PLEASE NOTE: THIS WEEK’S ENTRY IS NOT WORK SAFE.
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Jesus. Well, there’s a lot of things. This film is the result of an intercontinental search for the most beautiful (white) people in the world.
- As such, they really want to show their wares off. Let’s start with everyone’s favorite, nudity:
- Nudity not doing it for ya? Let’s see if it’s any more scandalous with some more clothing put on:
- Do you want risque stories? Here’s one that’s a long running gag that eventually involves sex, drugs, and more than one woman:
- Do you like women objectifying men? Men objectifying women? Slabs of flesh laid bare for our own unwavering gaze? You’ll get that. Lots of that.
- You want blue humor? Try some of these on for size:
I got nothin’ against sex. Either you got it, or you go lookin’ for it.
Jean: We’re using these boys in an idea we’re working on, outdoor sports with indoor trimmings.
Manager: As far as I’m concerned… outdoors, indoors, or behind doors!
The Particulars of the Picture
|Larry Williams …
|Jean Strange …
|Dan Healy …
|Don Jackson …
Larry “Buster” Crabbe
|Barbara Hilton …
|Sally Palmer …
Search for Beauty: Looking Up and Down and Up and Down
I probably toss this out every week or so, but here it goes again: Search for Beauty is one of the strangest and raunchiest films from the 1930’s I’ve ever seen. It’s also one of the most unique… and that’s probably a good thing.
Search for Beauty starts big with the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, where a pair of con artists, Larry and Jean, have decided upon a scheme to take over a failing muscle magazine. Their plan is to do so by duping of a pair of beautiful Gold Medal Olympians into sponsoring it.
That’s Don and Barbara. He’s a swimmer and she’s a high diver (supposedly British, but don’t listen for an accent). They agree to edit the magazine, not knowing that the con artists are inserting randy stories and skimpy pictures to lure in the readers. With the Olympian’s names on the cover, they can get their magazines through the mail without the federal authorities censoring it, and in the process make a mint.
However, as we will soon detail, Don and Barbara are athletes in the most idealistic sense, innocent and moral to a fault. This brings us to an interesting set of dichotomies with the picture. The movie’s framework is the story of Larry and Jean, as they wrestle with making money and getting the athletes to buy into their schemes, and that’s matched by the very look of the film. Search for Beauty is more than happy to exploit the athletes and the many beauty contestants they track down for their beautiful bodies, with as much skin as they could show within in the confines of the law being shown.
But the thing that gets me about Search for Beauty isn’t that it’s a bawdy sexual farce in an era where those were extremely rare. It’s not even how often the female gaze is employed by the camera, giving the audience eyefuls of young men like few movies even today seem willing to concede.
No, it’s the fact this film is strangely but wholly fascist. It’s propaganda wearing the the most outlandish of disguises, and even then it stumbles pretty handily there. It’s as close in kin to 1933’s America-becomes-a-dictatorship-and-saves-the-world Gabriel Over the White House as it is to the flesh-is-beautiful mantra of the Porky’s series.
That’s because the moral of the story is that beauty makes right. Superficial looks and prim morality will make us better, stronger, younger. We can only fall into line or be forced into it.
While the movie clearly is on the same level as Larry and Jean, it firmly believes that Don and Barbara hold the moral high ground. Don spends a portion of the movie hunting down the most beautiful people in the world for the contest I mentioned above the line, and he transforms them into a health spa staff. Larry and Jean, upset that they sold out their stake of the spa, sneak in and try and turn it into a high priced brothel of the beautiful.
That doesn’t work out because the beautiful men and women who were selected for this film are as morally flawless as Don and Barbara. They are beautiful bodies– which the movie lingers on appreciatively– occupied by a sense of superiority that is proven throughout the film to be infallible. They even put on a show for the spa’s clients, in a proto-Leni Riefenstahl sequence that has a plethora of inelegant sexual imagery. The guys hold javelins, the women hold giant circles; what could it mean?
The film’s climax involves the bevy of beautiful people enforcing these ideals of healthy living on not only the con men but the clientele they’ve ensnared. This includes drunks, stage producers, and, of course, women with sexually voracious appetites. The film ends with all of them ridiculed by the instructors and forced into performing unified exercise routines.
That makes Search for Beauty an interesting footnote, as its content and 1934 release date can be read as a quite literal demonstrative end to the Pre-Code era. While our framing device and sympathies lie with the criminals as their amusing hijinks takes them all around the boundaries of good taste, they are quickly defeated by the professed and unchallenged forces of goodness.
