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Rancid Popcorn » Search For Beauty

Search For Beauty

Search For Beauty (Erle Kenton, 1934)

Search For Beauty is available on DVD in the newish “Pre-Code Hollywood Collection” from Universal. It teaches us that somewhere between Busby Berkeley and Leni Riefenstahl, there lives Erle C. Kenton.

Erle directed one certifiable classic before this, Island of Lost Souls, which come to think of it isn’t a million miles away from eugenics in it’s own right. He went on to herd some of the last classic Universal horror dogs and cats (like Ghost of Frankenstein). Here, in Search For Beauty, he’s got a comedy about con man Robert Armstrong trying to make a dishonest buck in the health and beauty game. To that end, he tricks 1932 Olympic swimmers Buster Crabbe and Ida Lupino into fronting the magazine he’s just acquired. With the magazine comes a hotel/health retreat that Buster makes his mission – he recruits the most physically fit young people from around the world to staff the Health Retreat.

When I say “around the world”, I mean white, english-speaking countries naturally. No one with color, a degree of swarthiness, or even a terribly deep tan need apply. Having gathered his Aryan nation, he gives the hotel a Grand Opening, featuring a fitness exhibition of his ever-so-fit, ever-so-white exercising shock troops. The film turns semi-musical, for this show, with music provided by the USC marching band. And so, the spirits of both Berkeley and Riefenstahl (and ol’ Joe Goebbels) are served:

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Yeah, look at all those nations represented in this “International” casting – man, not even the French get a look, and they’re allies.

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The top hat n’ tails, old caucasian rich folk getting catered to in this establishment.

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Natty Buster Crabbe, the one-time Tarzan and future Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, introduces his parade of international purebloods. The women, being athletes, naturally don’t wear bras. The men wear shorts that appear to have been designed by someone who was dreaming on the future invention of lycra. Actually, I suspect the men were cast for their genuine athletic appearance and the women for their ability to not wear a bra.

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Dig the anatomically correct, au naturel statuary in the back. Lily-white of course, no gray plaster/marble for these folks. Those would be mongrel statues (I know, I’m pushing it. Can’t be helped, sorry).

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Words fail. So I’ll not add any.

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The girls get hollow circles and the boys get long sticks. I for one can’t fathom what this might symbolize!

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Stab those circles with your sticks, men! Stab them!

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The Buster Crabbe Youth conclude by kneeling before their masters, placing their Health and Beauty at the audiences’ disposal.

I just wish Jesse Owens would show up and challenge these guys to a race.

And to finish where I started, I don’t really mean to hang this Aryan wet dream around poor Erle Kenton’s neck – he’s a hired gun, he gets the script, he shoots the thing. So y’know, apologies to his heirs and all, but someone’s gotta take the fall for all this.

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Let’s see, what else can we take away from Search For Beauty? Well, this is my second time seeing Ida Lupino as a young blonde ingenue (the other being Anything Goes). She’s pretty ineffectual at this sort of thing, and you would never in a million years guess at the hard-as-nails brunette she was to turn into in just a few years, such as in Moontide below. A startling transformation, not just of look but of Star Quality – from boring to fantastic, with a change of hair color?

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Gertrude Michaels is another high point – she takes the acting honors, playing the wisegal tough broad helping Robert Armstrong scam Crabbe and Lupino. Wise is the word, too – she’s got the same script everyone else has, but she’s the only one making a play for anything like subtlety or multi-dimensional characterization. Ahead of her time, at least on this production. The disc I viewed the film on shares space with Murder at the Vanities, a precode Mitch Leisen musical comedy in which Gertrude once again plays the bad girl. She should have gone on to bigger and better.

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Lastly, there’s this: Towelsnapping! I bet you didn’t know that in the locker rooms of the Olympic Games, competitors from around the world went around snapping towels at their naked pals and chasing each other through the showers in the altogether.

Well now you do.

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