A fake psychic is making a fortune bilking the gullible with his house o’ special effects but he never counted on a gang of cute little kids stumbling onto his operation. Our Gang comedy with a high dose of Farina.
This Our Gang short starts with a literal bang. Farina (Allen Hoskins) and Skooter (Scooter Lowry, Our Gang Class of 1926-1927) find themselves caught in the middle of a shootout between a policeman and Professor Fleece (George B. French). The chase ends when Fleece slips into a local grocery store and the owner covers for him. Joe Cobb, Mary Kornman and the rest of the gang witness the ruse but are bribed with apples for their silence.
Professor Fleece lives up to his name (was there ever a chance he wouldn’t?) and bilks suckers out of their money by pretending to speak to the dead, see the future, all the usual psychic stuff. To aid him in this, he has a team of special effects experts who would put Hollywood to shame. Tables float, ghosts appear and there are strange bumps in the darkness. That will be $100, please.
In addition to being a rotten trickster, Fleece also hates children and he considers the gang to be a thorn in his side, interrupting his seances and such. When one of his tantrums causes the children’s underground hideout to collapse, they are forced to tunnel into Fleece’s lair. What follows is a classic Hal Roach tit-for-tat as the kids scare the gang and the gang scares the kids.
This film has all the usual behind-the-scenes suspects involved. Veteran Our Gang helmsman Robert F. McGowan directs and H.M. “Beanie” Walker does his usual snappy work with the title cards.
It’s all as light as a feather and doesn’t make an enormous amount of sense if you really think about it but, really, who cares? The atmosphere is pleasantly spooky without falling into scary (as befits a family film) and the kids are adorable. That’s what we paid our admission to see, isn’t it?
Now you may know already that I consider Allen Hoskins (Farina) to be one of the cutest kids who ever walked the earth and the film treats him as a near-protagonist. This was a period of transition for Our Gang as the originals were being aged out. Ernie Morrison left in 1924, freckle-faced Mickey Daniels, pretty much the main kid in the series up to this point, had departed earlier in 1926 and Mary Kornman (the “girl” of the series) was on her way out the door. (Both Daniels and Kornman would later make guest appearances as adults.) I’m not an enormous Daniels fan but there does seem to be some glue missing in his absence and everything feels a bit off-center.
The gang was just as big by the numbers but other than Kornman, Hoskins and little Joe Cobb, none of the kids (even regulars like Jackie Condon) make a particular impression in this short. Hoskins carries it, of course, but Our Gang has always been about the ensemble and it’s not present this time around.
The good news is that this short still manages to be a droll bit of entertainment. Hal Roach comedies always benefited from flirting with the macabre and Shivering Spooks is no exception. It’s more goofy than scary but it’s still a welcome sub-genre for Our Gang to play with. George B. French’s villain is thoroughly hissable, which is another plus. (Though one wonders how he gets away with shootouts in streets filled with kids. Someone call the Culver City council!)
The film’s story kind of dissolves near the end and we are left with a cartoonish chase through Professor Fleece’s “haunted” house, which is rigged with booby traps and assorted jump scares. It’s fun enough but I would have preferred a slower ending that featured more of the kids’ personalities. However, given the ensemble issues mentioned above, there may have been a reason why a frantic chase was called for.
The special effects are incorporated well into the story and the children do a great job of interacting with them, particularly Hoskins, who is carried up on a trick table and turns white with terror. The other effects include the expected skeletons and bedsheets but it all flows together and the conceit of setting the short in the home of a con man makes all the wires and phoniness part of the story.
There are the expected stereotypes in the film but I was rather amused by Farina’s call for racial equality in the portrayal of ghosts. (Alas, using dialect title cards.) It’s a bit more disturbing that the “ghosts” in Professor Fleece’s house bear a strong resemblance to Klansmen. I cannot say whether or not this was intentional but the KKK was very much in the news (and, of course, other films) at the time. In any case, they’re the baddies.
From what I can see, modern reactions to the film range from “OMG, ban it!” to “No one should ever find anything wrong with this because it’s old!” As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy entertainment with problematic content and contrariwise, pointing out that content doesn’t mean you’re a big ol’ PC meanie who hates mom and apple pie. We can acknowledge issues within a film while still enjoying it. It’s okay. We can handle this. Everyone, just calm down and eat a cookie or something.
(Silent Era Facts: Yes, African-American viewers did object to stereotypes. Yes, even when African-American performers were in the cast. No, being offended by stereotypes is not a modern invention. I get tired of typing this so I’ll just provide a link to my review of Two Knights of Vaudeville, where I discuss the topic extensively.)
The overall verdict? Shivering Spooks is a particularly good silent Our Gang short that makes full use of its high concept hook. What it lacks in ensemble magic, it makes up for with zany title cards and some very charismatic performances from the young leads. While there is some problematic content, the haunted house genre fits rather well and a good time is had by all. What more could we want?
Where can I see it?
Shivering Spooks was released on DVD by ReelclassicDVD as part of their Our Gang Collection Volume Two. The film is accompanied by an organ score composed and performed by Ben Model.
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