Wednesday, June 7, 2023
Search for Beauty (1934)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.