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By Phil Hall | August 2, 2013

BOOTLEG FILES 491: “Rose Hobart” (1936 experimental film constructed by Joseph Cornell).

LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Yes, it has been released on DVD!

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: This film is famous for its unauthorized re-editing of copyright-protected material.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Again, there is a commercial DVD release!

One of the most influential films in the history of avant-garde cinema is an independent short production chopped down from a longer Hollywood feature. And while copyright law was casually ignored in the creation of this short film, the resulting work continues to intrigue and delight those with a taste for offbeat movies.

Joseph Cornell was the creative force behind this groundbreaking film, and it is hard to imagine a less likely force of artistic revolution. For his entire adult life, Cornell lived in the same small house in a working class neighborhood in the Flushing section of New York City with his mother and a younger brother who was afflicted with cerebral palsy. Cornell’s education was incomplete – he dropped out of Phillips Academy – and he supported himself in a variety of jobs ranging from fabric salesman to textile designer.

Cornell wanted to express himself as an artist, which was difficult because he could not draw. He overcame that obstacle by concentrating on the creation of collages and box assemblages. Cornell also had a knack for connecting with influential figures in New York’s art scene, and his friendship with art dealer and gallery owner Julien Levy helped to secure Cornell a level of prominence.

In 1936, Cornell took his collage creation skills to a new medium. In this case, he used a 16mm home viewing print of the 1931 feature film “East of Borneo,” produced by Universal Pictures and starring Rose Hobart. Cornell, who had a habit of becoming obsessed with movie goddesses, fell in love with Hobart while watching “East of Borneo.” As a result of his infatuation, he took his print and scissored out all of the footage that did not feature Hobart. He then rearranged the remaining 19 minutes of footage into a celluloid collage, which was projected at the silent film 16 fps speed through a blue filter. The soundtrack to “East of Borneo” was jettisoned in favor of the bouncy tunes from the Nestor Amaral album “Holiday in Brazil.” (Cornell acquired the Amaral album from a junk store, though he never explained why Brazilian-tinged music was used for this Borneo-inspired flick.)

The resulting work did not carry a title card, but it is known today as “Rose Hobart.” And it is one of the most intriguing and delightful works of experimental filmmaking.

In “East of Borneo,” Hobart plays a woman who is searching for her lost husband in the unchartered Borneo jungles. She finds him – working as a physician for a local prince. However, the reunion of husband and wife is thwarted by the reigning prince, who takes an immediate liking to the glamorous American.

In “Rose Hobart,” the silly “East of Borneo” plot is ignored. Cornell re-edited the film into a montage that calls attention to Hobart’s sensuality. When presented in a slower projection speed, Hobart’s physical magnetism becomes striking – and the blue filtering (a carryover from the silent movie era) adds to mystery of the offering.

With “Rose Hobart,” Cornell does not try to improve on “East of Borneo.” Film scholar Bryan Frye, writing about “Rose Hobart” for Senses of Cinema, explains that Cornell transcends the conventions of cinematic storytelling with his vision.

“Cornell’s version of continuity is the continuity of the dream,” Frye writes. “He does not juxtapose images so much as suggest unlikely – but still vaguely plausible – connections between them. Hobart’s clothing may change suddenly between shots, but her gesture is continued or she remains at a similar point in the frame … In fact, one of the most arresting images in ‘Rose Hobart’ comes when a solar or lunar eclipse is paired with the image of an object falling into a circular pool of water. Hobart simply gazes bemusedly at this spectacle, as if it were little more than a parlor trick.”

Julien Levy gave “Rose Hobart” its premiere in December 1936 at his New York gallery. The film was included without special designation in a program of shorts curated by Cornell under the heading “Goofy Newsreels.” One of the audience members at the screening was the great Spanish artist Salvador Dali, who became agitated while “Rose Hobart” was projected. Dali began cursing aloud and then physically overturned the projector. When Levy demanded an explanation, Dali reportedly claimed, “My idea for a film is exactly that, and I was going to propose it to someone who would pay to have it made…. I never wrote it or told anyone, but it is as if he had stolen it.” Cornell, who was present during the commotion, was aghast at Dali’s antics, and he quickly gathered up his film before the artist would create more mayhem.

For many years, Cornell would not exhibit “Rose Hobart” publicly. Part of the problem was connected to his unauthorized use of the copyright-protected “East of Borneo” material – Universal Pictures was unaware of the Dali-interrupted screening, so Cornell was fortunate not to earn the studio’s wrath. Fortunately, Universal neglected to renew the copyright on “East of Borneo” in 1959, thus making it a public domain work. Advocates of Cornell’s work – most notably Jonas Mekas of New York’s Anthology Film Archives – successfully persuaded Cornell to allow “Rose Hobart” to be publicly screened. Cornell died in 1972, and at the time of his death he was celebrated as one of the most intriguing and original modern artists.

(In case you are wondering, Rose Hobart herself never benefitted from this film. Her film output meandered along during the 1930s and 1940s, until she was blacklisted in 1949. Although she was later able to snag some roles on television in the 1960s, the blacklist effectively killed her career. She died in 2000, remembered mostly as being the object of Cornell’s infatuation.)

Over the years, “Rose Hobart” gained a significant following among film critics and scholars. J. Hoberman included “Rose Hobart” on his list of 10 films submitted to the 1992 edition of Sight and Sound magazine’s poll of greatest movies.  In 2001, the Librarian of Congress named Rose Hobart to the National Film Registry. To date, the film has been included in a pair of DVD releases: the 2000 release “Treasures from American Film Archives” and the 2003 anthology “The Magical Worlds of Joseph Cornell.”

Although Cornell never took out a copyright on “Rose Hobart,” the work is technically not in the public domain.

“Distribution on DVD as part of ‘Treasures from American Film Archives’ amounted to publication,” writes Daniel P. Hayes, publisher of “When that occurred in 2000, the newer copyright laws permitted copyright to be maintained even without compliance of such formalities as copyright notice and registration.  However, the National Film Preservation Foundation did formally copyright the set.  (Notice appears on discs and in companion book.  Registration date: November 9, 2000.)  Prior to year 2000, the shift in distribution from Cornell to Anthology Film Archives to the Museum of Modern Art may have been sufficient to constitute publication, but even here, the number of prints has remained small and distribution limited.”

However, contemporary movie lovers/mischief makers have taken “Rose Hobart” from its DVD release and shared it on YouTube and other video sites in unauthorized postings. Thus, the tradition of appropriating someone else’s labor in order to make a personal artistic statement is still alive and well – until someone sends out a cease and desist notice, of course!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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