Many local children's television shows from the 1950s through the 1970s regularly featured a series of nostalgic short films starring the "Little Rascals." Characters such as Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Buckwheat and Froggy became household names to generations of children too young to remember when those shorts were first shown to moviegoers during the 1920s and 1930s. Watching the Little Rascals shorts became an early morning or late afternoon ritual for millions of children over the years.
In reality, the television packages sold to local stations as "The Little Rascals" were only selected episodes from the 1930s heyday of producer Hal Roach's "Our Gang" series of comedic shorts. Roach had already produced an entire generation of silent or early sound "Our Gang" films by the time familiar characters like Buckwheat, Alfalfa and Spanky had been created. Many of these earlier Our Gang actors would later appear as teachers, parents or other adult characters in the later "Little Rascals"/"Our Gang" episodes.
Perhaps the most familiar Little Rascals character was Spanky McFarland, who literally grew up on camera during the run of the series. Spanky started out as a toddler during the silent and early sound generation of the series, then became the lead character, supported by friends such as Alfalfa, Darla Hood, Froggy, Buckwheat, Stymie and Butch the bully. A pit bull named Pete with a distinctive target ring marking around one eye became their faithful mascot.
The plot lines of most Little Rascals shorts centered around the gang's efforts to ditch school or to execute practical jokes, most of which ended badly for at least one character. Alfalfa's futile but persistent efforts to woo the beautiful Darla through off-key crooning was also a common theme, along with the questionable loyalty of members of the He-man Wimmen Haters' Klub, a secret society which rarely remained true to its own set of rules.
Other Little Rascals characters included Stymie and Buckwheat, two African-American boys who generally displayed the most common sense by staying out of the gang's ill-conceived plans. Darla Hood sang several songs throughout her time on the series, also organizing and starring in the gang's barn-based theatrical productions. Darla, Spanky, Alfalfa and the rest of the cast were ably assisted by the versatile Flory-Dory girls during these performances, which at one point ran on the "pay as you exit" plan.
The "Our Gang"/"Little Rascals" series remained in production until the early 1940s, but by the end many of the most popular actors had aged out of their roles. One later addition to the cast was a street-tough named Mickey, played by actor Mickey Gubitosi, better known as Robert Blake. Spanky McFarland and Darla Hood remained with the series until they were clearly adolescents, but others were replaced with less memorable supporting characters.
The Little Rascals series was designed primarily to entertain moviegoers struck hard by the Great Depression. While the gang may have faced difficult challenges, the audience always knew they would rise to the occasion and triumph over adversity. Many of the Little Rascals plots mirrored current events, including metal collection drives for the war effort and the effects of food rationing and unemployment.
Many of the cast members of the Little Rascals series failed to duplicate their success as adult actors. Some decided to return to less public profiles after the series ended, while other found themselves hopelessly typecast. Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer was especially troubled by his Little Rascals past, only appearing in a handful of mostly forgettable movies before his untimely death.
"Spanky" McFarland worked primarily in the construction field, but did make frequent appearances at "Little Rascals" fan events and conventions. Darla Hood became a minor television star and entertainer, but largely retired from show business for health and family reasons. She later succumbed to cancer.
The syndicated Little Rascals television package has rarely been broadcast in recent years, but at one time it served to remind modern viewers of the simple pleasures of youth and some of the lessons learned by survivors of the Great Depression. As one movie producer exclaimed, it would be very difficult to duplicate the original Little Rascals with modern child actors, since the original cast really did have the rare combination of naivety and innocence necessary for a truly honest performance.