The actor Carl Switzer, popularly known as Alfalfa in the Our Gang comedies of the 1930s, was clearly a tortured man. He was perceived by George ‘Spanky’ McFarland as ‘cocky…a little antsy’ and other cast members recall him causing trouble on the set by creating pranks that hurt other people physically or disrupted the shooting. I even have a friend whose father–who was the same age as Alfalfa and grew up in LA in the 30s–claimed to have beaten him up one day after school. It’s such a strange claim that I tend to believe it–my friend’s father was a straight-arrow kind of guy. The only wrinkle in the story is why Alfalfa would have been attending pubic school in LA when he was clearly being overworked on-set at the Roach studios, which no doubt had a lousy little ‘schoolroom’ for the kid actors on the lot. But I digress.
As an adult Switzer worked intermittently as an actor but seems to have burned most of his bridges by the mid-1950s and took up dog breeding as a second career. He also was a hunting guide and this led to a complex series of events involving a hunting dog, a penknife, a glass clock that Alfalfa purportedly smashed over somebody’s head, a small amount of disputed money and a 38 Caliber pistol, all of which resulted in his murder on January 29 1959 at the age of thirty-two. I won’t go into the rather confusing but nonetheless fascinating details of the killing of Alfalfa but his excellent Wikipedia page will tell you more than enough. I highly recommend it. By the way, a year before he was killed Alfalfa was leaving a bar in Studio City when a gunman shot at him, missing but shattering his car windshield. Trouble followed this guy, clearly.
So where did the dark world of child star Carl Switzer emanate from? Was he always fated for this? Or was there something in his youth that triggered mistrust, bad behavior and violence? I suggest the above clip as a clue to Switzer’s tragic dysfunction. Ironically it’s also one of his most wonderful performances. He sings ‘The Object Of My Affection’ to Darla Hood in a key that is clearly way too high for him, causing him to strain to hit notes and his eyes to express pain and frustration. He also appears to be reading off a cue card that’s placed camera right and having a hard time of it. Did they purposely put the song in the wrong key to achieve this hilarious effect? Of course they did! But was forcing him to read off the cue card a more subtle form of torture, one that caused him even more anxiety than singing in the painfully wrong key? I think so. He certainly could have learned the lyrics to the song…but he appears uncertain and clearly is having trouble following what must have been multiple cue cards. The effect is one that all Our Gang fans will cherish forever–a lost, pained, struggling singing youth. But that hunting dog incident twenty years in the future looms large as we watch the ten year olds innocence being severely challenged all in the name of comedy. Nonetheless, enjoy!