Monday, April 3, 2017

Experimental Films of the 1930s

The first big experimental or avant-garde film of the 1930s was L'Age d'Or, or The Golden Age, released in 1930. It was directed by Luis Buñuel and written by him and one of the most famous painters of all-time, surrealist Salvador Dalí. However, the two were not getting along by the time production began and Buñuel supposedly ran Dalí off the set while brandishing a hammer.

They were fresh off making a landmark in avant-garde cinema, the shocking Un Chien Andalou. That was a short film, but L'Age d'Or was closer to feature length at 63 minutes. Like Un Chien Andalou, there is no clear plot and events that take place appear to be random. Surrealism is an obvious influence and well-known Surrealist artist Max Ernst appears as an actor.

Buñuel was Spanish, but this was made in France and in the French language and premiered in Paris in 1930. The film caused an uproar as a conservative group called the League of Patriots tried to stop a screening by hurling ink at the screen and assaulting audience members. It was only a couple weeks before Paris banned any screenings of L'Age d'Or.

The controversy was so strong that it wasn't publicly shown in the United States until 1979. This was because of the sexual content as well as content that was considered blasphemous towards the Catholic Church and one of the producers was even threatened with excommunication. It's not surprising that the church found it sacrilegious as the film featured lots of religious iconography such as bishops and crucifixes.

There's even a reference to the infamous 18th-century novel 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade with an intertitle that states "120 Days of Depraved Acts".

L'Age d'Or was easily one of the two most significant films on this list, what I'd consider to be the "essentials."

The other was made that same year when Jean Cocteau directed The Blood of a Poet. He began his career writing poetry, plays, and novels and became well known in the 1910s and 1920s. Cocteau made films from 1925 up until just a few years before his death in 1963, including a 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast.

The Blood of a Poet was the first part of Cocteau's Orphic trilogy, which had a second installment in 1950 with Orphée, and concluded in 1960 with Testament of Orpheus.

The Blood of a Poet contains a lot of odd imagery like a talking statue and a man jumping through a mirror. Like L'Age d'Or, there isn't an obvious plot or story. These factors lead many to call this is a Surrealist work, and they aren't entirely wrong. However, Cocteau himself said "surrealism did not exist when I first thought of [the film]" and that "The Blood of a Poet draws nothing from either dreams or symbols."

This film was quite controversial and wasn't allowed to be screened until 1932, with its first showing at a gala evening in Paris. This was partly because The Blood of a Poet was perceived as anti-Christian, another similarity it shared with L'Age d'Or.

A famous American photographer named Lee Miller appeared, and this would be the only time she'd ever be in a movie.

Cocteau's 55-minute long film also has some very impressive special effects and visual tricks for its time and is worth watching for this reason alone. The Blood of a Poet is clearly up there with L'Age d'Or as one of the must-see experimental movies of the decade.

In 1931, Soviet director Dziga Vertov released Enthusiasm. Just two years prior, he made A Man with a Movie Camera, one of the most important experimental films of the 20th century. It had no story, but it did have highly innovative cinematography and pioneered several filmmaking and editing techniques.

Enthusiasm was about Soviet miners in Eastern Ukraine and didn't have nearly the same impact as A Man with a Movie Camera, but it was similar in that didn't have any professional actors or straightforward narrative. There are some neat shots using double exposure and the film running backward, as well as editing that's often much faster than what was common at the time. It was also the first sound film from Vertov.

Enthusiam is interesting, but it wasn't as historically significant or groundbreaking as others in this era. I wouldn't recommend checking it out until you see most or all of the rest of this list.

1933 saw the release of Lot In Sodom, a 28-minute long American short directed by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber. Their most significant work prior to this was the visually striking 1928 Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Fall of the House of Usher.

Lot in Sodom is based on the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah from the Book of Genesis about two cities destroyed by god due to their sinful nature.

It has some neat-looking high contrast, chiaroscuro cinematography with deep, dark shadows. There's no audible dialogue, only music, but there are a few silent-style intertitles.

You can watch Lot in Sodom here.

In 1934, Orson Welles made and starred in one his earliest works, an 8-minute short film called Hearts of Age. He of course went on to make such classics as Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil. Welles was only 19 when he made Hearts of Age and he was still in school. It was not meant to be commercially released and was never copyrighted, so it's in the public domain. Welles didn't really think of it as one of his serious films and was reportedly amused that people considered it to be part of his canon of works.

