Search for Beauty

by Glenn Erickson Jun 13, 2023

We like to defend pre-Code movies at CineSavant, but this one is almost pure Smut — or at least what passed for smut in 1934. It concerns a sleazy Health magazine with a sleazy ‘perfect body’ contest promotion . . . and Paramount’s publicity people used a similar contest to promote the movie. Robert Armstrong and James Gleason handle the raunchy comedy while virtuous Olympian Buster Crabbe and imported London starlet Ida Lupino stand up for good morals. Get ready for a 78-minute flesh & jiggle display, from (gasp) 89 years in the past.

Search for Beauty
KL Studio Classics
1934 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 78 min. / Street Date April 18, 2023 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe, Ida Lupino, Robert Armstrong, James Gleason, Toby Wing , Gertrude Michael, Bradley Page, Frank McGlynn Sr., Lynn Bari, Roscoe Karns, Ann Sheridan.
Cinematography: Harry Fischbeck
Costumes: Travis Banton
Art Directors: Hans Dreier, John B. Goodman
Film Editor: James Smith
Original Music: John Leipold
Screenplay by Frank Butler, Claude Binyon, dialogue by Sam Hellman, story by David Boehm, Maurine Dallas Watkins from a play by Schuyler E. Grey, Paul Milton
Produced (uncredited) by Emanuel Cohen, E. Lloyd Sheldon
Directed by
Erle C. Kenton

We love it when pre-Code movies get frisky — back in 1933 a bit of skin or a naughty line of dialogue really meant something. Many pre-Codes had something relevant to say, but for every picture with an interesting progressive idea, there were two that over-indulged in teasing, provocative hanky-panky. You know, the kind of direction that sees a dialogue scene as an opportunity to show Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell changing into scanty nightgowns.

We’re told that all this sidestepping of the censors was partly motivated by Depression economics. Paying customers had to be lured back into the theaters, or the town would go bust. Search for Beauty was released in February 1934, when Production Code enforcement was just a couple of months away: risqué film content was about to go extinct. Overseers would soon be monitoring exactly what women could and couldn’t wear in a movie, and nixing saucy dialogue. Paramount had to curb the excesses of its very profitable Mae West comedies, whose sophisticated sex jokes infuriated the censor blue-noses. If racy comedies and musicals ceased to be, what would happen to the steady flow of starlets that fed the Hollywood glamour machine?  The town was built on a foundation called the Double Standard.

A number of Paramount pre-Codes featured near or partial nudity, sometimes in an ‘artistic’ or theatrical context. International House still dazzles with its showgirls in cellophane tops, and Murder at the Vanities features tacky femme displays direct from Earl Carroll’s stable of showgirls.


Search for Beauty can’t make much of a case for social relevance . . . ‘truly trashy’ is more accurate. Its filmmakers whip up a voyeuristic fantasy, exploiting the ‘sex sells’ message they claim to criticize. Other risqué pre-Code pictures used the freedom of the screen for legit dramatic purposes (The Story of Temple Drake) or were so dazzlingly entertaining that the sex angle is just icing on the cake (Footlight Parade). Search for Beauty’s main lure is the spectacle of its own hypocritical vulgarity.

Fresh from prison, flim-flam artists Larry Williams and Jean Strange (Robert Armstrong & Gertrude Michael) sell a new scam to their investor Dan Healy (James Gleason). Noting the ‘Health and Fitness’ craze inspired by the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, they launch a sleazy ‘exercise and health’ magazine, and establish its credibility by signing on as editors two idealistic young Olympic champions. Don Jackson (real Gold Medal swimmer Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe) and English high diver Barbara Hilton (Ida Lupino) busy themselves with a contest to promote the magazine, soliciting ‘body beautiful’ people from all over the U.S. and the U.K.. But behind their backs the magazine is transformed into a salacious excuse to show skin and tell hot stories illustrated with sexy pictures. Healy especially likes features with photos of his vivacious but not-too-bright secretary Sally Palmer (Toby Wing), who happens to be Barbara’s cousin.


