Derby Day

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Our Gang / The Little Rascals series

Director: Robert F. McGowan
Writers: Hal Roach, H. M. Walker

  • Joe Cobb — Joe
  • Jackie Condon — Jackie
  • Mickey Daniels — Mickey
  • William Gillespie — Mary's father
  • Allen Hoskins — Farina
  • Wallace Howe — gate attendant
  • Sing Joy — Sing Joy
  • Mary Kornman — Mary
  • Billy Lord — Billy
  • Ernest Morrison — Ernie

Hal Roach Studios: 1923
black & white; silent

20 minutes May 2008


Derby Day was filmed in the second year of the Our Gang / Little Rascals series of children's comedies: that is, child-actor comedies. It provides a sense of unscripted naturalism, with a freshness of humor that is in some ways superior to the more crafted, carefully scripted later movies in the series. In fact, since Derby Day was made in the silent-movie era, and some of the young actors were too young to read, after general directions to the actors, further prompts could be called out on-the-go during filming.

It's worth noting that these comedies show black and white kids together unaffectedly, both boys and girls having fun, long before the rest of Hollywood dared portray simple social equality.

Modern copies of Derby Day have been remastered, and the result is a fairly clean and clear film.

The two-reel length of Derby Day allows enough film footage for two extended scenes. The first scene mainly involves the kids making and selling hot dogs and lemonade outside a grown-up race track. (The consequences of eating mystery-meat sausages are graphically described in Booth Tarkington's Penrod.) This looks real and natural, and is pleasantly funny.

The second scene, however, is a small silent-era masterpiece. Inspired by the grown-ups' horse race, the kids decide to have a spectacular derby of their own. The contestants ride or are pulled by unlikely animals: dog, donkey, cow; the youngest contestant of all, Farina, rides a tricycle. None of these animals of course qualify as trained race-horses, and balk repeatedly or get confused about direction. Even the little tricycle tends to balk at potholes in the dirt racetrack. This is simple, engaging, and hilarious.

Children in attendance, grown-up race fans, even the police, all enjoy the kids' race. It all feels genuine, just as we might imagine kids having an epic day of fun in 1923. Even among the perennial favorite Our Gang / Little Rascals series, Derby Day stands out. Do seek out this great day at the races.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

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