The first thing I wondered out loud during the opening scenes of Strictly in the Groove (1942): “What the hell is Ozzie Nelson still doing in college?” (The second question I asked was “Where is Mrs. Nelson (Harriet Hilliard)?” Maybe she was picking up David and Ricky at school.) Because the plot of this Universal B-musical finds Oz still matriculating in the halls of ivy despite seven years of book larnin’; he and the members of his orchestra have been deliberately flunking their courses so they can keep the band together. One member of Ozzie’s musical aggregation is pianist Bob Saunders (Richard Davies), who’d like nothing more than to tank finals and stay with the organization…but Bob’s old man, wealthy restaurant bidnessman R.C. Saunders (Russell Hicks), isn’t keen on that idea and his son’s commitment to what he derisively describes as “boogie-woogie.” R.C. decrees that Bob leave New York and go west (young man) to Big Horn, AZ—the location of the Circle S Ranch, the newest addition to the Saunders eatery chain.
Bob suggests that the entire band—including former-soda-jerk-turned-bidness-manager “Pops” (Shemp Howard)—make the trek with him to Big Horn; upon arrival, he attempts to convince Circle S manager Cathcart (Franklin Pangborn) to hire the “gang” as the help but Cathcart strongly demurs, since the ranch is already fully staffed. Bob and Company soon scatter the employees to the four winds in good time and take their place…but dadgummit, they’re musicians, Jim—so Bob tries to persuade the owner of the nearby Arizona Lodge, Sally Monroe (Mary Healy), to hire the band for weekly engagements. Sally’s spread isn’t doing the bidness that the Circle S is, however, and she and brother Ross (Charles Lang) may have to sell the place. But Bob hasn’t been in college all those years for nothing: he, Sally, and the band join forces to put on a swell show that will keep the cash registers ringing at the Arizona for years to come!
Despite its paper-thin plot—a kind of “let’s-put-on-a-resort-show!” story—Strictly in the Groove has a little something for everyone to enjoy in its hour-long running time. As befitting its Universal pedigree, it’s stuffed with musical numbers and novelty acts: Ozzie and his band, of course (with Martha Tilton filling in for Harriet—Martha warbles Somebody Else is Taking My Place); future Loo-siana Governor Jimmie Davis (singing his signature You Are My Sunshine); the Dinning Sisters (Ella, Eugenia and Virginia performing Miss You); and the Jimmy Wakely Trio (who do a nice version of one of my favorite Gene Autry numbers, Be Honest with Me). (Jimmy will be making the rounds on the blog’s B-Western Wednesdays soon, so keep an eye out for him, podnuhs.) Rounding out the performers are a harmonica trio in Diamond’s Solid-Aires, and Grace McDonald (as a gal named Dixie Lee) shows off her terpsichorean talents (with Eddie Johnson) while Oz and the guys play Dancing on Air.
I’d like to be able to say that the talent in the previous paragraph attracted me to Strictly in the Groove (a disc I obtained from Finders Keepers) but that would be dishonest; the draw for me was the three individuals who receive top billing in the movie’s promotional poster: Leon Errol, Shemp Howard, and Franklin Pangborn. Pangborn has a role he could pretty much play in his sleep—the officious prig who isn’t quite as in charge as he thinks—but it was interesting to see Leon and Shemp interact (Errol’s a cattleman who has several run-ins with the Shempster as the blog’s favorite stooge tries to get Leon to sign a contract for the band’s radio show)—the two clowns also appeared together in the studio’s Six Lessons from Madame La Zonga (1941), which co-stars Errol’s “Mexican Spitfire” partner, Lupe Velez.
Howard and Errol are proof that even when the material is weak (Groove’s story and screenplay comes courtesy of Kenneth Higgins and Warren Wilson; Wilson produced an Ozzie Nelson film covered previously on the blog, Honeymoon Lodge ) veteran clowns know where to mine the laughs. (Shemp, after Bob’s douchenozzle Dad tells him he’s going West: “Don’t worry, Bob—you did your best. The kids’ll get work…of course, I’ll probably starve…me own mother’ll probably starve…my grand…nahhh…she’s playing second base for Brooklyn!”) Leon gets an assist in a few of his scenes from his valet, played by an uncredited Clarence Muse (Muse isn’t even credited at the [always reliable] IMDb or the AFI Catalog); granted, it’s a thankless role for this major talent, but he demonstrates once again that great actors can work wonders with so little. Oh—the other line that made me chortle out loud occurs when the band fakes a radio broadcast, The Vegetable Hour (Shemp is still working on Leon and the contract), and Ozzie says into the mike: “Cows don’t eat you—why should you eat cows?”
Strictly in the Groove boasts a strong supporting cast; in addition to folks I’ve already named, Tim Ryan has fun as a college professor with a verbal tic of repeating things twice (he reminds me of the “I’m going to get the papers, get the papers” guy in Goodfellas…or me, come to think of it—I’m constantly doing a Claghorn where my mother is concerned, because she’s deaf as a post) and you’ll also spot Ralph Dunn, Holmes Herbert, Lloyd Ingraham, Johnny “Ten Little Bottles” Bond, Spade Cooley, and Neely Edwards. As for the love interests in Groove—Richard Davies and Mary Healy—well, their romance has all the excitement of watching a traffic light change, but they’re painless to take. (Healy, who’s probably best known for being married to Peter Lind Hayes—you’ve seen them in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T—inherited the ingénue role after Jane Frazee turned it down. Universal suspended her, and Jane went on to make Moonlight Masquerade  at Republic.)
This print of Strictly in the Groove isn’t particularly pristine (it looks to be a VHS copy of a 16mm print that was already scuffed and bruised to begin with) but it’s certainly watchable…plus I didn’t pay for this one (it was one of two discs I got gratis after the Escape fiasco—the other being Dante’s Inferno ). If you haven’t browsed the stacks at Finders Keepers lately, I urge you to check out what they offer—they have some first-rate rarities for sale.