Barbara and Don must oppose their partners just to save their own reputations. They transform an abandoned hotel into a fancy exercise-themed lifestyle destination, and hire the magazine’s contest winners to serve as physical fitness experts. Still working a crooked angle, Jean Strange tries to seduce Don, much to Barbara’s chagrin. The deceitful Williams and Healy lure a pack of dirty old men and spoiled rich women to the hotel’s grand opening, with promises of hanky panky with the beautiful athletes. The decadent guests encounter a holiday more like a boot camp: Don’s Body Beautiful Corps makes everyone get up at 6:30 am for calisthenics and enforces a strict curfew.

The verbal jokes in Search for Beauty aren’t very witty, although Robert Armstrong and Gertrude Michaels deliver them fairly well. The comedy material for James Gleason’s pea-brained con man isn’t even Burlesque quality. Most every scene focuses on something licentious. Special consideration is given to the magazine’s racy photo shoots. Dan Healy’s idea of a proper photo article is the assembling of a perfect woman, by shooting ‘the best parts’ of several models. The ‘show your gams’ audition cliché of a woman hiking her skirt up higher and higher is given a graphic workout. Watching from afar at a swimming meet, Jean’s binocular POV zeroes in on Don’s groin.

At the grand opening of the Health Hotel, Don and Barbara entertain the assembled guests with a gala musical revue in which synchronized drills and choreographed calisthenics substitute for actual dancing. The female athletes do plenty of marching, dancing and touch-your-toes windmills in light elastic tops that, as the saying goes, don’t hide much. Everyone’s covered, but despite the Health theme it’s still an anatomically-correct sex show. The camerawork apes the style of Busby Berkeley. The formations of athletes are tight, but instead of a great song or polished dancing, the focus is on the revealing costumes.


Among the vitamin-enriched exercise-ettes can be found Joyzelle Joyner, who two years previous danced the ‘Dance of the Naked Moon’ in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross. We didn’t spot Joyner or future star Lynn Bari, but it’s fairly easy to identify a young Ann Sheridan, who is announced as the contest-winning “Athlete from Texas.”

Don’s 10 pm curfew comes and goes, but the guests hustled by Williams and Healy, all out-of-shape lotharios and libertines, attempt to turn the health retreat into Orgy Central. The impressionable Sally is easily talked into dancing on a table in her lingerie. (top image  ) To save her cousin from a fate worse than death, Barbara takes her place and dances in her silk pajamas. But Don’s perfect-specimen body-beautiful athletes don’t cooperate with the boozing guests. Too pure for the booze or the sex, the male athletes instead parade around shirtless with big smiles on their faces, like they know a secret we don’t.

The main criticism of Search for Beauty cites its hypocrisy about ‘good morals,’ especially in terms of Paramount’s promotion. Just like the fictional athletes in the movie, the film’s squadron of handsome men and beautiful women extras were solicited through a ‘come to Hollywood’ studio contest. They all get walk-ons (or march-ons) in the show and a chance to flash their smiles. But we perhaps can thank pre-Code excess for the career of one of our favorite stars: as ‘Clara Lou Sheridan,’ Texan Ann Sheridan was indeed discovered in the contest and won a Paramount contract.


The Nitrate Diva’s 2013 article No Pain, No Gain: Search for Beauty suggests that the film’s ‘fitness corps’ imagery has a cultural connection with then-current trends in Nazi Germany. The choreographed exercises that substitute for a Busby Berkeley-like musical number do indeed resemble the aesthetic of Leni Riefenstahl’s cinematic odes to Adolf Hitler. There’s likely no direct connection, but the regimented movements of the uniformly white athletes, all wearing matching sports outfits, are aesthetically compatible with Riefenstahl’s adoring odes to ‘Aryan’ superiority.

 Everyone notes the gym locker room scene that features several naked males and gives us the spectacle of Buster Crabbe stripping under a brief shower towel. That imagery also conjures German art photography from the 1930s, celebrating the natural perfection of the human body. Don Jackson’s ‘Health Hotel,’ where people are bullied into conforming to a regimented exercise schedule, is uncomfortably similar to Germany’s mass youth programs of the time. These ‘Perfect, Incorruptible People’ have a natural right to force lesser people to conform to their higher standard.

