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Selected Short Subjects: The Our Gang Miss Crabtree comedies part one.

Jackie, Chubby, Farina
Jackie, Chubby, Farina
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"Teacher's Pet" is the first in a trilogy of Our Gang comedies

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Teacher’s Pet
Directed by Robert McGowan. Dialog by H.M. Walker. Cinematography by Art Lloyd. Music by LeRoy Shield. Sound by Elmer Raguse. Starring Jackie Cooper, Allen Clayton “Farina” Hoskins, Norman “Chubby” Chaney, Matthew Beard, Dorothy DeBorba, Buddy McDonald, Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins, Mary Ann Jackson, Donald Haines, June Marlowe, William Courtright, Baldwin Cooke. A Hal Roach production for MGM. Filmed May 21 to 29, 1930. Released October 11, 1930.

There is a great deal of historical significance to this early Our Gang talkie. It was the first to use LeRoy Shield’s theme “Good Old Days” for its opening credits. It was the first to use the Crane sisters to open the movie and recite the opening credits. And it was the first appearance of June Marlowe as Miss Crabtree.

The gang is upset about the loss of their beloved teacher Miss McGilligcuddy who has left to get married. Her replacement is Miss Crabtree, and with a name like that, the kids figure she has to be strict and difficult. Jackie (Jackie Cooper) recruits Chubby (Norman Chaney) Buddy (Buddy McDonald), and Farina (Allen Clayton Hoskins) to pull a variety of pranks on the newcomer. Sneezing powder, red ants, and a pet mouse are among their props. They also have arranged for their younger siblings to come into the classroom and insist they must go home due to family emergencies. The rehearsal for this is among the more amusing exchanges in the two reeler:

Wheezer: When you blow your nose, I come in and say Jack has to come right home because Mama is gonna shoot Papa!

Jackie: No, that’s too strong. Say “important business.”

On the way to school, Jackie is offered a ride by an attractive young lady and tells her his plans. Of course it is actually Miss Crabtree (June Marlowe), but Jackie doesn’t realize that. Clearly smitten, he states, “you’re almost as pretty as Miss McGilligcuddy” and “I wish you were a teacher.” Once he arrives at school and sees that his carefully orchestrated pranks are all set to go, Jackie is naturally taken aback upon discovering the new teacher is the pretty lady who gave him a ride. Miss Crabtree announces there will be no academic learning in the classroom that day; she has instead ordered ice cream and cake, after which the children will “have a holiday.” Miss Crabtree then humiliates Jackie at every turn. She calls attention to the already embarrassed child, and holds up an unflattering drawing he made of the “new teacher” he’d shown her in confidence during the ride to school. She then calls upon the other boys whom Jackie had candidly told her were in on the pranks. The boys brand Jackie a squealer as he whines, “I didn’t know….” When the younger children come in and tell of the emergencies, Miss Crabtree sends Jackie, Chubby, Farina, and Buddy all home as the cake and ice cream is being delivered (it is curious why Buddy is included, as he does not have a younger sibling reporting an emergency at home). The other boys blame Jackie for everything, and go back into school to offer apologies. Jackie is left alone, humiliated by the grownup and ostracized by his friends. Continuing to control the situation, the adult approaches the sobbing child with some cake and ice cream, who, in the form of an apology, states she is “prettier than Miss McGilligcuddy.”

Much of the brilliance of this series is how the children functioned within their own creative society with adults either on the periphery or as opposing forces to be overcome. As Richard Bann and Leonard Maltin have written in their excellent book “Our Gang: The Life and Times of the Little Rascals,” the appeal of the series was showing mischievous youngsters defying authority figures. “Teacher’s Pet” is different. The adult is in control and the children are wrongheaded about their ideas, unsuccessful with their plans, and revealed as examples.

There are some humorous moments in “Teacher’s Pet.” The ants get loose, causing some jittery moments for the class and teacher. The sneezing powder is spilled, resulting in everyone having a sneezing fit. The younger siblings assigned to tell the teacher about the household emergencies get their stories wrong. Wheezer blurts out: “Jack has to come home, because Mama’s gonna shoot Papa! No, that’s too strong! Important business!”

But the idea of an adult teaching children a lesson is a harbinger for later Our Gang films that used the same structural trajectory. For instance, in the 1938 short “The Awful Tooth” the gang decides to have their teeth pulled to put them out for the good fairy to bring them money for baseball equipment. The dentist decides to teach them a lesson, but it is all done in an outrageous, humorous manner (The dentist saying, “one patient’s teeth were so strong I had to break them off in little pieces” which causes a huge comic reaction from Alfalfa in the dental chair). When the series was produced by MGM at the end of the 1930s after Hal Roach stopped making short subjects, many of the subsequent movies were about adults teaching children a lesson. “Teacher’s Pet” was made during a stronger period for the series, and with better writers, actors, and directors. But its basic formula of the adult putting one over on the children to teach them a lesson is the structure used here. It is a decidedly less effective approach (see also the Gang's final silent film, "Saturday's Lesson" from 1929).

There are positive aspects to “Teacher’s Pet.” We get to know the characters better. We are shown how smitten they are with their teacher, setting up the narratives for the subsequent films featuring the Crabtree character. However, "Teacher's Pet" is more cute than funny, gets a bit mawkish, and the comic highlights are only amusing in a general sense.

Being that “Teacher’s Pet” is the first film in a connecting trilogy that also includes the comedies “School’s Out” (1930) and “Love Business” (1931), both of which are superior, these will also be reviewed.