BOOTLEG FILES 654: “Anderson’s Own Gang Comedy” (1926 fan film inspired on the Our Gang series).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Partially-lost film with no perceived commercial value.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
For every Hollywood franchise that gets screen time at the multiplex, it seems there are an endless number of fan films created by overenthusiastic movie lovers who want to be part of cinematic fun. But fans films are not a recent phenomenon. Indeed, the earliest known fan film was made back in 1926, and it was also part of a strange trend that brought a mix of filmmaking and hucksterism to small town America.
Beginning in the 1910s and lasting into the early 1970s, there were a group of individuals known as itinerant filmmakers. These folks would travel to the smaller cities and towns across the country with a distinctive proposition: they would recruit locals to appear in short films that would be screened at the neighborhood theaters. These filmmakers would make money by negotiating a fee from local businesses to have their stores featured in the films, and often movie-mad folks would pay to appear on camera. Since the localities targeted by these itinerant filmmakers were never included in Hollywood movies, the residents would flock to the local bijou to see their friends and neighbors up on the big screen – with the filmmakers pocketing the profits from the show.
Today, the vast majority of the works created by the itinerant filmmakers are considered lost – they had no commercial value outside of the places where they were shot, and the filmmakers rarely had the foresight to preserve their output.
In 1926, a pair of itinerant filmmakers by the name of Sammy Fox and R.R. Beatty arrived in Anderson, South Carolina, a city of 20,000, and made the acquaintance of Perry C. Osteen, the owner of the local Egyptian Theatre. Fox and Beatty reportedly presented themselves as Hollywood filmmakers with the Pathe studio, although contemporary scholars have found no evidence to back their claim – and, for all we know, their names might have been phony. In any event, Fox and Beatty convinced Osteen that they should collaborate on a short film based on the popular “Our Gang” comedies by Hal Roach that featured a cast of precocious children who were always up to some sort of mischief. A casting call was placed in a local newspaper and it seemed like nearly every kid in Anderson turned up for the three-day shoot; two of Osteen’s sons were cast in the gang.
“Anderson’s Own Gang Comedy” opens with a shot of the Egyptian Theatre, which has an announcement for an Our Gang film on its marquee. A large number of children stand next to the theater and start to wave as the camera pans back and forth along the street. We are quickly introduced to the Anderson version of the celluloid gang, with an intertitle telling us they are why “mothers get grey-headed.” This group goes by the names Freckles, Mary, Fat, Jackie and Toughie. This gang walks down the street and are followed the mass of kids who were waving at the camera a minute earlier.
The one hat-tip to the Hal Roach films is a black character called Farina, described by the intertitle as “the dark cloud of the gang.” Farina wears a straw hat and oversized shoes. An adult white couple stops him on the street and gives him a coin, with the intertitle offering their dialogue “Shake them dogs boy – shake ‘em” – at which point Farina does a dance in the middle of the sidewalk.
From here, the film wobbles through an endless series of half-considered vignettes. Toughy and another boy named Mickey get into a fight, with dozens of kids circling around them as fists are thrown. Toughy sells newspapers while his friends watch. Farina buys candy but is tricked into distraction by the other kids who steal his goodies. Farina takes it upon himself to direct traffic, resulting in a massive jam. Farina buys bananas for the gang, but gets stuck with the smallest of the fruit. The kids harass a man on crutches who is identified as “Old Man Grouch,” and then throw a pie in the face of another man on crutches. A newly married couple called Ima Sapp and Izzy Goffy are stopped by the kids, who begin dancing in front of them and then try to shake up their car. The gang are passengers on a wagon in a circus parade. And then, the film abruptly stops – the second of the two reels for this production is lost.
If Fox and Beatty were Hollywood filmmakers, they were remarkably untalented. At a few points, Beatty could be seen hand-cranking his 35mm camera in the reflections from a store window and a street display mirror. The gang, for the most part, existed as a bland band – the raucous Toughy and the beleaguered Farina are the only ones with traces of a personality. And the youngsters’ interactions with adults quickly become obnoxious – especially when they decide to throw a pie at a man on crutches who did nothing to deserve such pastry indignity.
But, then again, this was never created with the idea of making great art. Instead, Fox and Beatty were after a quick buck, and they were successful. “Anderson’s Own Gang Comedy” was shot from September 18-20 in 1926, a Saturday-to-Monday endeavor, and it was on the screen at the Egyptian Theatre one week later for a brief run. After the Anderson locals saw themselves on the screen, the film was forgotten. The first reel managed to find its way into the archives of the University of South Carolina – what happened to the second reel is anyone’s guess – and a not-pristine copy of this rare work is on YouTube.
Whether Hal Roach knew that itinerant filmmakers were ripping off his Our Gang series is unknown, and it seems the Anderson production was not the only one – historian Caroline Frick has identified at least 10 more Our Gang fan films shot around the U.S. and in Canada’s Manitoba province during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine that these itinerant filmmakers would be aware that they were starting a trend with fan films – and if “Anderson’s Own Gang Comedy” had not barely survived, we’d be unaware of where the fan film trend actually took root.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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