There’s TWO pre-code sets out for spring: Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 3 and this week comes the Pre-Code Hollywood set from Universal. None of the films quite measure up to the greats, many of which are still missing from DVD: RED DUST, SHANGHAI EXPRESS, DISHONORED, and if it wasn’t for the risque shock of it all, they’d be nothing terrible awesome, but no doubt they’re worth it anyway, just for the fact that they are there. God bless those brave decadent souls, soon to be cut down by the machine gun of Charles B. Middleton as Joseph Breen. You can feel the rage on both sides all through these code films, the sly subversion of the moral crusader’s every edict. (I wonder just how dirty these films would actually bother to be if not for the moral crusaders telling them not to).
SEARCH FOR BEAUTY is a classic example, a sly send-up of the exercise and fitness set, decked out in quazi-eugenic overtones, with a young Buster Crabbe as an Olympic swimmer and good-natured exercise ubermensch who gets roped into endorsing Robert Armstrong’s sleazy “fitness” magazine. Under Crabbe’s stern watch, the mag’s on the level, but once he’s off judging perfect man competitions, Armstrong and his sleazy cohorts turn it into a lurid romance rag, all innocent cheesecake (with pics of men and women who are “perfect specimens” and lurid stories about East Village artists seducing stenographers over their lunch break) but it’s all contrary to Buster’s vision of perfect health and fitness. He finds it all too decadent. Like an embodiment of the code itself, Buster must use every inch of his American sincerity and love of health to subdue the agents of vice and lethargy!
You can’t fault a movie for being a Nazi parable (the gymnastic musical number would be right at home in TRIUMPH OF THE WILL) if it came out before the war, but no one’s looking to find fault anyway; it’s just good fun and also a parable of the code which we can all rally against in good faith. Joseph Breen, like Hitler, was a seething racist and anti-Semite, so the Borscht Belt Runyonesqueness of Armstrong and his cohorts seem designed specifically to enrage him. Buster and his girl (Ida Lupino, unrecognizable in blonde hair and British accent) and their legions of muscular brothers and sisters (From the United States and the United Kingdom!) gleefully employ a barrage of health fad gestapo tactics against their louche business partners. The partners are basically pimps and the perfect specimens their unwitting wares. Luring rich sleazeballs out to a country manor $300 a week health spa with the empty promise of late night “personal” training sessions, the partners are happy and the drunken horndog clients all aleer and aslaver, but Buster has other ideas, including enforcing his six AM wake-up call for morning calisthenics– through force if necessary. The sight of these Aryan supermen and women lifting the crooked old swindlers up out of bed and compelling them into the sunlight to do stretches is many things: a) a metaphor of U.S.-British imperialism, b) a semi-funny satire of America’s endless see-saw between over-indulgence and prohibition and c) a send-up of the code itself, a copy of which is included in the set.
The code is hilarious to read, and valuable in the hand-typed memo form in which it is included. If you’ve ever received a thick memo of guidelines from some new job, you know the weird mix of subservience (you’re happy to have a job) and outrage (how dare they harness your art to their hypocritical morality) that comes with reading a new set of ‘guidelines.’ The code existed, after all, prior to June 1934, it was just never strictly enforced. But the moral crusaders were as bad or worse than they are now, and you can feel the passive aggressive rage against them in the story line, while at the same time you don’t really come away liking either side. The sleaze merchants are funny but not ha-ha funny, more like you’re mentally casting Nathan Lane and imagining the whole thing revived on Broadway ala the Producers funny. And the fitness kids aren’t really bland, just personal trainer cheerful and completely mad with power. The body vs. the mind in an endless war is a good idea, but where does it go?
The end result here is not that the shady swindlers get fit and happy, it’s that now they can endlessly complain about unfairness, rather than having to motivate themselves to exercise. Fitness = happiness = blandness. It’s our misery that makes us interesting. The first words you say as a child are usually negative critiques, complaints and denials. The ego hates the cleansing touch of naturally-occuring endorphins. It’s the endless war of self-discipline, of being too tired to move after work even as your legs are twitching to go. Happiness is seldom remembered happily, while misery is remembered with happiness. We drag ourselves to therapy and yoga, but go whistling gaily to our drug and diseases-addled decay. But all of it is ultimately transient. The only way you can ever lose a war is to pick a side. The tie game is perfect score, Grasshoppers! Now hit the showers!
(Thanks to Gary Tooze of Dvd Beaver for the groovy photos, read his review of the whole set here)