by Matt Levine
Libidinous Pre-Code comedies don’t come much stranger than Search for Beauty, a film which greedily ogles the studio-selected “most beautiful people in the world” while simultaneously preaching against sex-obsessed carnality. In 1933, Paramount Pictures held a worldwide contest in which thirty men and women from the US, England, Ireland, Australia, and South Africa (among others) would be selected as the embodiments of perfect physical form. (The contest’s purview was solely Anglo-Saxon, as the winners’ skin-tones are unanimously, conspicuously white.) These thirty specimens of human beauty would then be featured in a Hollywood production, which turned out to be Search for Beauty (released in early 1934). Pre-Code films are known for their unabashed take on human lust—conveyed most often by winking double entendres and a flash of bare skin here or there—but few of them are as shamelessly illicit as Search for Beauty; the movie barely tries to hide the salacious zeal with which it drinks in the statuesque physiques of its appealing ensemble, male and female alike.
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Producer: E. Lloyd Sheldon
Writers: Claude Binyon, Frank Butler, Sam Hellman (dialogue), David Boehm (story), Maurine Watkins (story), Schuyler E. Grey (play “Love Your Body”), Paul R. Milton (play)
Cinematographer: Harry Fischbeck
Editor: James Smith
Music: John Leipold
Cast: Buster Crabbe, Ida Lupino, Robert Armstrong, James Gleason, Toby Wing, Gertrude Michael, Bradley Page, Frank McGlynn Sr., Nora Cecil, Virginia Hammond, Eddie Gribbon
US Theatrical Release: February 2, 1934
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
The film may have started as a massive promotional stunt, but it tries to convince us that it has a legitimate story to offer in addition (it’s only partially successful). Fresh out of an eighteen-month prison stretch, cynical cons Larry (Robert Armstrong) and Jean (Gertrude Michael) concoct a semi-honorable plan: they’ll buy the defunct fitness magazine Health & Exercise and turn it into a tawdry skin mag, peddling soft-core pornography through the mail. They coerce two Olympic superstars—American swimmer Don Jackson (Buster Crabbe, who had played Tarzan in a few late-1920s film adaptations and would soon become famous for personifying Flash Gordon); and British diver Barbara Hilton (Ida Lupino, fresh-faced in her film debut)—into endorsing the magazine, unaware of its lascivious undertones. Don and Barbara are introduced alongside footage actually filmed at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, providing some fascinating montages of human athleticism at its most impressive; for a few seconds, Search for Beauty actually resembles the sports sequences in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). It is also during these opening scenes that the film provides its first shockingly candid sex joke: when Jean first spots Don through binoculars as he readies himself at the swimming pool, she lingers on his skimpy bathing suit straining to conceal the prominent bulge within. “Mmm, come to mama!” she says—a moment which wouldn’t seem out of place in a modern-day sex comedy, though it retains an anachronistic edge in a 1934 film (even if you’re aware of the Pre-Code era’s prurient reputation).
Don is shipped overseas to select the winners of Health & Exercise’s beauty contest, allowing Larry and his weaselly publisher Healey (James Gleason) to begin photographing and publishing scandalous erotic stories without worrying about the Olympian’s moralistic objections. (Barbara objects to the magazine’s ripening sexuality too, though the movie unfortunately considers her incapable of foiling her sleazy publishers until Don’s return.) Intentional or not, there’s a clever analogy between Health & Exercise and Paramount Pictures itself—seeing as how the diegetic contest winners are also the “beauties” selected to appear in the film through Paramount’s contest. Both the magazine and the film, in other words, glorify red-blooded sex appeal while pretending to promote innocuous ideals such as fitness and well-being. The steamy erotica that appears in Health & Exercise magazines is accompanied by “just enough moral to sneak them through the mails,” says one character—a practice that could just as well describe the studios’ precarious production of adult-oriented films in the Pre-Code era of the early 1930s.
The remainder of Search for Beauty’s plot—which is amusing as often as it is tiresome—pitches Don and Barbara’s high-minded pursuit of universal health against Larry, Jean, and Healy’s exploitative adoption of the motto “sex sells,” an assumption that applies just as well to 1934 as 2014. The climax of the film takes place at a refurbished hotel lazily entitled Health Acres, where the international contest-winners are enlisted to act as illustrious personal trainers; Larry, Jean, and Healy conspire to turn the health spa into a massive orgy, inviting lustful upper-class attendees (both men and women) to solicit the sexual favors of the strapping athletes on display. Turns out these barely-clothed beauties are as frustratingly prim and proper as Don and Barbara—they humorlessly rebuff their wealthy johns’ advances, insisting instead that they follow the hotel’s ironclad workout regimen (including lights-out at ten p.m. and wake-up at six).
