The artist Joseph Cornell (1903–72) was an avid fan of cinema. He went to the movies frequently in Bayside, Queens, sat transfixed by actresses such as Hedy Lamarr and Jennifer Jones, and purchased dozens of 16mm short films to entertain his homebound younger brother, Robert. In 1933, Cornell wrote Monsieur Phot, a detailed script that would unfold in five sections encompassing ballet sequences and stereopticon images. Cornell’s first fully realized film is Rose Hobart (c. 1936), essentially a re-editing of the 1931 George Melford adventure film East of Borneo, starring Charles Bickford and Cornell’s silver-screen crush, the actress Rose Hobart. This humble collage film is now considered a cornerstone of American avant-garde cinema.
In December 1936, Cornell projected Rose Hobart for the first time at the Julien Levy Gallery. In attendance were Salvador Dalí and his wife, Gala, among others in Levy’s coterie. Cornell’s film, which reduced the length of the original black-and-white feature from 77 minutes to a taut 17, and was run at silent speed with a blue-glass filter, created a languid, obsessive, fanatical portrait of his cinematic sweetheart. Following the screening, Dalí was so incensed by the aesthetic innovation he had witnessed that he toppled the projector. While Gala attempted to calm her husband and comfort the alarmed Cornell, Dalí unleashed a turgid outburst that included recriminations about Cornell infiltrating his dreams and stealing the film he was intending to make one day.
In celebration of the 80th anniversary of Rose Hobart’s debut, we are pleased to present it alongside East of Borneo, providing a glimpse into how Cornell wrested his revolutionary collage film from this conventional feature.
Organized by Anne Morra, Associate Curator, Department of Film. Special thanks to Universal Pictures.