Well, folks, I finally found it: for my money, the most cheerfully indecent, blatantly prurient film of the pre-Code era.
No—not The Story of Temple Drake.
Not Red-Headed Woman.
Not even Baby Face.
I announce the winner: Earle C. Kenton’s Search for Beauty, which could easily be retitled The Search for Booty. This quasi-fascist beefcake fest provokes more utterances of “What the…?” per minute than any other flick made before 1934. And this camp Holy Grail includes more head-scratching moments, for that matter, than most movies made since. No matter your taste, gender, or orientation, this film really hedged its bets. You will probably be both offended AND turned-on at some point of the show.
You want giggly male fantasy Toby Wing and a super-young platinum blonde Ida Lupino dancing on top of tables in silky nightclothes? You got it.
Ultra-buff Buster Crabbe changing out of an Olympian swimsuit and getting into the shower onscreen? Yep.
Four bare male bottoms in one frame? Look no further, my friend.
Lithe female athletes in terry-cloth gym suits dragging Gertrude Michaels out of bed to join an exercise chain gang? Sure thing.
And, most egregiously of all, a final shot of James Gleason’s atrophied keyster in gym shorts? Oh, would it weren’t so…
If this gallery of offenses doesn’t leave you gobsmacked, how about the fact that Picture Play magazine declared, in their review of Search for Beauty, “Here’s a picture unreservedly recommended for the whole family.” How the hell did the reviewer miss the nudity? The near-nudity? The groping? The five solid minutes of soft-core flexing? Was he sitting behind a woman wearing a triple-decker hat? Was he on dope? Or was he pulling a prank on all those parents who were going to have to answer some mighty tough questions after the movie?
I don’t know about you, but I’m agape.
Even the plot of Search for Beauty was built with raunchiness in mind. A bunch of con artists (sassy Gertrude Michaels, skinny James Gleason, and burly Robert Armstrong) zero in on a get-rich-quick scheme. They buy a bankrupt magazine, Health and Fitness, with the intention of turning it into a porno mag.
However, to shield themselves from the censors and the law, they pass the publication off as an exercise guide. The crooks also recruit two bright-eyed Olympians, Barbara and Don (real-life 1932 gold medalist Buster Crabbe and Ida Lupino in her American debut), to be the honorary editors and unwitting spokespeople for the scandalous rag.
Unaware of their partners’ skullduggery, these two good kids stage a publicity stunt to promote fitness and increase magazine circulation: Don tours the world looking for “perfect youths.” [Cue the montage sequence of gratuitous flexing and grinding workout routines here!]
Meanwhile, back in New York, Barbara is getting progressively more disgusted with the immoral stories and illustrations that the magazine is publishing—all under the stamp of her 100% pure name. So, when Don gets back with his crew of beautiful bodies, they start a fitness camp and try to break away from the magazine—despite the shysters’ attempts to turn the workout camp into a bordello. Of course, Barbara and Don thwart the salacious scheme. Virtue triumphs and so forth.
In this movie’s defense, I will note that it impresses me by objectifying the male body almost as much as the female form—pretty unusual for Hollywood. We sense an avid female gaze inscribed on the screen in lingering shots of Buster Crabbe and his rock-solid compadres.
Search for Beauty attributes a robust leer to both genders. It’s all about equal opportunity lechery. For instance, the first time Gertrude Michael’s character sets eyes on Don Jackson, the swimmer, we get a POV shot of her turning her binoculars downwards to get a view of, well, his swimmers.
There’s also a hysterical scene in which that same shady lady convinces a whole bunch of women at the hair salon to enroll in fitness camp—after she “accidentally” drops a whole packet of glossy photos of Buster and company in various Adonis poses. A woman playing procuress to other women strikes me as a rare occurrence even for pre-Code Hollywood; we detect something modern in how these women unabashedly drool over the nubile dudes, presented solely for their enjoyment.
When Gertrude Michael asks the coiffeuse, “Think any of your customers might give him a tumble?” the hairdresser replies, “Tumble? If they were anything like me, they’d give him a double summersault!”
Meanwhile, in a swanky bar, James Gleason is peddling pictures of girls in fitness suits amidst a bunch of lascivious, but comical extreme close-ups of ears and mouths. Earle C. Kenton’s lurid attention to expressions of lust translates out to a visual “Yuck!”
