Obituary: George McFarland

Denis Gifford
Friday 02 July 1993 23:02

George Robert Phillips McFarland, actor and businessman: born Dallas, Texas 2 October 1928; married; died Grapevine, Texas 30 June 1993.

GEORGE McFARLAND was known to millions of filmgoers throughout the world as 'Spanky' McFarland, the chubby youngster of the 'Our Gang' comedies.

Although McFarland became one of the most popular child stars of the pre-war era, his career faded rapidly as he grew out of the baby stage, until finally he 'retired' into normal business life, on more than one occasion saying of his juvenile stardom 'That's dust]' Perhaps it was, to George McFarland, area manager of Philco- Ford contracts division, Fort Worth, Texas, but to those who recall the 'Our Gang' shorts, and their recent revival on Channel 4, Spanky was and always will be a star.

McFarland was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1928; three years later he was starring with the 'Our Gang' team in Free Eats. It was the beginning of an 11-year career which took in 95 'Gang' two-reelers, one of which, Bored of Education (1936), won the Academy Award for the Gang and their mentor and producer, Hal Roach. McFarland had a soft spot for his old employer, frequently referring to him as his 'father figure'.

McFarland also appeared in a good many feature films, the first of which was actually named after him: General Spanky (1936). This burlesque melodrama of the war between the States was devised by Roach as his answer to the successful Shirley Temple features The Little Colonel (1935) and The Littlest Rebel (1935). The film was a success, mainly due to McFarland's supportive personal appearance tour: 'He literally wowed 'em]' the Motion Picture Herald said. However, it remains the only 'Our Gang' feature- length film, running 71 minutes.

From the first film in 1922, which was actually called Our Gang, to the last in the series, Tale of a Dog (No 221, directed by Cy Endfield in 1944), there were, of course, many changes in personnel. Some became stars (Jackie Cooper, Johnny Downs, Tommy Bond, Dickie Moore, Dickie Jones), others met with tragedy (Alfalfa Switzer, murdered; Scotty Beckett, suicide). Others like Porky Lee and McFarland wisely realised their appeal was as precocious kiddies and retired into business lives. The occasional comeback, however, was hard to resist when offered, and McFarland and Switzer teamed up as teenagers in Republic's Johnny Doughboy (1943).

Later came television appearances in chat shows such as one hosted by Mike Douglas. In 1973 McFarland and his former Gang girlfriend Darla Hood guested together in a memorable moment.

McFarland in recent times made a number of personal appearances at film fan festivities such as the Laurel and Hardy 'Sons of the Desert' conventions. He appeared with Stan and Ollie in Wild Poses (1933) and frequently encountered the popular pair at the Hal Roach studio. McFarland was often likened to Hardy, both physically and in his overemphatic acting style, and indeed Roach planned to co-star them as father and son (with Patsy Kelly as mother) in a series entitled The Hardys, to be produced during Laurel's absence from the studio. Unhappily this did not come to pass, as certainly McFarland and Hardy would have proved a wonderful combination.

Although Spanky enjoyed these nostalgic come-backs among his now grown-up fans, at heart he regretted his years as a film star: 'If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have done it. I would have gone to college and by now I'd be the president of some corporation.' But he would not have made the whole world a happier place.

(Photograph omitted)

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