Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Search for Beauty (1934)

Search for Beauty is a 1934 Paramount pre-code offering directed by Erle C. Kenton. It’s trashy, sleazy, exploitative and smutty. In other words it’s everything you could ask for in a movie.

Larry Williams (Robert Armstrong) and Jean Strange (Gertrude Michael) are a couple of con artists just out of prison. Larry has come up with a racket that he is sure will be a winner, and best of all they won’t have to worry about the cops because it’s technically legal. Larry’s idea is to buy up a magazine called Health and Exercise. It was a magazine genuinely devoted to those topics but Larry has big plans for magazine. A health and exercise magazine can quite justifiably run lots of photos of healthy young male and female physical specimens, not wearing too much in the clothing department. In other words what the magazine will be selling is not health and fitness but sex. It might still be called Health and Exercise but what it will be about is sex and salaciousness.

They’re going to need a couple of squeaky clean kids as editors, to provide a respectable front. Larry decides on two Gold Medal winners from the 1932 Olympics, English high diver Barbara Hilton (Ida Lupino) and American swimmer Don Jackson (Buster Crabbe). They’re nice kids and they’re pretty innocent so they’re not going to realise what’s going on. Larry needs another con man, Dan Healy (James Gleason), to front up the money to finance the purchase of the magazine. Dan isn’t interested until he finds out that there’s a sweetener in the deal for him - Barbara’s hot blonde cousin Sally (Toby Wing) will be his secretary.

Larry, Jean and Dan turn the magazine into a huge success but the salaciousness shocks Dan and Barbara. The stage is set for a power struggle and then Larry gets a bright idea. When they bought the magazine a run-down health farm called Health Acres was included in the deal. The farm is really run-down but if they can convince Don and Barbara that they could turn that farm into the health capital of the world they might be able to persuade them to give up their interest in the magazine in exchange for total control of Health Acres. Then they’ll have the two squeaky clean kids off their hands.

The deal is done and then Larry realises, too late, that Health Acres might actually turn out to be a gold mine. Which means Larry and Jean will have to do some more plotting.

There’s also a romantic triangle in the offing. Barbara is hopelessly in love with Don but she thinks he’s much too interested in Jean (and she’s right).

The re-opening of Health Acres leads to a showdown between the puritanical Don and Barbara and those who want to turn the place into a pleasure place. The forces of puritanism win but in true pre-code style I’m not at all sure the movie wants us to celebrate that victory, as Don and Barbara turn Health Acres into a nightmarish slave camp.

Interestingly enough the movie was inspired by a 1932 Paramount publicity stunt (also called the Search for Beauty) in which they scoured the globe for perfect young bodies, with the 30 finalists all getting roles in the movie. In the process they discovered Ann Sheridan.

This is a movie that lots of people at the time (and some people today) would have found shockingly offensive but it neatly pulls the rug from under would-be critics. It shamelessly exploits the female body for the titillation of male viewers but it just as shamelessly exploits the male body for the titillation of women viewers (there’s a wonderful scene in which Jean is watching Don in his swimming trunks and immediately lowers her gaze to get a really good look at his crotch). It’s self-consciously and deliberately exploitative. It mocks itself for this, and it mocks those who would take offence. It doesn’t even try to hide its exploitative nature. It revels in it. The movie’s message is, if you’re offended that’s just too bad.

The movie benefits from a fine cast. Robert Armstrong as Larry is delightfully sleazy, Gertrude Michael as Jean Strange is suitably scheming and James Gleason as Dan is as much fun as he always was. Buster Crabbe is very good as the pure all-American athlete, managing to make Don likeable rather than irritating. It’s worth noting that in real life Buster Crabbe really did win the 400-metres freestyle gold medal at the 1932 Olympics. Ida Lupino was just fifteen when she made this movie but this was her eighth movie so she wasn’t really inexperienced and she handles her role just fine. Toby Wing’s career never took off but she’s fun here.

There are some jaw-dropping moments. The Symphony of Health is supposed to be a physical fitness demonstration but it’s more like a cross between a mutated Busby Berkeley musical production number and a creepy military parade.

The movie has its cake and eats it too, presenting the health fanatics as the good guys while at the same time clearly mocking the puritanical healthy fanaticism.

Erle C. Kenton is probably best known as the director of the outrageous Island of Lost Souls.

There’s plenty of amusement to be had here. Search for Beauty is a wonderful slice of pre-code craziness, outrageousness and excess Plus you get to see both Toby Wing and Ida Lupino dancing on a table. Highly recommended.


  1. The cast alone has sold it to me!

    1. It's included in the Universal Pre-Code Hollywood Collection DVD boxed set. All six movies are worth seeing. A great set if you can find a copy.