Though he never lived or traveled outside of New York and his pronounced shyness kept him on the margins of society, Joseph Cornell made work that drew fellow artists to him and captivated viewers. Among the self-taught artist’s best-known creations were boxes in which he arranged various objects and materials—ranging from newspaper and magazine clippings to dolls and rhinestones to wire netting—into self-contained worlds. Cornell made many of these boxes in homage to the Hollywood and B movie divas he worshipped, working in the basement of the house he shared with his mother and brother. In his pantheon of stars was the actress Rose Hobart. For her, he made a film.
Cornell was an avid viewer and collector of films, but his homage to Hobart (titled Rose Hobart) was his first attempt at making a film. Its source was East of Borneo, a feature-length B-movie released in 1931. Hobart stars as a woman braving the jungle to find her alcoholic husband, who has become resident physician to a Rajah commanding a remote kingdom in Borneo. Cornell cut apart East of Borneo, excised nearly every scene not featuring Hobart, and reassembled the pieces into a 20-minute short centered entirely on its heroine. He edited into these scenes clips from other films, including a fleeting shot of people watching an eclipse; footage of an eclipse; and a slow-motion view of a sphere falling into a pool of water and setting off ripples.
Rose Hobart premiered in 1936 at the avant-garde Julian Levy Gallery. Cornell projected it through a blue-tinted lens and at a slowed speed, giving it a languorous, dreamy, underwater or nighttime feel. He also muted its sound, replacing it with a soundtrack of his own devising: repeating songs from a kitschy Brazilian record he picked up at one of the Manhattan junk stores he frequented to find materials for his art. The sum total of these manipulations is a film that functions much like one of Cornell’s boxes, in that it holds Hobart in a semi-suspended state in a surreal, hermetic world. Pinned in place like a precious specimen, she walks, gestures, and emotes, perpetually stopped by Cornell’s editing before she exits the frame.