Rose Hobart (1936)

Director: Joseph Cornell

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Ever since I first laid eyes on them, I’ve been enamored of the boxes of Joseph Cornell. These assemblages of found objects, neatly arranged in glass-fronted or interactive boxes, create a wonderful feeling of nostalgia, fun, and creative surprise in me the way an absurd joke can make any of us break out in a laugh of recognition. Cornell extended his assemblages to film, buying boxes of films that were languishing in New Jersey warehouses, cutting and cataloging them according to his interests, and eventually splicing them into a number of short films.

The most famous of these films is Rose Hobart, a 19-minute assemblage of footage taken from the 1931 Universal Pictures film East of Borneo and what looks like a motion study that depicts the circular ripples of water after a large rock is thrown into a pond. On the rare occasions when he exhibited the silent film, he accompanied it with a recording of Holiday in Brazil (1957) by Brazilian composer Nestor Amaral, who contributed a couple of uncredited songs to The Gang’s All Here costarring fellow Brazilian Carmen Miranda. Cornell would project the film at a slowed-down speed through a blue filter, though in later years, he took to using a rose filter.

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For those familiar with silent films and their use of color tints to suggest lighting, blue is the color of night, a perfect complement to the dreamscape Cornell conjures from the remnants of East of Borneo and an evocation of the feminine. Together with images of an eclipse blotting out the masculine sun and an erupting volcano, evoking the feminine Pele, he pays homage to the Goddess. Here the Goddess is given form by the star of East of Borneo, Rose Hobart. Cornell’s editing allows for intense observation of the Goddess, who, like the eclipse suggests, is sensed, even desired, but never really known. Our world, he suggests, may be the conjuring of Her own dreams, as She is shown in the beginning of the film reclining behind a mist of mosquito netting.

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The Goddess inhabits an exotic land of palm trees, servants in sarongs, and luxurious surroundings. Sitting females praise her with clapping and singing. She is entreated by two men, one of the East and one of the West, but neither finds favor. Her most meaningful interaction is with a wild creature—a monkey delivered to Her by a servant that She talks to and pets until it, too, lays down to slumber.

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Alone, She is most Herself, gathering together Her bag of tricks that includes both a lace handkerchief and a pistol, a reminder that the Goddess responds as often with natural violence as with delicate beauty. The image of the concentric rings of displaced water fascinate Her—the pool of the unconscious and its perfect, circular form. Cornell invites us to enter this pool several times in the film; only the most hard-headed observer will resist.

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It’s interesting to consider Cornell’s reluctance to share his film creations, the perhaps apocryphal story of Salvador Dali’s anger that Cornell had stolen his dreams, the rather corny music Cornell used to suggest a tropical setting. We are dealing here with the deep and vulnerable unconscious of a single man, the collective unconscious for which Dali spoke, and the simple tunes that keep observers anchored in a homey familiarity (this is very reminiscent of the silly tune that recurs in Bruno Dumont’s nightmare film Twentynine Palms). Cornell doesn’t dwell in the lasciviousness of many dream films, for example, those of Luis Buñuel, declaring as he once did that he did not identify with the dark magic of the surrealists. He preferred the white magic, and that is very plain in his gentle art and films, and the care with which he treated his found objects and reassembled them into works of wonder and delight.

Cornell was a pioneer who worked with and influenced such avant-garde filmmakers as Stan Brakhage and Rudy Burckhardt. His films and those of his colleagues in the avant garde are among those most in danger of being lost. Get your hands on this jewel of a film and think about the delights this rich and under-explored corner of cinema offers.

Anthology Film Archives preserved the only print of Rose Hobart, which was personally given to them by Joseph Cornell. The film is also a part of the National Film Preservation Foundation’s first Treasures from American Film Archives DVD set.

  • Samuel Wilson spoke:
    13th/01/2010 to 3:52 pm

    Rose Hobart intrigued me when TCM ran it a few years ago with the rest of the Treasures collection. The music didn’t seem to match the period of Cornell’s project and now I understand why. It makes me wonder how exactly we should date the project if the soundtrack counts as part of its final form. I don’t usually care much for non-narrative avant garde material but this film fascinated me, at least enough to make me want to see East of Borneo

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/01/2010 to 4:06 pm

    Perhaps there are a couple of ways to look at the film – as a project Cornell did for himself and as a film he reluctantly exhibited much later on. I think he intended to use a recording that was happy and tropical to match the setting and his generally positive outlook. It may not be entirely coincidental that he chose music by a man who was in the movie business as a composer and actor.

  • Doug spoke:
    13th/01/2010 to 6:35 pm

    I’ve used goddess imagery in lots of my artwork, but never before had I assigned it to Cornell’s movie. No wonder I’m constantly drawn back to this film. Thanks for opening my eyes to this reading of a great film!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/01/2010 to 6:41 pm

    Thanks, Doug. I don’t think I’ve seen another reading like mine, but it seems so obvious to me that I’m rather surprised. Glad you liked it.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    14th/01/2010 to 6:01 pm

    I don’t know Cornell’s work, nor have I even seen ROSE HOBART, but this is really quite a post Marilyn, for avante garde lovers, or those trying to resurrect the relatively obscure. I hung here with every word and was fascinated. Your last several posts have been amazingly diverse.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    14th/01/2010 to 8:21 pm

    Thank you again, Sam, for your effusive support. Even if you’re not an avant garde fan, this film should prove of great interest. There’s something so enchanting about how Cornell recut this B-movie.

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