In 1972 I was staying with a friend in San Francisco while looking for work. He rented a room on Fell Street, in a black neighborhood. We were the only two whites in the building and I rarely saw any other whites in the area. However, we seemed to be accepted (or at least tolerated) by our neighbors. One of those neighbors was a little boy who lived down the street. He was maybe five years old, but was often playing on the sidewalk without supervision. One Saturday morning as we were working on my friend’s car, our little friend saw us and came over to tell us about the movie he had seen the night before. It was “Super Fly” (something I didn’t feel was appropriate for his age) which glamorized life in the ghetto. Gangsters, dope dealing and prostitution were the backdrop for blacks “stickin’ it to the man”.
But our little friend was delighted and telling us parts of the movie where “we got back at whitey”. The way he was telling us, he was sure we would also enjoy getting over on whitey. To him, we were just two guys who lived down the street. He hadn’t learned how to identify whitey yet, but he knew whitey was bad. It’s regrettable that we have to “grow up” and learn to separate ourselves from others, based on prejudice. It’s too bad we have to leave innocent fun behind and learn to mistrust, fear and hate. I’ve often wondered about that kid. He’d be in his forties now. How does he feel about “whitey” now?
The film I watched this morning was made almost a century ago. Since then, a lot of children have “grown up”. My generation came into adulthood during the 60s, when attitudes were being revolutionized (some forty years after the Our Gang film was made). In those days we sang, “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius …” and we believed that racism would die out and be replaced with universal love and acceptance. In stead, racism has increased and become more hateful and more intolerant, if that is even possible. If this is the Age of Aquarius, let it serve as a reminder of the deceptiveness and unreliability of Astrology. For today the world is in far worse shape than it was in the 60s.
I realize that in the last hundred years we’ve witnessed many changes for good in society; political and legal corrections, economic improvements, scientific advancements. But when I watched that old Our Gang film this morning, something in me yearned for those days when childhood was protected, and we were allowed to be innocent.