Search for Beauty (1934)

US / 79 minutes / bw / Paramount Dir: Erle C. Kenton Pr: E. Lloyd Sheldon Scr: Frank Butler, Claude Binyon, Sam Hellman Story: David Boehm, Maurine Watkins, based on a possibly unproduced play by Schuyler E. Grey and Paul R. Milton Cine: Harry Fischbeck Cast: Larry “Buster” Crabbe, Ida Lupino, Robert Armstrong, James Gleason, Toby Wing, Gertrude Michael, Bradley Page, Frank McGlynn Sr, Nora Cecil, Virginia Hammond, Eddie Gribbon, “Pop” Kenton, Colin Tapley, Donald Gray, Ann Sheridan.

Search for Beauty 0 opener

Search for Beauty 0a other opener

Fresh out of jail, Jean Strange (Michael) is not interested in hearing any more about the “great ideas” of fellow con artist Larry Williams (Armstrong): after all, it was one of his “great ideas” that got her into the jail in the first place. But he’s persistent:

Larry: “Won’t you please listen to me? This is so honest it’s disgusting. What’s the most sought-after thing in the country today?”
Jean: “A medium-price giraffe.”

As they travel by train to the big city, sharing a sleeping compartment (although not a berth), he keeps up the pressure despite her skepticism. This time his “great idea” can’t—just can’t—get them into trouble with the cops:

Larry: “That’s where we start—Los Angeles, at the Olympic Games. . . . All the countries of the world send their best physical specimens, and we step in and take our pick.”
Jean: “Pick of what? No pockets in running suits, are there?”

Search for Beauty 1 Trainbound Larry talks Jean into idea

Entrained, Larry (Robert Armstrong) talks Jean (Gertrude Michael) into taking part in his latest scam.

The idea is to buy the defunct fitness magazine Health and Exercise, persuade a couple of world-famous athletes to act as its editors, and then relaunch it filled with pictures of attractive young people dressed in such a way as to show as many as possible of the benefits of health and exercise.

Jean agrees it’s a good idea after all, and they rope in as money man Dan Healy (Gleason), who was their partner in the last job but was lucky enough not to be caught. The Olympics Gold athletes they coax into the editorships are the US 400m swimmer Don Jackson (Crabbe) and the UK high diver Barbara Hilton (Lupino).

Search for Beauty 3 Jean talks Barbara into the scheme

Jean (Gertrude Michael) in turn talks young diver Barbara into the scheme.

For a time things go adequately, but the two young people, who’re much in love, grow increasingly restive about the contents of the magazine. Moreover, Barbara’s becoming jealous about the attentions Don seems to be showing Jean . . . and no wonder, because Gertrude Michael puts on a magnificent display of vampish allure. When Don finally blows up about the saucy photos, Larry tells him they’re needed for the purposes of building circulation. Don counters with a circulation-building idea of his own: “A universal contest for The Body Beautiful, sponsored by Health and Exercise.”

Search for Beauty 5 insert wherever

Larry recognizes the potential of this in terms of publicity and marketing (lots of models for saucy photos!) as well as another advantage: he can send Don on a world tour to judge national qualifying contests and thereby get him out from underfoot:

Larry: “While he’s gone . . . we’ll get out a real magazine.”
Dan: “Hot?”
Larry: “Hot? You could fry an egg on it.”

Search for Beauty 4 Larry (r) tells Dan how it's gonna be

Larry (Robert Armstrong) tells Dan (James Gleason) how it’s gonna be.

In Don’s absence the magazine gets sleazier and sleazier. When Barbara complains, she’s told that every one of the True Confessions stories it’s now running has been vetted by “a board of the highest standard: a preacher, a teacher, and a Park Avenue society dame.” The preacher, the Reverend Rankin (McGlynn), we very much later discover is not a preacher at all; even so, he’s on the side of the angels and backs Barbara. On the other hand, the teacher, spinsterish Miss Pettigrew (Cecil, in wonderful form), and the “society dame,” Mrs. Archibald Henderson-James (Hammond), positively relish the salacity.