It’s highly unlikely that Hollywood wanted anything beyond filling theaters with paying ticket holders. Only a handful of movies carry strong endorsements of Fascist ideas. MGM’s 1932 Gabriel Over the White House is obvious — it’s about a President who solves America’s problems by establishing a dictatorship under martial law. The other example is a Paramount release from 1933, Cecil B. DeMille’s anti-crime harangue This Day and Age. Although its screenplay defends the rights of timid Jewish shopkeepers, mob vigilantism is touted as the best prescription for gangland lawlessness. College kids kidnap and torture the hoodlum villain, in a night rally that looks like contemporary German newsreels of book burnings.

We’re convinced that Paramount was forced to rush the trashy Search for Beauty into theaters, and then withdraw it from circulation when Code Enforcement came in. Studios censored some pre-Codes for reissue (Love Me Tonight,  Arrowsmith) but shelved other films that couldn’t be cleaned up with a cut or two. If Search was one of the titles shelved and not reissued, its undisturbed film elements might account for the pristine appearance of Kino’s new digital remaster.


The film’s cast is interesting it itself. Buster Crabbe became a celebrity at the Olympics but was in several movies prior to winning his medals. Before Search for Beauty he played Tarzan for the independent producer Sol Lesser. His biggest fame came as the impossibly handsome space opera heroes Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Crabbe has the impressive swimmer’s physique and a pleasant personality. He doesn’t quite yet know how to deliver a line, and sounds as if he came straight from diction lessons. But he’s definitely enthusiastic and wholesome-looking.

Could Ida Lupino really have been only 16 when Search for Beauty was filmed?  We barely recognize her — she only intermittently resembles the later star of High Sierra or even Peter Ibbetson, made just one year later. Ida Lupino’s take-charge athlete character outfoxes a trio of con artists and dances on a table to save her younger, foolish sister. Lupino showed similar resilience in her business affairs, winning good roles at Warners and carving out a career as a director. For years she was Hollywood’s only woman director.

 Toby Wing never became a first-rank star yet made her mark as a noted Hollywood sex symbol. As a featured showgirl in Busby Berkeley musicals she neither danced nor sang, but mainly smiled while showing off her platinum hair. Ms. Wing’s Sally has a few dialogue lines here, most punctuated with a giggle. Her party dance is definitely hot, but just more of a tease — Search doesn’t have any actual sex encounters or hands-on lovemaking.

The trio of con artists begin as potential pornographers, and then graduate to pimping out the athletes to their wealthy but unsavory associates. As noted above, James Gleason is the clownish member of the scheme. It’s not much of a role for the talented writer-actor (Here Comes Mr. Jordan,  The Night of the Hunter). Robert Armstrong’s ‘big idea’ trickster is a low-rent Carl Denham, continually coming up with a new shady way to make money.


 Gertrude Michael was better known on stage than in film, where she occasionally gained attention in supporting roles (Caged,  Flamingo Road). But she’s a shoo-in for the pre-Code Hall of Fame, for belting out the immortal tune “Sweet Marijuana” in the naughty musical Murder at the Vanities.

Proof that Paramount knew exactly what they were promoting comes in a newspaper advertisement for the film’s original Los Angeles run. Most of the ad space promotes not the movie, but the accompanying floor show, featuring the famed fan dancer Sally Rand.  The truth be told, Sally Rand is probably too classy for Search for Beauty.


The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Search for Beauty is remastered in 2K and appears to come from prime elements — not too many restored pictures from the Paramount/MCA library look this good. Even the many optical montages are bright and relatively grain-free. The sound is in excellent shape as well, and the HD clarity is way above the norm.

The editing has several errors rarely seen in Hollywood movies — at least twice, a shot ends with a character silently mouthing two or three words of his next dialogue line; across a cut the speaker says the line afresh, with audio. Studio editors could be inelegant, but they almost never made continuity mistakes of that kind.

The extras include some trailers and a full commentary from Lee Gambin and Emma Westwood, Melbourne-based film writers that provide a spirited conversational track responding to the smarmy-fun pre-Code splendors of Search for Beauty. Their accents seemed stronger than usual, and I occasionally had to concentrate to follow, but their talk provides a good roundup of facts, background context and opinion. They also touch on the film’s appeal as ‘quasi-Aryan’ eye candy. The big question would seem to be, would young Nazi Germany welcome Search for Beauty as compatible with the National Socialist ethos — or would party censors consider it immoral and decadent?

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Search for Beauty
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good — but mainly as a salacious curio
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio commentary by Lee Gambin and Emma Westwood
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
June 7, 2023

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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