It’s appropriate that the narrative’s central conflict is between sex and morality, as the movie itself perfectly demonstrates this dichotomy: released in 1934 (often unofficially seen as the last year of the Pre-Code era), the hypocrisy of Search for Beauty—half raunchy sex comedy, half pro-health sermonizing—is indicative of a moral laxness on the wane. True, a number of scandalous inclusions would become taboo only a year or two later—brief (though unavoidable) male and female nudity in steamy locker room scenes, or skintight costumes that leave none of the actors’ anatomical assets to the imagination—but we are ceaselessly reminded of Don’s righteousness, his moral rectitude, in refusing the sinful temptations of carnal pleasure. The film’s schizophrenia is often disorienting—especially when the lustful villains reap their comeuppance while surrounded by human specimens boasting miraculous bodies—but it’s also perfectly understandable in the context of a changing American society and the unsettled politics of moviemaking specifically.
It would be easy to condemn the movie for its torrid sensationalism and shallow celebration of surface beauty; indeed, if any Hollywood studio today held an international beauty contest and flaunted the winners’ mostly-naked bodies in a mass-released blockbuster, they’d likely receive their share of critical castigation. The film unquestionably deserves flak for its predominantly powerless female characters, who are mostly seen succumbing to the demands of men—with the exception of sharp-tongued Jean, who is vilified as disloyal and shallow by the movie’s end. (Little wonder she still remains one of the movie’s most likeable characters.) Yet as dancers frolic in one-piece bathing suits during musical numbers that meekly imitate Busby Berkeley, Search for Beauty’s sexuality seems more charming than offensive. There’s no denying it objectifies its male models as much as its females, providing one exception to the theory that most sexualized images in Hollywood films come from a place of leering male entitlement; as the New York Times reviewer wrote upon the film’s release in 1934, “the young men boast chest developments that would make a gorilla blush with shame.” It’s impossible to miss this as the men in Search for Beauty usually go shirtless. The audience is strongly encouraged to collude with the film in its insatiable ogling of the men and women on display, but there is at least a shred of self-awareness in the movie’s theme of smut masquerading as morality.
Thankfully, the film also exploits its salacious subject matter with good-natured wit—at least part of the time. Some of the jokes might be dead on arrival—especially an ongoing gag where the spineless Healy repeats every single thing that his accomplice Larry says (a shtick that fails utterly the first time around, not to mention the second, third, or fourth)—but a reliable majority of them are sharp and entertaining. Upon spotting a photo of a muscular Adonis in almost-nonexistent shorts in a beauty salon, one appreciative lady utters, “Ooooh! I haven’t seen anything like that since…well, let’s just call it since.” Even more impressive is a trio of shots visualizing the meteoric rise of Health & Exercise magazine, interlinked by the line of dialogue “up…up….up!”: the first time these words are spoken, we see an assembly line tossing copies of the magazine upwards along the distribution chain; the second time, we see a female model posing for a photograph, hiking her skirt upwards until the furthermost reaches of her thighs are visible to the audience; and with the third, we glimpse a graph of the magazine’s skyrocketing circulation numbers. This brief trio of shots, fluidly edited together, gives a clever and concise visual manifestation to the mass consumption of unbridled sexuality.
There is something off-putting about the physically flawless army of health-nuts who perform Don’s bidding in Search for Beauty: ceaselessly active, eerily willing to bow to their superior’s draconic demands, the film’s “international beauties” resemble the burgeoning Hitler Youth to an alarming extent. (I wonder if the starry-eyed contestants foresaw that possibility when they originally auditioned?) Indeed, the athletic automatons we see here presage the Teutonic exemplars we see in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia four years later— another film, of course, which views a rigorous emphasis on health and exercise as the surest path to homogeny (at least potentially). The fact that Don and his able-bodied minions quickly turn into repressive fascists seems like an intentional ploy to make us identify with the sex-obsessed “villains” and disregard the simplistic conservatism of the “heroes”—a witty self-reflexivity that comes through most emphatically in Don’s mandate that hotel guests are required to “whistle gaily” on their way to morning exercises. More likely, it’s an indication of the movie’s capitulation to both the illicit preferences of audiences and a solidifying Production Code which demanded that sexual looseness be reprimanded somehow.
In any case, the multitude of social, political, and ethical forces that intersected to give rise to the censorious Production Code—a self-implemented, morally-upstanding dogma that dictated Hollywood subject matter for the next two and a half decades—is explosively conveyed by Search for Beauty. This is a film that’s fascinating almost in spite of itself: originating from a blatant PR-stunt, cobbled together with the assembly-line rapidity of many Hollywood productions of the time, the film is by default an encapsulation of a formidable industry undergoing moral upheaval. Search for Beauty’s predominant theme that modern audiences crave sexual titillation is nothing new, and its story is an obvious vehicle for conveying such a familiar idea; yet the lingering anomaly of seeing this hypothesis proven in a Hollywood comedy only two decades into the film capital’s existence is a rare and undervalued pleasure. The fertile oddities provided by Hollywood’s Pre-Code era—brief though it was—act as a prologue to the ethical quandaries that would plague the industry for a century to come.