Darla Hood was one of Hollywood's most unlikely leading ladies. Plucked from obscurity at age three to test for Hal Roach in Hollywood, the Oklahoma native won a spot in Roach's "Our Gang" repertory, a troupe of kid performers whose comic two-reelers lifted the spirits of American moviegoers during the Great Depression. With her dimples and expressive Betty Boop eyes, Hood asserted herself as the darling of Our Gang, holding her own against established castmates George "Spanky" McFarland, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, and Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas. Coquettishly batting her lashes as she sang and danced through many a production number, Hood was an object of affection for a generation of pre-adolescent boys, onscreen and off. Her appeal spread to features, where she partnered with Laurel and Hardy and Charley Chase. With the dissolution of Our Gang in 1942, the teenager transitioned to work as a singer, recording artist and nightclub headliner. Hood, who later gave voice to such popular advertising mascots as the Chicken of the Sea Mermaid and the Campbell Soup Kids, was active on the nostalgia circuit when hospitalization in 1979 for routine surgery resulted in unexpected death at age 49. Though she did not live long enough to enjoy to its fullest the adoration of her growing fanbase, Hood's efforts to preserve the Our Gang legacy survived her and left her enshrined as one of Hollywood's most beloved child stars, a pop culture icon short in stature but long on accomplishment.
Darla Hood was born Dorla Jean Hood in Leedey, OK on Nov. 4, 1931. The only child of banker James Claude Hood, Jr., and the former Elizabeth Davner, a music teacher, Dorla Jo, as she was called at home, was introduced to singing and dancing lessons at an early age, trucked by her mother to the Duffy Dance Studios in Oklahoma City. When she was three years old, Hood's dance teacher brought her to New York City and treated the child to a visit to the ballroom of the Edison Hotel in Times Square. Invited onstage by the bandleader, Hood was allowed to conduct the orchestra and perform a solo. Among the delighted revelers that evening was Joe Rivkin, a casting director for Hal Roach Studios in Los Angeles. He was sufficiently impressed by Hood's native ability to offer the child a screen test. Viewing the test in Culver City, Hal Roach gave the okay for Hood to travel west, where he offered her a seven year/$75 a week studio contract. A clerical error resulted in Dorla Hood being rechristened Darla Hood for her film debut.
Roach made room for his new acquisition in "Our Gang Follies of 1936" (1935), a musical-variety two-reeler then in mid-production. Playing "Cookie" and capped with a cigarette girl's pillbox hat, Hood joined an ensemble headed by child performers George "Spanky" McFarland, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer" and Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas and sang the Harry Woods composition "I'll Never Say Never Again" to an audience of love-struck pre-adolescents. With her dark bangs and deep-set simples, Hood proved a popular addition to the repertory. As the troupe's leading lady, her backstory was fleshed out over the course of subsequent shorts to reveal Darla as the daughter of a dentist, which put her character at a financial advantage over Spanky and Alfalfa, whose affections Darla routinely torqued for comic effect. Over the course of six years, Hood would appear in dozens of short subjects, among them "Night 'n' Gales" (1937), in which Darla hosts the gang for a stormy sleepover; "Clown Princes" (1939), in which she performs a snake charm; and "Wedding Worries" (1941), her final Our Gang appearance.
Hood's success with the Our Gang franchise brought her invitations to appear in features, among them "The Bohemian Girl" (1936) opposite Laurel and Hardy, and "Neighborhood House" (1936) starring comic Charley Chase. With the acquisition of Roach Studios by MGM, Hood played a minor role in the latter studio's "Born to Sing" (1942) and also appeared in "Happy Land" (1942) at 20th Century Fox. By her own admission, Hood experienced difficulty upon her return to the real world, but transitioned with success from acting to singing. While a student at Fairfax High School in West Hollywood, she organized the vocal group Darla Hood and the Enchanters, whose services were put to use in such films as "Letter to Three Wives" (1948) and "Bill and Coo" (1948), Ken Murray's Academy Award-winning Western enacted by a cast of birds. Murray also employed the Enchanters in his long-running stage act at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood and the Ziegfeld Theatre on Broadway. Hood was also a guest on "The Ken Murray Show" (CBS, 1950-1951).
During these years, Hood also appeared onstage with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and as a vocalist for bandleader Paul Whiteman while headlining her own nightclub act in New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. She recorded a hit single in 1957 with "I Just Wanna Be Free" and dueted with Johnny Desmond in "Calypso Heat Wave" (1957), one of several low-budget films rushed into production to cash in on the vogue for island music. Hood had married insurance salesman Robert W. Decker in 1949, a short-lived union that produced two children. Divorced in 1957, she remarried that same year, becoming the wife of music publisher Jose Granson, who also acted as her manager and with whom she had three children. In 1959, Hood recorded Les Baxter's sultry "Quiet Village," backed by a chorus of bird calls and voodoo drums. Catching sight of the single in a record shop, Hood's friend Joe Rivkin invited her to test for a role as a victim of "The Bat" (1959), Crane Wilbur's remake of the oft-filmed old dark house thriller starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorhead. It would be her last feature film appearance.
During the Sixties, Hood gave the loan of her voice to the American release of the Japanese animated feature "Gariba no uchu ryoko" ("Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon") (1965) as the Princess of the Star of Hope. She was also put to work in television spots for Chicken of the Sea tuna, Campbell's soup, and the popular Tiny Tears doll. In 1974, she did voice work for "Easter Is" (1974), an inspirational feature backed by the Lutheran church and featuring the vocal talents of singer Leslie Uggams and character actor Les Tremayne. A renewed interest in the Our Gang shorts - by then renamed "The Little Rascals" for television syndication - drew Hood to the nostalgia circuit, where she joined surviving cast members for conventions and other public appearances. Her last credit was providing a voice for the animated "Little Rascals Christmas Special" (1979), though she ceded the role of Darla to actress Randi Kiger. Hood was in the midst of organizing a reunion of the Our Gang in June 1979 when she entered the hospital for routine surgery. Contracting hepatitis, she died unexpectedly on June 13, 1979, at the age of 49, and was interred in the Abbey of the Psalms of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, becoming one of several Our Gang cast members to die young.
By Richard Harland Smith