originally published January 28, 2012
For seventeen minutes and thirty-nine seconds in the spring of 1934, eyes remained glued to the wild antics of Spanky & Our Gang as they traipsed through the riveting drama of Hi’-Neighbor!. I’m not entirely clear on the spelling here – why an apostrophe? Why a hyphen? It’s like they wanted to avoid using “Hi Neighbor”, and went a little wild and arbitrary with the punctuation.
No matter, Spanky transcends such trivialities. I found a link to this video here – if you feel compelled to see the action in full black-and-white crispness, please follow along. If you’re willing to accept my analysis and plot summary, including the parts I invent because I think I could have written it better, that’s okay too. In fact, I’d recommend it. There’s no Buckwheat and no Alfalfa in this one, so it would probably be a little like watching a post-Richie-and-Ralph episode of Happy Days.
Two kids, Spanky and his then-sidekick Wally, are amusing themselves by sailing a little tugboat in a puddle on the street. Pete, the mutant dog with the curious deformation of a thick black circle around one of his eyes, oversees the proceedings, thinking to himself, “Christ these kids are fucking boring.” Wally is trying to force as much enthusiasm as humanly possible into this mundane task, almost as though he knows that in less than a year and a half he’d be replaced by the far-more-likeable Alfalfa.
The kids notice a moving van driving by and, because it was the 1930s and most parents were teaching their children to blindly follow any anonymous van they see in hopes they might be abducted and save the cost of a mouth to feed, off they went. They round up the rest of the gang, because nobody would give half a crap about a Spanky-and-Wally short.
The van is transporting a kid-size fire engine, which we soon learn is owned by a snobby and rich stereotype of a brat-child named Jerry. The kids try to barter for a ride in the toy. They offer their gratitude (great opening low-ball bid, by the way), and a pocket-knife, but Jerry isn’t sharing. Perhaps if they’d offered the pocket-knife with a slightly different inflection (“Hey Jerry, how about I take a ride in your toy fire engine and you won’t have to piss into a bag for the rest of your life. Deal?”) they might have had more success.
Wally’s girl – which we can relate to because we were all involved in long-term relationships at age six – shows up. Jerry is quick to offer her a ride in the fire engine because clearly Jerry wants to get laid. Wally panics, fearing that his steady stream of whatever it was girls and boys of that age did together in the 30’s (some kind of pre-sexual stickball?) was coming to an end. He tells Jane that he and the Spanky Gang have their own fire engine, but Jane, being a modern woman who takes what she can get, tells her she’ll ride with them after she takes a spin on Jerry’s engine. That was probably not a euphemism.
Wally and the gang build their own fire engine out of wheels, hoses and plywood because kids back then were more productive than kids today. It’s true, just ask anyone who was a kid back then, they’ll tell you.
The fire engine they build is big enough for the whole gang, so clearly Wally was operating on the notion that chicks may dig flashy two-seaters, but nothing gets them nearly as hot as guys who own a small bus.
Jerry decides if he proves to Jane that Wally’s claim of a fire engine was clearly a bogus manipulation, he would win her once and for all, forcing Wally into a life of celibacy and utter misery, coupled with chronic masturbation. Every child’s deepest fear. Jerry sneaks over to the construction site with Jane, but a wayward drill pokes through the barn door and twists off his pants.
Jerry runs away, for there is no greater shame in the Our Gang universe than being pantsless. Wally is, however, fully pantsed and completely stoked about his creation. Within a day, they have constructed a fully functioning (except for the engine and fire extinguishing apparatus) fire truck. Rather than being bowled over, Jane decides she’d rather take another ride in Jerry’s store-bought brand-name truck. There’s a lesson here, something about female consumerism and women’s obsession with material purchases and branded labels… I’m pretty sure Hal Roach was looking to give his wife a little dig with this short.
Wally and his Gang (since Spanky is really just superfluous sub-Pete-the-Pup filler here) decide to settle this the only way that makes sense – and no, not with the pocket-knife – they challenge Jerry to a race.
Or maybe Jerry challenges them to the race. The plot is very complicated and it’s hard to follow along with the nuances. The point is, they find a convenient hill and line up for a soap-box-derby-type race, fuelled only by gravity and utter stupidity.
The race begins, and right away the Wally-mobile loses its brakes, meaning the 2×4 nailed between the wheels splinters apart. Jerry thinks they’ll run him off the road, and he veers out of control. Halfway to the bottom of the hill, he bails out on someone’s lawn, leaving Jane alone with no way to control the truck, which crashes into a tree in the next yard over, bursting into flames and killing Jane instantly.
I made that last bit up, but don’t you think it would be a powerful ending? A real lesson about trust and honor? Why, oh why didn’t Spanky and/or his Gang take advantage of these opportunities to really drive some morality into the hearts of their viewers?
Wally and the other group-truckers let out a cheer, then suddenly swerve onto the sidewalk where they start taking out pedestrians (the blood-spurting severed calves were an unusual artistic choice for the Spanky franchise), then ride through a hedge, emerging from the other side in their underwear, their clothes torn right off. This appears to be a running theme in this short. New director Gus Meins may have had an unhealthy desire to ensure that every one of his child actors would be stripped down at some point in the story. I hope someone did some investigating into this.
The film premiered in March of 1934, and was the first Our Gang short to hit theaters in a few months so I’m sure it was received with enthusiasm. From the sounds of it, Wally had some serious mommy issues and was dragging the gang down with his unhealthy romantic relationships. Probably good that he was ditched in favor of Alfalfa.