Search for Beauty 6 Miss Pettigrew

Miss Pettigrew (Nora Cecil).

Search for Beauty 7 Barbara ain't happy with editorial board

It’s obvious that Barbara (Ida Lupino) ain’t overwhelmingly happy with Miss Pettigrew and the rest of the editorial board.

When Barbara catches her dimwitted cousin Sally Palmer (Wing) and another girl (uncredited) salivating over the latest True Confession, it’s the final straw. She summons Dan back. Between them they hatch a notion. With the magazine, Larry and Dan bought the previous owner’s health farm and hotel, Health Acres, now a run-down dump. With the two athletes’ names behind it, it could become a world-famous resort for fitness freaks. They talk Larry and Dan into the idea of giving them 51% control of the farm and $10,000 to fix it up in exchange for their resignations from the magazine. Their first set of guests will be the Body Beautiful contest winners, who with luck might be persuaded to stay on as instructors.

Search for Beauty 8 Sally gets turned on by latest sleazy 'confession'

Sally (Toby Wing) dreamily appreciating the literary qualities of the latest sleazy “confession.”

No sooner has the deal been made than Larry and Dan realize the possibilities. (As Dan says of Don, “That guy could fall down a sewer and come up wit’ a bottle of poifume in each hand.”) Using photos of the contest winners (depressingly, all of them are scrupulously white), they can paint Health Acres as essentially a knocking shop. And so the hotel’s first night is sold out to squads of drunken old farts and ageing dames, who watch the Busby Berkeley-style gala presentation, Symphony of Health, as they impatiently wait for the partying and, er, knocking to begin . . .

Search for Beauty 10 The posted house rules at Health Acres

There are house rules?

I came across this billed as a comedy-crime movie. Really, even though three of the principal characters have been criminals in the past, there’s no crime involved: it’s purely a comedy. As such, I’d probably have regarded it as a wasted watch, so far as this site is concerned, had it not been for the presence of Ida Lupino, one of the most important figures (I contend) in the history of film noir, in the capacity of writer, director and (as here) actor. Of course, this is one of her earlier movies and her first Hollywood starring role (it was released two days before her 16th birthday), and it offers her no opportunity to bring the kind of depth to her character that later made her such an impressive player, but it’s still of some interest. It’s pleasing to hear her speak in the accent of her native London; all too easy to forget she was a Brit.

The movie, much like Health and Exercise magazine, is quite surprisingly racy in places, complete with a few naked bottoms as male Olympic athletes scamper to the showers. When Jean checks out the handsomeness of a trunks-clad Don through a pair of binoculars, her focus is not on his face. The rear views of the shorts that the female Body Beautiful champions wear for the Symphony of Health and afterwards don’t leave a whole lot to the imagination. (Thank heaven for pause buttons so I could check I had this datum correct. Yep, I was right: very little imagination required. But lemme just check again . . .) And the symbolism of the section of the gala wherein the men wield javelins and the females wield hoops doesn’t bear thinking about.

Search for Beauty 2 Jean appraises Don (later)

Jean evaluates Don (Buster Crabbe).

For the most part, all this cheekiness is in its way quite innocent. There’s one sequence, though, where it gets a bit ugly. A boozy Health Acres guest called Joey Garrett (Page) persuades Sally that he’s a producer who might have a role for her in a Broadway musical, and suggests she demonstrate her dancing skills for the benefit of him and a few of his equally odious friends at “a little party” in the hotel. Barbara appears on the scene and, to rescue the by now scantily clad Sally, takes her place. When, soon after, she tries to leave she’s forcibly restrained, and it’s clear Joey and his pals have more than just tabletop dancing in mind. The sordidness might seem okay in a drama, but in a comedy it seems woefully out of place and leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

There’s a major irony involved in this movie. Larry and Dan (and to a lesser extent Jean) are being castigated because they used a dubious international beauty contest for both publicity and the opportunity to use sexy images of the finalists as a lure. Yet this is exactly what Paramount did: it mounted an international beauty contest and put the winners into a racy movie in which they ran around wearing not so much. It was a movie that, just a few months later, could not have been released: the infamous Code came into being later in the year.