Much later in his career, Welles stated that Hearts of Age was an homage to experimental directors such as the previously mentioned Cocteau and Buñuel.

This short is mainly notable because of who made it and it probably wouldn't even be in this article otherwise. I'd only suggest watching it if you're a big Orson Welles fan, or you've already seen a bunch of the others listed. Nonetheless, it does have some cool black and white cinematography and interesting imagery.

One of the most unique experimental works of this era came out two years later in 1936 and it was called Rose Hobart.

Unlike the others in this article, this was made entirely using pre-existing footage. Artist Joseph Cornell took pieces from a documentary and the 1931 movie East of Borneo and created an experimental collage film.

East of Borneo starred an actress named Rose Hobart, who also had a large role in the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and who Cornell apparently took a liking to. The footage he chose largely focuses on her and the soundtrack is replaced with incongruous and seemingly random samba music. Rose Hobart is just under twenty minutes and you really can't make out any of the plot from the original film, nor can you hear any of the dialogue.

Cornell also added a blue tint by projecting the film through a piece of blue glass. He even slowed down the projection speed to that of a silent film.

The idea of using footage from previously existing films and adding music to it may not seem unusual in the age of Youtube, but in 1936 it was pretty revolutionary. In fact, as far as I'm aware there were no works quite like Rose Hobart before it came out.

It had some strong connections to postmodernism as it's pretty meta, in a way that no other experimental films in this decade are. Rose Hobart could also be seen as an early example of intertextuality, deconstruction, or a remix.

I don't consider Rose Hobart as essential as L'Age D'Or or The Blood of a Poet, but you should definitely give it a watch if you've seen those two, especially considering its short length.

That same year, a short called Rainbow Dance, which is by far the trippiest film in this article, was produced. It's only four minutes long and it was made by an animator from New Zealand named Len Lye. This was his second film and he would continue to make shorts until 1966.

Rainbow Dance is the only color film in this list, and in fact, it's extremely colorful, with over the top, garish animation that looks great, especially for something from the mid-1930s.

It was made using a color film system called Gasparcolor, which used a subtractive 3-color process and was mainly associated with animation.

The animation for Rainbow Dance was done over live action footage that was shot in black and white.

In 1938. an animator named Oskar Fischinger directed An Optical Poem, an 8 minute short. Fischinger had already made similar works, but this was his first and only one to be released by a major American studio, namely MGM.

An Optical Poem is set to Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, one of the most well-known works by 19th-century composer Franz Liszt. This is the only audio heard throughout.

It opens with text stating "To most of us music suggests definite mental images of form and color. The picture you are about to see is a novel scientific experiment - its object is to convey these mental images in visual form."

Then we start to see pink circles appearing on a blue background and eventually squares, rectangles, triangles, raindrops, and various other shapes appear. New shapes and patterns are gradually introduced throughout the course of the short film.

An Optical Poem is purely abstract and there are no actors or dialogue. It could be considered the first abstract music video.

An interesting bit of trivia is that Fischinger was briefly assisted on the film by John Cage, one of the most important artists and musicians of the 20th century.

I strongly recommend watching both An Optical Poem and Rainbow Dance as they're short, unique, and visually impressive.

Finally, in 1939 there was an experimental quasi-documentary made titled The City, made to be shown at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. It's unusual among experimental films, especially of the era, as it was made for a specific societal purpose, to extol the virtues of city planning.

It features shots of the countryside and contrasts these with images of cities, including traffic jams and people going about their lives. The City has narration, but no traditional dialogue or characters. Unfortunately it's definitely a product of its time, as some of the narration now comes off as a bit sexist, such as claiming that one of the main benefits of a washing machine was that women no longer had to be lonely on laundry day, and talking about a little gossip being good for the complexion.

The City is often likened to the seminal experimental film from 1982 called Koyaanisqatsi as both compared cities to the natural world and both had scores from iconic composers, with The City's coming from Aaron Copland.

The City is mainly only of historical interest, and I'd save this one for last among all the films I mention in this article.

If you're interested in similar films I also made a post about the surrealist films of the 1920s.


  1. Very well documented article. It's a shame that in the 30's, Filmmakers were awarded for taking risks. Kino Pravda you have an incredible voice. No Matter what sort of criticism you receive, keep making lists like this. It's incredible to know that Visionary Talent does get recognized. I've subscribed to your list & I wish you the best.