5-year-old Tommy Bond was walking down the street in Dallas, Texas with his mother and grandmother when a talent scout from Hal Roach Studios approached. “Your son has a great face,” the scout said to Mrs. Bond, “he’d be perfect for “Our Gang.” Before you knew it Tommy’s grandmother agreed to drive him to Hollywood, a perilous car journey in 1931, but that didn’t stop her. Once in Hollywood the two were led into Hal Roach’s office for an interview. “Can you get mad? Do you like to fight?,” the producer asked the boy who answered “yes” to both questions. Tommy was hired on the spot for $50 a week.
According to Tommy Bond Hal Roach’s secret for the success of the Our Gang series was simple, “he found regular kids who were individuals and who could act.” Who could argue with that?
Tommy Bond started with Our Gang in 1932, approximately ten years after the series began. He was hired to play Tommy, an unremarkable character who did little but support stories that revolved around Spanky, Dickie or the other main players. Tommy was cute, though, sporting a Buster Brown style haircut and an ever-expressive face.
Bond was let-go from the Our Gang series after about two years. He had little opportunity to speak as Tommy in the series although the part grew somewhat as time passed. His most substantive role was in Gus Meins‘ Mike Fright in 1934, a really fun short where Bond (as Tommy) is the conductor of the “Silver String Submarine Band” made up of the gang members auditioning for a radio variety show while playing home-made instruments.
Now back in public school, Tommy Bond continued his professional acting career with occasional, mostly uncredited roles in notable pictures. And that would be the case for the next couple of decades. Among Bond’s movie credits are Roy Del Ruth‘s Kid Millions (1934), Jack Conway’s Libeled Lady (1936), W. S. Van Dyke‘s Rosalie (1937) and John G. Blystone‘s Block-Heads (1938). Tommy Bond shared wonderful memories of being on sets with the huge stars of these pictures. His fondest memory was of the time he attended the sneak preview of Rosalie with Nelson Eddy and Eleanor Powell. Bond also recalled being really impressed with Laurel and Hardy who made up gags on the spot as they shot Block-Heads.
During his time away from Our Gang, Tommy Bond also worked as a voice actor, most notably in several Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoons directed by Tex Avery. Click on the following image to listen to Tommy voice Owl Jolson in Tex Avery’s I Love to Singa (1936).
“You’re darn right, it’s Butch!
Tommy returned to Our Gang to play Butch in 1936. This is the role he’s best remembered for and the reason I signed up for The Great Villain Blogathon of 2017, SEE?!
Butch is your classic variety bully. He browbeats, he’s cruel, he’s insulting and threatening. And many kids who grew up watching Our Gang, or The Little rascals as the series was called as of 1955, love to hate Butch! This kid did his evil deeds and delivered his evil words in definitive fashion. For instance, when Butch was angry you knew it!
When Butch was getting ready to clobber you there was no mistaking his intent.
“Now, what do you have to say before I tear you apart!”
Not only would Butch tell you he was gonna clobber you, he’d do that classic rolling up of his sleeves in a violent gesture that screamed, “Poor Alfalfa, poor, poor Alfalfa.” In the Our Gang shorts Alfalfa (Carl Switzer) is the easiest to terrorize and therefore Butch’s biggest and most frequent target.
Typical of your standard bully, Butch exhibits the following traits:
- He has a need to control and dominate others
- He is quick-tempered
- He takes pleasure when others are in distress
- He always blames his victim by stressing the victim deserves what he gets
- He feels superior and uses his superior strength and size to his advantage
Also, like most bullies, Butch has a constant companion, someone who’d build him up, a second who gives him confidence. For Butch it’s The Woim (played by Sidney Kibrick), a kid who’s almost as big as Butch, but doesn’t have the wherewithal to do the actual fighting himself. Woim is in some ways worse than Butch because he doesn’t get his hands dirty, he’s the kid who gives the bully the power by constantly feeding his ego and consistently holding his coat. The Woim doesn’t quite reach the level of consigliere, but he’s the guy who announces Butch and sets the stage with stern precision. Then Woim steps back, sneers and lets Butch do the dirty work he excels at.
