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Shemptember: Strictly in the Groove (1942)

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: Here at the Picture Show, we’ve become big fans of the wartime Universal B musicals, so we were excited to have the opportunity to see Simply in the Groove (1942), a film that is a fine showcase of music and character actors, including our beloved Shemp Howard.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Sometimes you want to a watch a movie that doesn't make you think too much. Strictly in the Groove won't tax your brain or your attention span. It is a zippy movie packed with musical numbers and a good cast. Photoplay’s reviewer said, “So, my friends, we come to another group of boys and girls jive crazier than a tree frog… Anyway, the music is hot, the kids hep, the songs lovely, the dancing good, so what the heck?”

RB: The scene opens in a college where we meet Ozzie Nelson and Bob Saunders. They seem a little long in the tooth to be college students, but with good reason. Ozzie and his band have been deliberately flunking classes for years so that their swing band can stay together and continue performing swing music for the jitterbugs at a local beanery, The Candy Shop. However, Bob’s father, who owns a large chain of restaurants and resorts has a different plan in mind. When he discovers that Bob has been spending his time hosting jam sessions instead of studying, he ships him off to his ranch in Big Horn, Arizona. Being the scrappy guy that he is, Bob brings the rest of the band along with him, with plans that they’ll set up residency at the dude ranch owned by Bob’s father. They didn’t count on Cathcart (Franklin Pangborn) who has decidedly different ideas. While this is going on, Pops (former soda-jerk; current band manager; always Shemp) is trying to get local cattle baron Carter B Durham (Leon Errol) to sponsor a radio program featuring the band. Bob’s father flies out to Arizona to find out what all of the hubbub is and winds up right in the middle of a tuneful mess. All of this plot takes place in between what seems like a dozen songs, most all of them tuneful and definitely of the time and as such, are lots of fun.

The cast is particularly strong here. Mary Healy is wrapping up an early run of films that actually ended after this, picking up again over ten years later for 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (which co-starred her husband, Peter Lynn Hayes). We saw her not too terribly long ago in Star Dust, and she had an uncredited appearance in Tail Spin (but I confess that I certainly didn’t spot her). Ozzie Nelson, whom we all know from his TV show was in the midst of a run of films for Universal, most of which are probably great and very tough to come by. Of particular interest to me is the film that followed this up, another hour long corker with David Bruce and Harriet Hillard (soon to be Nelson), Honeymoon Lodge, which reunited him with Franklin Pangborn.

SG: Pangborn is fun as the eccentric and uptight hotel manager. His frustration with his new assistant and confusion over Bob's antics provides good comedy. I am not as familiar with Ozzie Nelson as those who grew up watching Ozzie and Harriet on TV. My exposure to him has been through musical films screened at Cinevent like Hi Good Lookin'. They have been pleasant interactions, upbeat and light. It is also pleasant to see clips from their show running on a vintage television at the Lustron display at the Ohio History Center when I visit with my kids.

The Film Daily’s reviewer wrote, “The jiving element will go ecstatic; others will be driven dizzy by all the blaring and senseless commotion… The comedy dispensers, headed by Leon Errol and Shemp Howard, work like mad under the handicap of some pretty routine material. What story there is in Strictly in the Groove is smothered by the outpouring of music and comedy antics.” Shemp is hilarious in the barbeque scene where he escorts a date to a secluded area so he can woo her. The editors skillfully insert between musical numbers a moment with him furiously rubbing full-sized logs together asking his date if she smells smoke in his grotesque attempt to start a fire. Comedy gold.

RB: Of course, while I’m here for the character actors, in 1942, it was all about the music and as mentioned, this movie has tons of it. Ozzie, Jimmie Davis, Martha Tilton…the songs come fast and furious and they’re lots of fun, even though they may be a bit forgettable upon reflection.

SG: The Dinning Sisters sing a few times including a rendition of "Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow," which sounds corny, and maybe it is, but it is joy-enducing. The sisters were Jean, Ginger and Lou, real-life sisters (Jean and Ginger were twins) whose voices blended seamlessly in harmony. Their career as a group lasted a little over a decade competing with the Andrews Sisters but never reaching their level of fame. I love them; their style is dreamy and warm like a swallow of a hot latte on a cold day. I associate them more with Julie London than the Andrews Sisters in terms of the mood they evoke.

Reviewer Denley for The Film Bulletin wrote, “The makeshift plot is neither amusing or believable and no less than 12 songs are jammed into one hour’s running time… Leon Errol, of the rubber legs, puts on a number with the dignified Russell Hicks that is the hit of the picture.”

Director Vernon Keays cut his solo teeth on this film, having worked as an assistant director since the silent era. It is just the type of movie that would have been ideal for a new director, a programmer with a competent and seasoned cast and a thin plot. Although he never made a name for himself, he went on to direct twenty films and worked as an assistant director until his death in 1964.

RB: Upon its release, Strictly in the Groove was a hit on the lower half of double bills, where it was largely billed as starring Leon Errol (who is, as usual, very funny). Mel Jolley of the Century Theatre in Trenton Ontario agreed with most exhibitors; “A very fine comedy from start to finish. Ozzie Nelson orchestra right in the groove. Went over big with patrons and with our box office. By all means, play it.” I agree with Mel. This is a crackerjack all the way and is lots of fun if you can manage to track down a copy. If Universal ever gets around to licensing the rights to some of these fun, light films to Kino or someone else, you can be sure to sign me up. Until then, 3 and a half stars for a great hour of entertainment.

SG: Thomas di Lorenzo of the New Faltz Theatre, in New Paltz, New York called the film, “A crackerjack musical picture which proved a delightful treat for a Friday and Saturday audience here. Business good.” Philip Schwartz of the Parkway Theatre in Bridgeport, Connecticut said you, “Can’t beat this company for putting out short, snappy jive-packed comedies.”

The format of this movie reminds me of marathoning a group of soundies for an hour. In fact, the Dinning Sisters would appear in a few of those too. The difference is that here there is a minor attempt at stringing the sequences together with a plot, but it really doesn't matter. Three stars.

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Thanks for answering my request. We ran it in 35mm at Cinecon some years back and the audience was literally standing and cheering when it ended. BTW, fun fact: Those silhouetted dancers in the opening and end titles? The male is none other than contract player Donald O'Connor!

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