If the two scenes parallel each other, the women certainly come across way better—more genuine, articulate, and sincere even in their objectification of men.
I also give this film a lot of credit for anticipating—and mocking—its own critics’ arguments. In one scene, we listen to two vapid pre-Code working girls talking about the smutty stories that get published in Health and Fitness. One girl longs for a life of vice, but notes that the women having fun in the steamy adventures always end up in trouble. Her companion dismisses such slap-on-the-wrist endings, saying that the writers just make that up as a moral excuse. In real life, she insists, the wages of sin are pretty darn generous.
Girls! Shame on you! How dare you read that smutty magazine that I endorsed!
Now, how many pre-Code films follow exactly that formula of wanton pleasure… followed by some unconvincing punishment or redemption in the last reel?
And, what’s more, Search for Beauty sure fits that formula! It’s not just smut. It’s meta-smut. But that self-referential irony also explains why the film strikes me as so vaguely unsettling: while we’re encouraged to identify with the perky protagonists, we’re also watching the exploitation of those kids.
In fact, Search for Beauty represents the culmination of a gimmicky real-life worldwide quest for beautiful youths, orchestrated by Paramount, which garnered a great deal of attention in fan magazines of the time.
A 1934 issue of Picture Play magazine described the search as “One of the most colossal stunts ever used to publicize a picture… [T]he promotion idea was the holding of beauty contests in every English-speaking country—Canada, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Australia, et cetera—the winners being brought to Hollywood and put into the film.”
The more cynical Photoplay magazine referred to them as “raw material for the cinema mill,” just so much fleshy fodder to get ground up by the Dream Machine. The 30 studio-selected winners from around the globe were given five-week contracts at $50 per week and rewarded with dubious onscreen exposure time (in more ways than one).
If these chosen kids were expecting an Ella Cinders style discovery, they were holding out in vain. A reviewer of the time observed, in Motion Picture, “What one sees of the winners in a health drill, as well as at closer range, may cause you to question their superiority to your favorite life guard or hat-check girl, but you won’t begrudge them the trip to Hollywood, nor the return home of all but six. You will agree that they will be better off there.”
To my knowledge, only one of the “winners” made the big time, so keep your eyes peeled for Clara Lou Sheridan—whose name was wisely changed to Ann Sheridan—the Oomp Girl, our Dallas Beauty Winner.
Even as Search for Beauty lampoons the exploitation of innocent youngsters by crooked sex fiends, the movie basically sponsored the same kind of large-scale exploitation! I don’t believe that the Paramount execs brought this gaggle of beautiful people to Hollywood merely for an infusion of talent. Photoplay punctured this theory by crankily noting, “Maybe there is a potential Garbo or Gable among them, but it seems to me the chance is just as good, if not better, of finding a potential star among Hollywood extras.”
Indeed, the film medium itself gleefully participates in the less-than-aesthetic contemplation of idealized bodies. During one montage sequence, the news of Health and Fitness’s search for talent spreads around the world; men stack piles of magazines for distribution, crying, “Up! Up!” Cut to a photographer snapping naughty photos of one of the magazine’s pin-ups as the cameraman instructs the curvaceous ingénue to pull up her skirt, “Up! Up!” Get it?
The business of posing and creating publicity shots also serves as a target for Search for Beauty’s satire of the “sex sells” mentality. In one memorable scene, James Gleason presides over a whole group of women, each with one ideal feature. The photographer in the room hopes to take pictures of their beautiful individual body parts and then composite them to make a non-existent perfect woman.
This practice may sound primitive and laughable. However, the glossing over of “bad traits” and the creation of an unattainably flawless image foreshadows our generation of stressed-out women, constantly comparing themselves to Photoshop-slimmed, impossible dream girls.
On the one hand, by going behind the scenes to make fun of beauty magazine tropes, Search for Beauty helps to break them down and show viewers what a sham they are. On the other, this paradoxical movie reveals the sleaziness behind the same kind of global beauty pageant that the studio perpetuated by producing and promoting it.
