As a New York Times review explains, Search is the payoff of a publicity stunt Paramount Pictures perpetrated in 1933. The studio sought out the most perfect physical specimens, male and female (whites only, of course) in the English-speaking world in order to recruit them for pictures. They ended up getting no mention individually in the opening credits, being listed only as the 30 contest winners, but they are prominently placed throughout the picture. They provide the bulk of the beefcake and cheesecake in the picture, with more beef than cheese on display because the boys can go topless -- and bottomless in one locker-room scene. The women are more modest, though one can tell that they aren't wearing bras beneath their one-piece uniforms.
Larry "Buster" Crabbe and teenaged Ida Lupino as Olympic gold medalists (Crabbe was one in real life) who are hired as celebrity editors of a health-and-fitness magazine whose new publishers -- including ex-con Robert Armstrong in dumbed-down Carl Denham mode -- see the venture as a vehicle for sexy pictures of scantily clad specimens. Crabbe and Lupino are true believers and resent the publishers turning their project into trash. Armstrong uses Crabbe's idea for a global fitness contest as an excuse to send the lad out of the country so he and his partners (including the always-amusing, though less amusing than usual, James Gleason) can run the show unhindered, voting down Lupino consistently in editorial conferences.
Buster Crabbe near the finish of his Search For Beauty. Below, Crabbe as seen in the Oppressive Female Gaze (of actress Gertrude Michael) at the film's facsimile of the 1932 Olympic Games.
James Gleason and Robert Armstrong rub their hands greedily while well-intentioned editrix Ida Lupino fumes. She ought to; even Crabbe treats his supposedly equal partner like a secretary, telling her to "take a letter" in one scene.
Mitchell Leisen might have worked in a pinch. Paramount had no such luck, and by the Berkeley standard this sequence would have a hard struggle to be second-rate. In a way, it's topped by a climax that comes across as a parody of the quasi-fascist films of the period that show dynamic people taking decisive, often extra-legal action against social problems. In Search, this uprising takes the form of the contest winners forcefully rousting the inaugural weekend guests -- uniformly old or fat -- out of their beds at a beastly hour of the morning for compulsory calisthenics conducted by Crabbe and Lupino. To add insult to insult, the "guests" are instructed to "whistle gaily" on their forced march, and when bare-chested men compel male weaklings to do so, you know and the filmmakers know what whistling gaily can mean.
The end is typical of the film, as Gleason takes the final bow.
In the spirit of pre-code exploitation, here's Toby Wing as Lupino's impressionable younger cousin.
There are a few good Depression zingers in the screenplay. Armstrong, on his release from prison, complains that some of the money stashed away on his arrival is missing; he tells the guards that jail is nearly as bad a place to keep your money as a bank. But for the most part the picture lacks that social relevance that gives many pre-codes an extra edge. Search for Beauty is basically a brain-dead comedy without comedians (Gleason is reduced to malapropisms while Armstrong only blusters) and a half-hearted attempt at exploitation. But it probably earns its place as the last film in Universal's Pre-Code collection by showing exactly how far films could go by the end of that remarkable era.
By the way, here's the full "Symphony of Health," uploaded to YouTube by MataMachree -- the poster no man can resist!