Steady Digression To A Fixed Point

By Elizabeth Willis

When I first saw Joseph Cornell’s 19-minute film Rose Hobart, I thought it was one of his late works, that it had been made 20 or 30 years after East of Borneo (1931), the primary source of its footage. But Rose Hobart was first shown in 1936, when most of its images were only five years old. Cornell’s film was not a tribute to The Past; it was the rearrangement of a recent passage. He had turned a dull movie into a brilliant screen test, a false geography into a silent portrait.

Like a ship, it took the name of a woman.

East of Borneo—in which Rose Hobart sails from London to the South Seas in search of her husband—was released the year of Cornell’s first dated collage, in which a carefully cut rose is pasted onto the rigging of a schooner.

In Cornell’s first exhibition at the Julien Levy gallery, this collage was exhibited with another, in which a woman is being sewn together by a machine whose driving mechanism is a flower. She appears to be both two and three-dimensional, a corn maiden, a mannequin, a paper doll.

In another work of the same year: a severed hand under a bell jar, a rose in the center of its palm, and an eye at the center of the rose. Roses were under observation.

Joseph Cornell was born in 1903. Rose Hobart, 2 1/2 years later. She grew up in Manhattan and Woodstock. He grew up in Nyack and Queens.

She began as a stage actress and was appalled at working conditions when she arrived in Hollywood. In her autobiography, A Steady Digression to a Fixed Point, she writes that when East of Borneo was being filmed, she was so physically wasted, she had to stuff her evening gown in order to keep it on.

She began working for the Screen Actors Guild, organized other actors, and fought for an 8-hour workday.

For this show of insolence she was summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949. Ronald Reagan, the new head of the Screen Actors Guild, and many others, chose to speak. Rose Hobart chose to remain silent except to defend the right to remain silent.

She was blacklisted and her career in film was over.

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