Butch from Our Gang is one of the most memorable villains from all of the years of my watching movies. I became aware of Butch early on in my life and he comes to mind often as the epitome of a mean, evil kid who terrorizes my beloved Alfalfa ad infinitum. But, make no mistake. Butch is much more than just Alfalfa’s nightmare – he’s a wrench in the adventures of childhood we hold dear. Let me give you a few examples…
Butch made his Our Gang debut in Gordon Douglas‘ Glove Taps (1937). As this short opens we see Butch and The Woim standing outside the public school they will be attending. The two don’t bother to go in, but lie in waiting for the other kids until the bell rings.
Once the kids come out The Woim stops Spanky (George McFarland) and Alfalfa because Butch wants to talk to them. The conversation starts something like this:
Butch: “I want to beat up the bravest kid. Who will it be?”
And we are introduced to the memorable villain of Our Gang.
Glove Taps introduces the formula that most of the Butch-centered Our Gang episodes follow. That is, poor Alfalfa will somehow be railroaded, trapped or blunders his way into a fight with Butch. In this case just as Butch is demanding a volunteer as the bravest of them all Alfalfa steps back, is pinched in the behind and jumps forward. Butch interprets the move as a volunteering effort. Alfalfa’s pal, Spanky, the smartest rascal, offers to train Alfalfa at the Athaletic Club where the fight will take place the following day.
There’s an important point to be made from these Our Gang shorts in which Butch reigns supreme over the gang’s fears and emotions. That is that in the end the boys always manage to somehow get the better of him. In the case of Glove Taps it’s thanks to some fancy, behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Buckwheat (Billie Thomas) and Porky (Eugene Lee) who manage an occasional win against Butch without the bully ever being the wiser. Another example of this is in Rushin’ Ballet (1937) also directed by Gordon Douglas.
At the opening of Rushin’ Ballet we see Butch and The Woim bully Porky and Buckwheat outta their marbles and squish tomatoes on the smaller boys’ faces. Intimated and full of fear Porky and Buckwheat have no choice but to go to the Sekret Revengers Club for protection. The Club’s motto is, “Rongs rited and the week pertected” and the judge and jury – Spanky and Alfalfa – take their pertection – er, I mean protection – duties very seriously. The two go after Butch and The Woim, which results in a turning of tables where the hunters become the hunted. The gang ends up in a ballet recital as part of the program. After much mayhem and a few close calls for Alfalfa, the marbles are retrieved and Buckwheat and Porky sneak in two perfectly placed shots of tomatoes onto the bullies’ faces.
One of my all-time favorite episodes is Gordon Douglas’ Framing Youth (1937). Here Alfalfa is a shoe-in to win a talent contest because of his superior singing voice. (And yes, I can listen to Alfalfa and his off-tune screeches forever.) Unfortunately, Butch has all intentions of winning the contest himself with his violin playing, which means he tries to bully his way to the trophy by threatening Alfalfa’s manager, Spanky. Butch tells Spanky that unless he ensures Alfalfa doesn’t show up to the contest he’ll end up looking like this…
Naturally Spanky panics and gets the idea to tell Alfalfa that he lost his voice. Spanky puts a scarf around Alfalfa’s neck with Porky’s frog wrapped in it. A frog in the throat, get it? Anyway, the contest begins and the boys are miserable listening to the contestants on radio when Spanky’s conscience gets the better of him. So Porky, Buckwheat, Spanky and Alfalfa rush over to the radio station and arrive just as Butch is about to be crowned the winner. The M.C. introduces Alfalfa who begins to croon “Just an Echo in the Valley” in memorable form. Unfortunately, what makes it memorable is Porky’s frog which croaks every time Alfalfa sings, “yoo hoo.” Alfalfa wins the contest unanimously despite the croaking and we see Spanky congratulate him with a black eye. It seems that while Alfalfa was being crowned the winner Butch held true to his promise, but we also see Butch with a huge black eye. Spanky is not an easy target or (certainly) not as easy to intimidate as Alfalfa is.