The excessive eye candy climaxes in a five-minute-long sequence that consists of nothing other than synchronized aerobic exercises performed by lines and lines of ripped men and women in skin-tight gym suits. Waving banners and flags. Marching. Leaping. Jumping. Lunging. To the tune of John Phillips Sousa-esque marches. This is an erotic spectacle. It’s Buns of Steel on steroids. There is no way around it.
So, although Search for Beauty amusingly satirizes commercialized sex, the movie and its publicity stunt also massively participate in that same commercial exploitation.
As I ponder this movie (and I might be pondering it longer than the producers did), the mise-en-abyme quality of its message or moral sucks me in. Speaking of mise-en-abyme, the opening credits show up over shots of beautiful girls in gym suits doing exercises in a mirrored room so that reflections and reflections of reflections stretch into the distance.
In Search for Beauty, reality and parody blur and mingle. Aat times, the camera’s leer assimilates with our own implied drooling absorptionm and I don’t feel comfortable with that. I’ll leer when I want to. Don’t you dare tell me when to leer!
And yet, Barbara and Don emerge victorious, with help from a secret government agent dressed up as a priest (don’t ask). Not only do these plucky bodybuilders usurp the fitness farm compound, but they also hustle all the bad guys out onto the exercise field to punish them with a workout. No gain for the would-be pornographers and pimps—just a lot of pain.
Of course, what really scares me silly about this film is that it was made in 1934. In 1935, Leni Riefenstahl decided to remake Search for Beauty—albeit played for a little less comedy—under a new title, The Triumph of the Will.
Obviously, I’m joking. I have no way of knowing if Riefenstahl ever saw this pre-Code fitness fetish romp. I’m guessing she never did. But the similarities between this and Riefenstahl’s propaganda opuses practically scream in your face and tell you to drop and give ’em thirty.
Just how tongue-in-cheek was this film meant to be? Are we supposed to side with the dirt-bags or the frighteningly determined Aryan bodybuilding police?
I’m inclined to take the side of director Earle C. Kenton, the man behind perhaps the greatest horror film of the 1930s: Island of Lost Souls, based on Welles’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. That courageous, grotesque movie foreshadowed the brutality of dictators that were rising to political prominence when the film was in production. The sadism of megalomaniacal mad scientist Dr. Moreau shifts our sympathy to the “monsters” which he torments and dominates with painful medical procedures.
In his crazy schemes to transform animals into humans, Moreau sought to breed men without recognizing his own paucity of human traits like kindness and empathy. During the movie’s most famous sequence, the mad doctor, wielding a whip, forces his creations to recite “The Law” in an elaborate call-and-response ritual. The refrain “Are we not men?” spoken by a group of subservient, unnatural creatures rings out with bitter irony.
Just as Dr. Moreau’s obsession with evolving a new race of creatures parallels the eugenics movement, Search for Beauty’s emphasis on perfect, streamlined bodies and tyrannical fitness almost veers into fascism. In the finale of the latter film, as I watched the waggish cons dragged from their beds, coerced to engage in a group exercise, I could help but think of the line, “Are we not men?”
In comparison to the bulky, rippling pecks of the male bodybuilders, James Gleason’s fragile frame looks woefully subhuman. We do giggle at his humiliation as these grade-A specimens haul him out to the playing field, but I think we also cringe a little.
As someone who was recurrently picked last in gym class (in spite of my superior strategic talent in Capture the Flag), I dread the thought that some day a bunch of physically fit loonies will grab me and make me atone for my sins with public perspiration. Society needs dorks, shysters, molls, runts, and rejects, too. And who’s to say what constitutes being a reject? (And if you said ‘having a blog,’ I will come and get you.)
Most important, if you went to see Search for Beauty, you’re probably much more likely to relate to the venal con artists than to identify with the unattainably flawless protagonists. The barbarism of groupthink glints in the otherwise harmless display of just desserts at the conclusion.
Maybe we should we take it all in stride and emerge a little wiser to the evils of both extremes. If the pre-Code era had one virtue, it was the ability to make us aware of serious things, while refusing to be serious about them.
So, watch Search for Beauty and chew on its moral tangle. Because I know you’re not the kind of reader who comes to my blog merely for ripped dudes and dames. Wink, wink.
Well, let’s see what hunky dude Nitrate Diva’s writing about this week!
And if you find a weirder, raunchier, more problematic pre-Code movie than this one, I want to hear about it!