Before the creation of censorship guidelines, Hollywood loved its lascivious stories. And while not every “pre-code” film is a winner, SEARCH FOR BEAUTY (1934) is a stunner, complete with laugh-out loud lines…and even naked butts!
The story follows three hapless ex-cons (brilliantly played by James Gleason, Robert Armstrong, and Gertrude Michael) who are looking to get into something “legit.” They buy a defunct business operation that includes a health magazine and a spa facility, referencing the notoriety of real-life health guru/pulp publisher Bernarr MacFadden (who is a full story in himself).
The cons attend an Olympics competition and are inspired by the bodies beautiful of Ida Lupino, a champion diver, almost unrecognizable with bleached blonde and Harlow eyebrows, and hottie Buster Crabbe, U.S. Olympic swimmer. Crabbe is delightfully innocent as Don Jackson, who makes a plea to the audience cheering the receipt of his gold medal, “You guys in the seats! Get out of the stands and exercise!”
The cons get the idea to recruit the athletes as their magazine editors to give their new “health” publication credibility. In reality though, they’re looking to market a beefcake and cheesecake rag.
While the cons start working on their ruse, they send Crabbe on a global tour to find the most beautiful bodies in the world. After coming up with a boatload of healthy and bright bathing beauties, Crabbe and Lupino quickly discover the cons’ true motive and make a deal to get out their contract. The cons negotiate and Crabbe and Lupino end up with the dilapidated health farm. But Crabbe has a big vision that he can make a spa a viable operation.
Unfortunately, trouble ensues when the cons cut back into Crabbe’s business and promote the health farm as a sexcapade getaway.
The film is funny , filled with great lines like, “You can’t treat our guests like a bunch of Bo-Hunks in a box car,” but it does border on creepy when the masher guests (both male and female) start soliciting their innocent trainers for sex. A scene in one of the hotel rooms is a disturbing cautionary tale for the “good girls” out there. “I have nothing against sex,” one of the cons says, “Either you have it or you’re looking for it.”
Not every pre-code movie is a crowd pleaser, but check out this inspired production number for opening night at the fat farm. Get ready to work out!
COLLECTION NOTES: Every film fan needs a good collection of pre-code films and they’re readily available. Warner Bros., with TCM, released “Forbidden Hollywood Collection” in 2006, and just recently Sony and TCM have recently released “Columbia Picture Pre-Code Collection” and “Frank Capra: The Early Collection.” Go to TCM for for a look.