Search for Beauty 9 Jean uses lures on Dan

Jean (Gertrude Michael) uses her feminine wiles on Don.

In a way, of course, the (real-life, all-white) contest and the ensuing movie constituted a cheap and publicity-friendly way for Paramount to do a lot of screen tests of likely candidates. Some of those candidates did indeed go on to have significant screen careers, and some have noirish interest. Among those whom I spotted (and I probably missed lots) were Colin Tapley (who has a decent speaking part), Tapley’s great friend Donald Gray (referred to in dialogue by his real surname, Tidbury; my piece on his 1961 movie Out of the Shadow will be posted here soonish), Lynn Bari and an actress to whom Susan Doll refers in her otherwise excellent TCM.com article about the movie:

Lupino befriended one of the winners, Clara Lou Sheridan, a former teacher from Texas. Whether Sheridan landed a contract or not is not known, but apparently Hollywood was too unsettling for her, and she returned home after the film was completed.

In fact, Clara Lou Sheridan rebranded herself as Ann Sheridan and stuck around for quite a while.

Search for Beauty 11 Extract from the Symphony of Health

An extract from the Symphony of Health gala presentation.

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This is a contribution toward Rich Westwood’s “Crimes of the Century” feature on his Past Offences blog. The year chosen for consideration in June 2015 is 1934.

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14 thoughts on “Search for Beauty (1934)

  1. This is a great idea on Paramount’s part, to screen new talent. It would be interesting to see Ida Lupino in such an early role.

    The film also sounds like a a lot of fun. Love the premise!

    • Many thanks for calling by!

      It would be interesting to see Ida Lupino in such an early role.

      That for me was the big attraction. It was fascinating to see her filling the role of the Cute Young Blonde (and doing it pretty well) rather than relying on her astonishing acting talent, as in so many wonderful later movies.

      That said, to a great extent it’s Gertrude Michael who steals the show.

  2. Sounds like this potentially objectionable movie got in just under the gun, before the Hays Code were able to use their scissors, but still your review wasn’t any kind of a promotion. but then again you did not some worthwhile aspects including a few of the performances. Excellent writing here John!

  3. Looks like good fun, thanks John, not come across it before – the quality of those still looks really high too so looks like it’s in pretty decent nick too – always a plus!

  4. I caught this movie a few years ago, and thought it was fascinating and accomplished, as well as very timely for us. Of course, it is deeply fascist, too, positively Hitler Youth in fact, as a focus on appearances to the exclusion of all else always is. The 1934 date is no accident!

    Culturally, we have arrived at this moment again, in our time of female Kardashian clones and male spornosexuals. And look, I say this as a gay guy who’s a fashion hound and was a dedicated gym rat in my 30s and 40s (lately, I’ve gotten lazy). But I think we are in a bleak place, which this 81-year-old movie describes rather precisely. It’s not just about looking nice and dressing well. Rather, it is about a certain combination of aggressive sexuality and flaunted financial status. To care about anything other than money and appearance is perceived as a bloody waste of time.

    Of course, the sexuality is a tease – it poses as availability but is actually complete non-availability, because who could possibly be good enough to “be with” specimens so perfect? No one at all. They undoubtedly spend most of their time getting off on themselves. Perfection is not actually attractive, in the precise meaning of that word; rather, it keeps other people at arm’s length, which is where they are supposed to be. This is not about getting laid, no matter what people may think.

    There is a huge mall called Antea near my home in Queretaro, Mexico, which has no bookstores, pet stores, hobby stores, drugstores, or emporia for practicalities. It is all clothing stores, beauty stores, supplements outlets, high-end home furnishings places – in other words, it is, by design, virtually 100% dedicated to appearances, superficial in the precise meaning of THAT word. I would defy anyone to find bound printed matter for sale anywhere on the premises.

    This is the future, and it is ripe for fascist politics. European fascism was to a very large extent about perfection of presentation, about being fabulous – check out Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” or “Olympia.” And here we are again.

  5. Pingback: ‘The more I read of the Golden Age’ #1934book results | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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