Sunday, August 3, 2014

Search for Beauty (1934)

Director: Erle C. Kenton                                 Writers: Claude Binyon & Frank Butler
Music: John Leipold                                       Cinematography: Harry Fishbeck
Starring: Ida Lupino, Robert Armstrong, James Gleason and Buster Crabbe

By the time he became associated with Universal’s horror films of the 1940s, director Erle C. Kenton had already had a lengthy career in Hollywood, most notably as the director of comedy shorts for Mack Sennett, but also helming films in a number of genres at a number of other studios including this one for Paramount. Search for Beauty is a pre-code romp, with an exercise and fitness angle to get plenty of semi-nude men and women on the screen in the locker room, as well as braless women in swimsuits. Paramount used its U.S.-U.K. talent search as part of the film, but the real controversy in the screenplay is the implication that the young athletes are ultimately going to be used as prostitutes. Kenton’s direction is very interesting, with the moving camera shots used for comic takes on gags and close ups, contrasting sharply with the rest of his setups. But what’s most fascinating is the Busby Berkeley type production number at the end with the male and female chorus lines doing an athletic inspired routine. Kenton uses some great camera positions and angles.

The film begins with a great sight gag, Robert Armstrong getting dressed in front of a mirror, asking for items from his butler. Turns out, he’s actually leaving prison. Gertrude Michael is released from the woman’s prison at the same time, and wants nothing more to do with Armstrong’s scams. But he talks her into going in with him on a running a health and fitness magazine. The angle is to use pictures of scantily clad men and women exercising to get around decency laws and clean up on subscriptions. They also plan on getting big names to write articles for them and begin at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. They get Ida Lupino, the high dive winner from Great Britain, and Buster Crabbe, a swimmer from the United States, who just happen to like each other. James Gleason is the moneyman who provides the bankroll to get started, but Crabbe is not happy with the emphasis on gimmicks to increase circulation. When he suggests an international beauty contest to find the perfect male and female specimens, Armstrong flips for the idea. Not because of the idea, but because it will get Crabbe out of town so that they can change the magazine to include more salacious content.

When Crabbe finds out he confronts Armstrong and Gleason, and they buy him and Lupino off by selling them controlling interest in an old hotel. But when they learn that Crabbe plans to promote the place by holding the beauty contest there, they use Michael to worm their way back in, and driving a wedge between Crabbe and Lupino in the process. Ida Lupino is absolutely enchanting. She had only done a half dozen pictures in England and this was her first Hollywood film. She has a wonderful thirties look about her, almost unrecognizable from her more gaunt countenance of the forties, and she’s also quite a terrific dancer. Buster Crabbe, on the other hand, is a horrible actor, more fitting for Tarzan the Fearless than this. Bad enough that he seems completely asexual, but then to make him the romantic lead comes off as utterly false. The real anchors of the film, however, are Robert Armstrong and James Gleason. They work the screen like veterans in a vaudeville act. It’s repetitive and wears thin at times, but it is amusing. Gertrude Michael is the real surprise here, a quirky looking woman who had a long career as a supporting actress. She’s confident and tough, and plays a great vamp. Search for Beauty is definitely an interesting film, a little corny, but a must for fans of Ida Lupino.

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