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Shemptember: Convention Girl (1934)

Shemp, the stooge who went on from the comedy group to have a minor movie career as a solo talent, and then returned when his brother Curly died, has a devoted fan base. His agent touted him as the ugliest man in Hollywood, which could be why fans enjoy superimposing Shemp's face into inappropriate scenarios including Obama's presidential portrait or creating memes like "Legalize Shemp." Join us this month as we explore the varied career and many talents of Shemp Howard.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: As the film starts out, we’re introduced to Cynthia ‘Babe’ Laval. You know the type if you’ve seen this sort of movie before (and you probably have if you’re reading this). She’s in the business of arranging call girls for businessmen and salesmen visiting Atlantic City for conventions. As the film unravels, there is a washing machine convention in town, and Babe finds herself smitten with a middle-aged soap salesman. However, Babe’s former beau (who runs a crooked casino) is none too pleased with this prospect, and things are set up for conflict between the two. If you feel like this is all too familiar, especially on the heels of last month’s pre-code festival, you’d be right. This is a film that had been made many, many times before and frankly better.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Finalists from a newspaper and radio contest gathered on June 14 to determine which four would become cast members. Shooting started on June 25, 1934 and ended August 7th.

RB: According to the June 26th 1934 edition of the Cincinnati Post, one of the contestants was Miss Leah Greenberg, of Blair Avenue (Avondale neighborhood) was working at the Henderson Lithographing Co (Norwood) when she passed a screen test in Atlantic City which gave her an opportunity to screen test for a part in this film. Did she make it? Well, that’s unknown. I’m unable to find any info on that, although, she did get married in 1936 and move to New York.

SG: Motion Picture Daily announced that Convention Girl would be released on September 1st. The premiere occurred at the Atlantic City Steel Pier where some of the outdoor scenes were shot. The nightclub scenes were shot at the Garden Terrace and the Merry-Go-Round Bar in the Ritz Carlton Hotel, with dance numbers staged by Ned Wayburn. Lou Atler and Arthur Swanstrom wrote three new songs for Isham Jones to perform. None of the musical numbers are notable or elaborate enough to be considered musical numbers or to warrant such a well-known musician to perform them. What is memorable are the scenes on the pier where we see an enormous elephant seal thumping toward a trainer, a few aerialists, and a "diving" horse act. The rest of the interiors were done at the Irvington-on-the-Hudson studio in Irvington, New York for Falcon Productions.

Actress Lucilla Mendez, who later changed her name to Rosa Castro played Peg in a return to the screen after having quit acting to marry director Ralph Ince. When the two divorced, Mendez returned to the profession by auditioning for stage productions on the east coast, which made her available for this film.

RB: Castro lived to a ripe age of 101 (passing away in 2007). Most of her films after Convention Girl were Spanish language films, but I bet she had some incredible stories to tell. She’s attractive in this film, and is a capable actress, in spite of the shlockiness of the plot.

SG: Sally O'Neil, who proved herself to be quite beautiful and funny in a recent screening of Ladies Must Love at Capitolfest, gets little to do in this film, one of her last. She was a promising young actress in the late silent era, was named a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1926, but her star never rose far beyond that and her career fizzled out only a few years into the talkie era.

"Am I gonna bounce around on this box spring tonight!"

There is a nice scene where Babe calls her girls on standby to let them know of a date opportunity. She answers the phone in a plain housedress, something we don't often see on glamorous movie stars in film, in spite of the fact that many women wore them around the house to do their cleaning and cooking. The best laugh of the movie comes when the girls swindle their cheap dates out of a steak dinner.

RB: There are a few bright moments in this film and the depression era allure of getting a steak dinner is definitely among them. I also really enjoyed the footage of mid-30’s Atlantic City, which you mentioned earlier. The diving horse was particularly interesting as a practice that was wildly popular at carnivals through the first half of the 20th century and surprisingly was occasionally featured as late as 2012 when animal welfare advocates petitioned for the end of the practice (at New Jersey’s Steel Pier).

SG: Shemp is identified in a listing of the cast in The Philadelphia Exhibitor as "former Ted Healy stooge." This film gave him an opportunity to break from the raucous comedy role that started his career and later cemented him into film history. The role is hard-boiled and selfish, a swindler to everyone he meets. However, it isn't very big, and we don't see much of him until the end.

RB: Yes, Shemp is the reason why we’re all here, and in fairness, he’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect him to be in a dramatic role. And by that, I mean that you get to see Shemp delivering straight lines as a gangster in the manner of Shemp handling anything. I found myself laughing a few times when I had no reason to, simply because I find Shemp hilarious.

SG: Silver Screen magazine called the film, "So-so. Just as all good Americans go to Paris when they die (or so they say!) all good conventions arrive at Atlantic City. This has to do with the brighter side-- the girl angle-- at those rather dull affairs."

Motion Picture Daily was even harsher, saying, "This picture goes wide of the entertainment mark at the hands of Director Luther Reed and misses with plenty to spare." They called cinematographer Nicholas Rogalli's work "only fair," and said that the lead actor's convincing performances were not enough "to make the film click." This was Reed's last directing job and Rogalli's last work behind the camera.

RB: I had a pretty difficult time trying to dig up reviews of this film, which as you’d expect, was dumped on the small towns pretty much upon release and then a couple of decades later was ushered onto the TV schedule. I found listings for it as early as 1951.

SG: This isn't an especially exciting movie, in spite of all the plot elements the filmmakers surely thought would make a hit. The gambling scenes are static, the nightclub scenes are staid, the romance feels forced and routine, and even the gangsters are relatively tame. Perhaps it is telling that author George Boyle who wrote the novel and adapted it for this film has faded from consciousness. I couldn't find information about him online because he seems to be confused with other authors by the same name. The Hollywood Reporter said that when Dave Thomas of Falcon Productions purchased this story, he also bought eight others which he intended to film, but that never happened. Two stars.

RB: This is a movie that likely would’ve been a lot more entertaining if it had been made just a year earlier. As it stands, it plays like a neutered pre-code, threadbare with the budget and poor scripting. A solid, capable cast can’t seem to help it. Two stars and hopes for better times as Shemptember continues on.

SG: See you at the Picture Show!

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