Good Cheer (1926)

I think the official title for this is simply, "Good Cheer," as opposed to "Hal Roach Presents His Rascals in Good Cheer," but the longer version gives at least a hint as to what this actually is. My generation thinks of this property as "The Little Rascals," though that branding came quite a bit later. "Hals's Rascals" is already an alternate name for what started as "Our Gang," a series of short films about a group of poor kids who went through comical adventures. Regardless of what it's called, this is indeed a 1926 Little Rascals Christmas film.

First, let's talk a little about what that means. The Our Gang shorts started in 1922 and were produced in various incarnations for decades. The premise centered on the idea that kids acting relatively naturally would make for good comedy, particularly when compared against the unrealistic behavior and dialogue they were typically directed to present at the time.

Good Cheer is relatively early in the series, which means it's only the [checks notes] forty-sixth installment. That's not a typo. Despite being released theatrically (since that was the only option), these are essentially forerunners of TV sitcoms. They're around 20 minutes long, focus on a recurring cast, and are produced both cheap and fast. Assuming the internet's correct, Good Cheer was released on January 10, 1926. If that's accurate, I can only assume it was supposed to be a Christmas release, and something went wrong, delaying it until after the holidays.

To be clear, this is the first and to date only of these I've seen. I don't get the impression there's a great deal of significant continuity, but I want to be clear that it's entirely possible I'm missing out on humor based on character personalities and running gags.

In addition to all that, as is often the case with films from this era, the version I watched is somewhat deteriorated. The picture quality is extremely bad at times, to the point that some of the title cards are difficult to read. I try to take all that into consideration, but I want to be upfront about these limitations when looking at things like this.

With those caveats out of the way, we can turn our attention to the other caveats, or in this case the warnings. Elements of this movie are uncomfortable to watch, which is basically a nice way of saying "racist." A few of the kids are black, and their dialogue cards attempt (poorly, in my opinion) to mine humor from this. The most glaring example is the constant use of "Ah" instead of "I" when these characters refer to themselves in the first person. The internet informs me there's a great deal more of this in other episodes.

To be fair, there's also pushback against charges of racism, some of it apparently coming from former black cast members. It's been pointed out this show was extremely early in presenting black characters as fundamentally equal with the white kids, a claim that seems supported by the episode I watched. I'm really not qualified to judge whether these competing aspects balance out, nor would it ultimately matter if they did. Regardless of whether the premise and casting were progressive for the time, the jokes certainly come off as offensive now.

With all that out of the way, let's talk about Good Cheer itself. While it eventually does have a plot, the first half is really more an assortment of winter and Christmas-themed jokes. These are somewhat hit-or-miss, which isn't a bad thing for comedy that's aged almost a century. The fact any of these jokes elicited a grin or chuckle from me is pretty impressive and more than I expected.

I know I said this was basically the equivalent of a TV sitcom, but it's clear some attempt was made to deliver something of value. The visual gags were well shot, and there were actually a few solid effects, the first occurring almost immediately. The kids are gathered outside a department store to watch "Santa" show off toys. At first, they're convinced he's the real thing, until he accidentally shows up without his beard during a mishap with the curtain. Regardless, he's displaying windup toys which dance around naturally. These are, of course, actually actors filmed and overlaid on the screen, but it's a well-executed effect.

This sequence ends with some of the kids disillusioned and dismissive of Santa, a thread that will be picked up when we finally do get to the plot. First, there's a lot of hijinx. The best gag in this section involves a couple kids overhearing an adult say they'd pay ten dollars to have their car cleaned. The enterprising children take it upon themselves to hose the vehicle down while the owners are shopping. Seeing as it's freezing, things don't go as planned, and the kids wisely walk away before the car's owners return.

Eventually, we get to the plot, which naturally concerns some of the kids not believing in Santa. They go to a local shoemaker everyone calls "Dad" (I'm assuming this makes more sense if you've seen other episodes), who insists Santa is real, and if you close your eyes and say, "I believe" long enough, he'll bring you whatever you want. 

The two oldest kids worry the younger will be disappointed when they don't get anything for Christmas. In response, the spirit of Santa Claus appears and... Okay. Let me back up. In the context of this movie, "Santa" is a see-through spirit the audience can see, but the characters can't. As far as they're concerned, he's not literally there, though he seems to be able to say things that inspire them. He tells them to pretend to be Santa for the other kids, and they think they get the idea.

And that's what happens. But if they're going to pretend to be Santa, they need money for gifts. Again, Santa intervenes by inceptioning the idea they can sell hot bricks to people to tie to their shoes to keep their feet warm. This goes over absurdly well, and the kids have the money they need.

On Christmas Eve, they attach a sleigh to their mule (who's been given fake antlers) and set out. The words, "Sandy Claws" are written across the sleigh. I'm not sure if this is the origin of that joke spelling, but it's certainly been used many other times since (including in The Nightmare Before Christmas). Regardless, the kids go to the building where apparently all their friends live, go down the chimney (no idea why), and start distributing presents.

Here's where things get a little fuzzy. I mean that literally: the quality of the film makes some details of the next section difficult to parse. For reasons I don't entirely understand, there's also a gang of mobsters all dressed as Santa being pursued by the police. I found a synopsis saying they were in disguise to smuggle alcohol, but either I missed a dialogue card, a piece of footage is missing, or something else went wrong. Regardless, the gang of Santas are the bad guys, and the police are after them.

Meanwhile, the kids have woken up and discovered the gifts left for them. Reasoning that following "Dad's" advice more will wield more additional gifts, they shut their eyes and repeat "I believe" again and again.

By this time, the criminal Santas are on the roof. Realizing the cops are surrounding them, they decide their only chance is to go down the chimney, one by one. Only there's a cop outside the window of the room they emerge from with a gun pointed at them. He motions for the first criminal to empty his sack, which seems to contain more toys for some reason (this makes more sense if they're thieves - maybe they're thieves?). He then steps out of the apartment, where the two older kids are waiting with sticks. They ambush him and knock him down the stairs. He rolls outside, right in front of the mule, who's being coached by the spirit of Santa to kick the criminal, sending him flying down the street.

This then repeats (in fast forward) with the remaining mobsters. Santa even starts appearing with a scoreboard. Eventually, they're all in a pile for the cops, and the kids - most of whom have no idea there are criminals around - have tons of toys.

This was better than I expected, based on the limited associations I had with the brand name. I've mostly seen Little Rascals parodied and mocked, but some of the jokes in this held up. Note I said some - this is a long way from perfect, even if you overlook stereotypes, fatphobia, and the overall fact that comedy tends to diminish over time. On top of everything else, the deteriorating film makes it a hard sell to audiences looking for anything other than historical perspective.

That said, I want to highlight one aspect I found genuinely refreshing: the movie's depiction of Santa Claus and its approach to the concept of belief. The kids are encouraged to believe, but at the same time the narrative essentially specifies that Santa exists as an idea, rather than as a physical being. He's the Christmas spirit; the actual gifting is handled by those that idea inspires. It's nice seeing the phrase "believe" used in a context that's not simply endorsing blind faith.

I found this interesting to watch overall, though mainly as a historical curiosity. I wouldn't recommend it outside that context, though there are genuinely clever sight gags and fun moments here.