This is probably a good time to mention that Butch has music inside him raring to come out and he demonstrates it in a few episodes. His wanting to win the contest in Framing Youth is one instance and Edward L. Cahn’s Captain Spanky’s Show Boat (1939) is another. In this short Spanky and the gang are putting on an old-fashioned revue featuring famed acts like, “Darla’s Dancin’ Dandies” and a dramatization of “Out in the Snow You Go” by special permission from Spanky’s Unkel. When word about the show gets to Butch he immediately demands to be allowed in to demonstrate his musical talent. Spanky refuses and offers Butch and Woim a couple of tickets as consolation prizes. Needless to say Butch does his best to spoil the show. And wouldn’t you know it – he waits until Alfalfa’s solo to put his plan into action.
Whether it’s a show or a business venture as in the case of George Sidney’s Cousin Wilbur (1939), in which we see the gang setting up an insurance company, Butch goes out of his way to spoil things. Like all great villains, Butch is an effective menace because even when he’s not around the danger of him lurks. The mere possibility that Butch will show up makes the knees of several rascals buckle.
It’s important to note that Butch meets his match in Cousin Wilbur. This 1939 episode features longtime Our Gang member, Scotty Beckett playing Alfalfa’s seemingly nerdy cousin who is not afraid of Butch and gives him a bit of his own back. Wilbur resurfaces in George Sidney’s Dog Daze, in which Butch and Woim are loan sharks and the gang is overdue with its repayment. As we’ve seen in numerous crime movies, the worst loan sharks are the ones willing to break bones in exchange for dues and that’s exactly what Butch does.
George Sidney also directed Duel Personalities (1939), a short that poses a unique transposition of roles for archenemies Butch and Alfalfa. As this short opens Alfalfa is down in the dumps because the love of his life, the coquettish Darla (Darla Hood), is out playing tennis with Butch. As you watch Butch in action throughout the Our Gang shorts you’ll note that sometimes he’s just mean because that’s what bullies do, but in others he and Alfalfa are rivals vying for Darla’s affection.
In Duel Personalities Spanky has had it with Alfalfa’s whining about losing Darla and tells him just to forget about her. After all, Alfalfa would have to fight Butch in order to get Darla and we know he doesn’t want to do that. Poor Alfalfa has all but given up when he, Spanky, Buckwheat and Porky happen upon a hypnotist giving a demonstration in what looks like the town square. When the hypnotist asks for a skeptic from the audience Alfalfa steps up and explains his love woes after which he is hypnotized into believing he’s D’Artagnan of the famed The Three Musketeers. Then as a Musketeer he challenges Butch to a duel. When the real Alfalfa surfaces he faints at the mere prospect of a duel against Butch, but the surprise here is that Butch approaches Spanky with a white flag a bit later. This may be the first time we see that when this bully is challenged he backs down.
Butch and Alfalfa vie for Darla’s attention again in Sidney’s Football Romeo (1938), but this time both of them are the best players on their respective teams so the fight takes place on the field. Darla takes a side from the beginning of this episode though. While I won’t divulge whether Darla chooses Alfalfa or Butch, I’ll say it takes some woman’s intuition for the better player and man to surface. I might add that Butch doesn’t get to beat up anybody in this episode, but his pose and demeanor go far in sending the message that he’s trouble.
Another favorite Our Gang short featuring Butch is Douglas’ Fishy Tales (1937). As usual Butch wants to beat up Alfalfa and Spanky comes up with an ingenious plan to save his pal’s life. This time Alfalfa feigns being incapacitated by a leg injury. Spanky sends Butch a letter telling him Alfalfa’s had an axident…
Distrusting soul that he is, Butch wants to go see for himself that Alfalfa leg is really dislokated. If it’s not he’ll tear him to pieces. Scrambling to make sure Alfalfa is convincing, Spanky devises a plan to substitute a fish for Alfalfa’s leg. This short cracks me up as cats spoil the plan and Alfalfa’s toe is bitten by a crab. There are too many details to explain – but, man, oh man, is Butch ever mad when he realizes Alfalfa has been faking the dislokation! PHEW!