You see a lot of post-1934 film in the characters of Don and Barbara. Don is the superman, and Barbara his beautiful but entirely obedient lover. Though Don does momentarily fall for Jean’s charms, Barbara pouts and eventually wins him back once its shown that Jean has immoral leanings. This is a boilerplate for cinema for the next decade, where the flaws are present in the secondary cast and not themselves. Frankly, it’s as grating to watch there as it is here.
That makes Search for Beauty such a perfect encapsulation for both the era it was leaving and the era about to begin. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly) it gives the film a disjointed feel– some really naughty tidbits one minute, proselytizing the next. The humor isn’t always a hit, and the character of Barbara is a chore to sympathize with. Even though she’s a Gold Medal winner, Don treats her like a disposable secretary until all of his other options run out; again, this is the horrible romance dramas of the late 30’s writ large.
It’s a movie as much a product of its times as any from the Pre-Code Era, only its hurt from being stuck in the transition. It not only wants its cake, but all the rest in the shop. And while there are some funny bits, the closer we get to the quasi-fascist spa, the more the movie chastises the audience for eating up the very goods it sells itself on; this movie is a never ending loop of immorality and then uptight preaching that comments upon itself to infinity.
But the truth is that you really have to see Search for Beauty in order to believe it. While the film’s themes and messages are torn between two eras, its cinematography bleeds both ways as well. We even have some early uses of zoom lenses, in case anyone was keeping track. The choreography in the last scene is so desperately trying to be Busby Berkeley and failing so badly that you can see the movie musical preparing for another well deserved hibernation.
Search for Beauty is funny and outrageous but stiff and moral, a mixture of Pre-Code subversiveness and enforced-Code ‘holier than thou’. Above all, though, it’s a a curiosity that anyone interested in Pre-Code and how movies handled the transition should track down.
Also, anyone interested in seeing Buster Crabbe repeatedly undress should watch it. I know there are some of you out there.
Here are a lot of extra screenshots I took. Click on any picture to enlarge!
Trivia & Links
- This film is the American debut for Ida Lupino. She’s a much more interesting character than this movie would lead you to believe, and later made a career as a director and a producer. Here’s her Wikipedia page for some further reading.
- Mondo 70 has some great old newspaper advertisements. “Sam Wilson” (not his real name) is pretty lukewarm on the enterprise also calls out the film for its quasi-Fascist tone. Can’t say I disagree, since I don’t!
- Andre Senwald in the Times finds himself far above this one, noting:
[T]he film’s basic appeal is that of a local pageant, attended by the admiring parents and friends of the performers, rather than that of a professional entertainment.
- Since the film is set at the 1932 Olympics, I thought it would be fun to find some info on it. Here’s the official page and here’s its entry in Wikipedia. It’s the games that gave us the Los Angeles Coliseum and the first use of the victory podium. Here’s the opening ceremony, too, if you want to watch.
- One of the beauty contest winners from the movie is none other than Anne Sheridan, who would go onto such films as I Was a Male War Bride and King’s Row. Cliff over at Immortal Ephemera has the lowdown; he also namedrops me liberally, so you should totally read this. 😉
- Search for Beauty is available in the Universal Pre-Code Collection, which you can find over on Amazon and Classicflix. It’s on the same disc as the equally scandalous (and more enjoyable) Murder at the Vanities.
Jennifer · September 8, 2014 at 11:13 pm
Finally saw this over the weekend — been wanting to for ages, as I’m a huge Toby Wing fan — and it’s every bit as crazy as you made it sound. I loved it. 😀
During the pageant show, I kept on thinking “Busby? This can’t be Busby. Is it Busby?!”
Danny · September 12, 2014 at 12:24 pm
That ending show is nuts, some real ‘Triumph of the Will’ stuff. And Toby Wing is indeed great in it!
justjack · November 4, 2014 at 6:57 am
And fifty years later, they were still at it, albeit with better fitting tights:
Danny · November 7, 2014 at 10:53 am
… wow. Thank you.
Walter · August 29, 2015 at 1:46 pm
…Look up a man called Bernarr Macfadden , who published many magazines in that time , and was a well-known public figure (and the company he started still exists to-day bearing his name , publishing such magazines as PIZZA WORLD) . Briefly , I very much believe SFB ‘s setting is , very much , a spoof of (the then-public perception of) his company’s magazines .
I guess you were reviewing the DVD ? I suppose the DVD did not have any of the alternate footage from the ” diiferent in every one of the countries the contestants came from ” versions ? I have read a listing saying that aversion exists showing public hair in the male lockeroom scenes !
Tonio · July 26, 2019 at 4:57 am
I’d like to know whether Lupino’s second US picture, “Come on Marines”, is still pre code. I couldn’t spot a certificate number. And the cross-dressing in the film is, for example, very risky and maybe would not have been permitted under the Code.
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