Over the last couple of years, the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) have put up a quite considerable number of films in the Screening Room section of their website. One thing I watched there recently is Torture de Luxe, a section from an edition of Pathé Review, a weekly newsreel launched in 1920 as “the magazine of the screen”. As the opening intertitle informs us, Torture de Luxe is a look at “What Broadway’s beauties will do to stay that way.” The short answer is: weird exercise contraptions – and lots of them!
Two models demonstrate the beautifying equipment: first up is the hip machine. Given the vertical movement of the cylindrical apparatus, my first thought was of the robot scene in Metropolis, with the rings of light moving up and down. Could this Broadway belle be turning into a robot? The idea of this being beneficial exercise certainly is science-fictional … Like the transition from the Maschinenmensch to Maria, the two shots seen above dissolve into each other, although the effect isn’t perfect, since the position of the cylinders aren’t coincident between the shots.
However, there is also more conventional exercise equipment on offer, like this treadmill:
The forced smile of the desperate.
See the trousers and face behind the woman on the treadmill? Those belong to Philadelphia George O’Brien, a champion boxer who reinvented himself as an exercise guru and founded a gym on Broadway in the 1920s. He promoted his exercise programme via a morning show on New York radio, alongside writing a syndicate newspaper series, “How to Raise a Physically Perfect Daughter”. This Pathé Review segment is nominally showcasing his state-of-the-art training regime, but it is, of course, mostly an excuse to view the bodies of these shapely young women. Strictly for educational purposes, you understand. This voyeuristic aspect is made even more explicit by the extreme closeups of O’Brien interspersed with the shots of the women doing their exercises; while O’Brien is not leering or anything, it’s an interesting choice to use such a tight framing. Also consider the way the women’s bodies are framed in the initial shot of them taking off their shoes:
Voyeurism indeed. But what makes the clip fun is the fact that the two ladies seem to be enjoying hanging out together, doing these wacky exercises.
Here they are stealing a moment at the hip machine:
“My hips don’t lie, and I am starting to feel it’s right.”
Just two gal pals hanging out on giant rollers:
Patting down each other’s calves and hamstrings:
And horsing around together on … whatever this contraption is.
Torture de Luxe was preserved under the direction of Eastman House, from material found in New Zealand in 2011. A short and fun look at exercise fads vis-à-vis the standards of female beauty in 1926!
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Torture de Luxe. Photographed by Ray Forster. USA: Pathé Exchange, c. 1926. Available to view here on the NFPF’s website.