Tommy Bond’s final appearance in Our Gang is in Edward L. Cahn‘s Bubbling Troubles (1940). Tommy was already 13 years old, which means he outgrew the series by this point. He only appears in a few minutes of Bubbling Troubles, a funny episode in which Alfalfa and the gang think Alfalfa has ingested dynamite made by Butch. Aside from making the dynamite, however, Butch doesn’t factor in this episode so there’s no villany involved.
All of this brings up the question of how and why Butch came to be so angry. Where did the chip on his should come from? We tend to blame bad kids on bad parents, but the Our Gang series gave us a few insights into Butch’s family life and it seems A-OK. In one short we see Butch working on a car with a man I assume is his father. When he makes the dynamite that Alfalfa swallows it’s on his chemistry set in his own garage, meaning his parents allowed him space to work on projects and so forth. In a 1938 short titled, Practical Jokers, also directed by George Sidney, Butch’s mom throws him a birthday party with a catered cake and swell decorations in a lovely home. I just don’t get it. Except perhaps that this was MGM’s way to insert their brand of family entertainment into the Our Gang shorts. Hal Roach Studios ceased production of the Our Gang series in 1938 and sold the series to MGM. The MGM-produced shorts are quite different from the ones from the Hal Roach era with adults being a mainstay and drivers of some of the action. The MGM shorts have less slapstick as well. That said, one has no reason to question why Butch became such a mean kid during the Hal Roach years. Those shorts had a grittiness leftover from the depression where one assumed – for the most part – Our Gang was made up of kids from poor households whose inventiveness came out of necessity. In the MGM shorts the kids live in upscale neighborhoods, which makes our villain an enigma of rotten proportions.
Still, as the primary menace in the shorts he appeared in, Tommy and his villain, Butch are memorable in all of the 14 Our Gang shorts in which the character appears. Tommy Bond made 27 Our Gang shorts in total – 13 as Tommy and 14 as Butch. Butch made such an impression, though that I would’ve thought there were many more.
It’s nice to know that Tommy Bond’s childhood memories of his time with Our Gang remained a source of joy. Bond recalled that the kids did everything together on the lot and remembered all of it with fondness. They went to school together, went to parties together, had lunch together, etc. and all got along great. He made life-long friends from those times, which made the resentment that grew in some of the former stars that much more painful. These kids worked hard and never received residuals or royalties for their work.
Tommy Bond served in many respects as a unique resource for Our Gang given the early deaths of many of the players. He co-hosted “The Little Rascals Theater” on TV with Dr. Jackie Lynn Taylor and Matthew “Stymie” Beard, which was syndicated in a few markets during the 1970s. In 1993 Bond published an autobiography with memories of his years with Our Gang, Darn Right It’s Butch: Memories of Our Gang, which is an invaluable piece of history. I used a few interviews of Tommy “Butch” Bond as the basis for most of what’s included in this post and he couldn’t seem more unlike the character he’s best remembered for. A soft-spoken, mild-mannered gentleman who considered himself lucky to have never left TV his entire career. When acting was no longer part of his life Bond worked in the art department of many popular series including The Carol Burnett Show.
Tommy Bond made a few other notable contributions to popular media, but I think I’ll leave those notations for another post. Today he is best remembered for the stamp he left on Hollywood as a memorable villain in Our Gang, later titled The Little Rascals for TV syndication. Since I grew up knowing the gang as The Little Rascals I refer to them that way and always think of them fondly. And that includes Butch, the villain I love to hate.
I’m getting this entry in just under the wire for The Great Villain Blogathon co-hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin and Silver Screenings. Be sure to visit the host sites to spend time with scoundrels and cheaters and killers. This is one of the best blogging events of the year!
Because of the benign nature of the Our Gang shorts my take on Butch’s bullying in this post is lighthearted as the shorts were intended when produced. Please know, however, that I do not advocate bullying in any way. It is a serious problem in our society with often deadly repercussions.