#576) Rose Hobart (1936)

#576) Rose Hobart (1936)

OR “The First Fanvid”

Directed by Joseph Cornell

Class of 2001

For a higher quality video, check out “Rose Hobart” at the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website.

The Plot: In “Rose Hobart”, experimental filmmaker Joseph Cornell takes a 16mm print of the 1931 B-picture “East of Borneo” and cuts it down to a 19 minute highlight of its leading lady…Rose Hobart. Lit with a romantic purple filter, and accompanied by selections from Nestor Amaral’s “Holiday in Brasil” album, “Rose Hobart” is a haunting, indefinable depiction of a filmmaker’s fixation with one of Hollywood’s lesser known starlets.

Why It Matters: Both the NFR and the accompanying essay by avant-garde film expert Holly Willis give a rundown of Cornell and how this film came to be.

But Does It Really?: It’s been a while since we’ve covered an experimental film that truly defies categorizing, and we have that in “Rose Hobart”. Upon first viewing, “Rose Hobart” is a head-scratcher, but the more research I did on the film (and the film within the film), the more I was fascinated by Joseph Cornell’s deconstruction of a Hollywood “product” into an ethereal examination of obsession. “Rose Hobart” presages the other avant-garde films of its kind by at least 20 years, and while you can read whatever you want into its editing (and many have), it’s a truly unique viewing experience from start to finish. I’m glad that the NFR has a place for “Rose Hobart”, and equally glad that I finally watched it.

Everybody Gets One: Unlike many experimental filmmakers on this list, Joseph Cornell had no formal training in filmmaking or any other art form. Most of Cornell’s art was boxed assemblage: shadow boxes filled with photos and objects that related to a theme, and had a hint of surrealism to them. At one point, Cornell obtained a print of 1931’s “East of Borneo”, and became infatuated with Rose Hobart. He cut the print down to focus on Rose’s scenes, and would project the film through a blue filter (Switching in later years to purple).

Everybody Gets One-Part II: The daughter of a cellist and an opera singer, Rose Hobart made her stage debut at age 15. She quickly made her way to Broadway, and her performance in the play “Death Takes a Holiday” caught the attention of Hollywood. She starred in a series of B-pictures for Universal, and 1931’s “East of Borneo” was her fourth film. In later years, she referred to “Borneo” as “that schlocky horror I did”, and cited the grueling work environment as the main reason she got involved with the burgeoning Screen Actors Guild.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the cultural appropriation found within “East of Borneo”. They have a Mexican woman playing one of the natives!

Other notes 

  • For the curious: “East of Borneo” is about a woman named Linda Randolph (Hobart) traveling to the island of Marado to find her husband Allan (Charles Bickford), who is now the physician for the island’s mysterious Prince Hashim (Georges Renavent). Allan refuses to go home with Linda, and Hashim takes a liking to her. A dramatic love triangle ensues. None of this comes across in “Rose Hobart”. And for the record: Marado is more north-north-east of Borneo.
  • For “Rose Hobart”, Cornell slowed the film down from the typical sound frame rate of 24 frames per second, to the silent rate of 16-18 frames per second. It helps you really focus on Hobart’s performance, which is…the kind of typical ingenue performance you would it expect it to be. What did you see in her, Joe?
  • So many of the writings I have found regarding “Rose Hobart” mention that the film’s reduced frame rate has a “dreamlike quality”. Maybe it’s just me, but things always happen quickly in my dreams.
  • The second female lead from “Borneo” (and “Rose Hobart”) is Lupita Tovar, who readers may remember as Eva in the Spanish Language version of “Drácula“. Her grandsons made “American Pie”!
  • For a B-picture this movie has a lot going on: Volcanic eruptions, monkeys, crocodiles, a fight with the natives. Either that, or the new additions to the Jungle Cruise are weird.
  • Ultimately, my experience with “Rose Hobart” feels like I’m watching a movie that’s playing on TV in a bar: no sound, just picture, and every time I look back it’s a different scene.
  • One of the final shots in the movie is of an eclipse. This is one of a handful of shots that aren’t from “East of Borneo”, but rather an unidentified reel of nature shots.

Legacy 

  • “Rose Hobart” premiered at New York’s Julien Levy Gallery in December 1936, later playing at the Museum of Modern Art. In attendance on MoMA’s opening night was Salvador Dalí, who confronted Joseph Cornell for “stealing” his idea of a film collage (Dalí had no definitive plans at the time to make one, nor had he told anyone about this idea. Dalí’s outburst has been quoted by some as “He stole my dreams!”). Upset by this attack, Cornell rarely screened his films in public after that night.
  • Thankfully, Cornell continued to make experimental films for the rest of his life, including later collaborations with fellow NFR experimental filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Larry Jordan. With the encouragement of Jonas Mekas, Cornell finally started publicly screening “Rose Hobart” in the mid-60s, and donated the only print of the film to the Anthology Film Archives. Joseph Cornell died in 1972 at the age of 68.
  • Cornell’s influence can be seen in another NFR movie with compiled film footage: Bruce Conner’s “A MOVIE“.
  • The real Rose Hobart continued working steadily throughout the 1940s, but her career ended abruptly upon being named and blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. She made a brief return to acting on television in the late ’60s before retiring for good in 1971. To the best of my knowledge, Rose Hobart never saw “Rose Hobart”.

Further Viewing: “East of Borneo”…I guess.

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