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Underground Film Timeline: 1930 — 1939

Below is a list of significant events and films in underground film history between the years 1930 and 1939. Reference key of sources appears at the bottom of the page.

1930

MAJOR EVENTS

International Congress of Independent Film meets for a second time in Brussels, but the ‘Internationale’ is disbanded after most filmmakers choose to fight fascism instead. The European avant-garde pretty much ceases to exist.

(S.R., D.C.)

When film switched to using sound, it became too cost prohibitive for experimental filmmakers to continue working.

(S.R.)

“The Surrealist cinema largely disappeared after Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or…”

(P.A.S.)

Luis Bunuel visits Los Angeles for the first time. An MGM representative signs him to a $250 a month contract to “learn filmmaking.” Bunuel quit after four months and returned to Spain.

(D.E.J.)

SIGNIFICANT FILMS

ENGLAND

Kenneth MacPherson

Monkeys’ Moon

(S.R.)

FRANCE

Luis Buñuel

L’Age d’Or

(S.R.; P.A.S.)

Jean Cocteau

Le Sang d’un Poète (The Blood of a Poet)

(S.R.; D.C.; F.S.; P.A.S.) (DVD)

Eugene Deslaw

La Nuit Electrique

(S.R.; D.C.)

Germaine Dulac

Theme et Variation (1927-30)

(D.C.) (S.R. lists a film Rhythme et Variations as 1930, which may be this film, but D.C. also lists a Rhythme et Variations, with no year attached, in addition to Theme et Variation)

CZECHOSLOVAKIA

Alexander Hammid

Bezucelna Prochazka (Aimless Walk)

(P.A.S.; D.E.J. only gives English title)

GERMANY

Oskar Fischinger

Study No. 6 (1929-30)

(F.S.) (S.R. lists as 1929)

Study No. 12

(S.R.)

Hans Richter

Alles dreht sich, Alles beweft sich (Everything Revolves, Everything Moves )

(D.C.)

Walter Ruttmann

Die Melodie der Welt (Melody of the World)

(includes brief animated sequence by Oskar Fischinger) (D.C.)

HOLLAND

Francis Brugière

Light Rhythms

(S.R.)

RUSSIA

Dziga Vertov

Enthusiasm (Donbass Symphony)

(D.C.) (S.R. only credits this as Enthusiasm)

U.S.

Jo Gercon and Hershell Louis

The Story of a Nobody

(S.R.)

Ralph Steiner

Surf and Seaweed

(D.C.) (S.R. lists as 1931)

Herman G. Weinberg

Autumn Fire

(S.R.) (D.C. lists film twice: Once in 1930 and again in 1931) (DVD)

Film still from L'Age d'Or of a woman kissing a statue's foot
L’Age d’Or

1931

MAJOR EVENTS

The European avant-garde vanishes, as Paul Fejos and Robert Florey became mainstream directors, Slavko Vorkapich began specializing in montage sequences, Ralph Steiner moved into documentaries, and Gregg Toland shot Citizen Kane.

(S.R.)

SIGNIFICANT FILMS

ENGLAND

Kenneth MacPherson

Borderline

(starring Paul Robeson) (S.R.)

GERMANY

Oskar Fischinger

Study No. 7

(F.S.)

Study No. 8

(c1931) (F.S.)

Colorature

(S.R.) (F.S. lists as Coloratura)

Experiments in Hand Drawn Sound

(D.C.)

U.S.

Berthold Bartosch

L’Idée

(D.C.)

Emlen Etting

Oramunde

(S.R.)

Ralph Steiner

Mechanical Principles

(S.R.; D.C.) (DVD)

Charles Vidor

The Bridge

(D.E.J.)

1932

MAJOR EVENTS

Jack Smith is born in Columbus, OH.

(J.S.)

SIGNIFICANT FILMS

FRANCE

Luis Buñuel

Las Hurdes (Terre sans Pain)

(D.C.)

Eugene Deslaw

Marche des Machines

(D.C.) (S.R. lists as 1928)

Moholy-Nagy

Lightspeile (1928-32)

(D.C.)

Jean Renoir

Boudu

(D.C.)

GERMANY

Oskar Fischinger

Study No. 11 (c1932)

(F.S.)

U.S.

Emlen Etting

Poem 8

(S.R.) (DVD)

Charles Vidor

The Spy (1931-32)

(D.C.) (S.R. lists as only 1932)

1933

MAJOR EVENTS

B&W sound 16mm film stock is marketed.

(D.C.)

John Flory”s Mr. Motorboat’s Last Stand is awarded one of the Year’s 10 Best by the Los Angeles Cinema Club, is named the Best Experimental Film of the Year by Movie Makers magazine and is distributed by the Museum of Modern Art. Flory also signs a 7-year contract with Paramount.

(D.E.J.)

SIGNIFICANT FILMS

FRANCE

Dimitri Kirsanov

Rapt

(S.R.; D.C.)

Arrière Saison

(S.R.)

GERMANY

Oskar Fischinger

Composition in Blue

(S.R.; D.C.; F.S.)

Circle

(S.R.; D.C.; F.S.)

Lotte Reiniger

Carmen

(F.S.)

U.S.

John Flory and Theodore Huff

Mr. Motorboat’s Last Stand

(S.R.) (D.E.J. credits film solely to John Flory, but “with assistance by” Theodore Huff and Priscilla Peck)

Lewis Jacobs

Footnote to Fact

(J.S.)

Dr. James Sibley Watson

Lot in Sodom

(written or co-directed with Melville Webber) (D.C.; F.S.) (S.R. lists as 1934) (P.A.S. doesn’t distinguish credits, just says by Watson & Webber) (DVD 1, DVD 2)

Film still from Lot in Sodom featuring a woman standing behind a curtain
Lot in Sodom

1934

MAJOR EVENTS

Color 16mm film stock is marketed.

(D.C.)

Movie producers are forced to submit scripts to the Hays Office for approval, thus limiting the chance of experimentation in popular narrative filmmaking.

(D.E.J.)

SIGNIFICANT FILMS

FRANCE

Alexandre Alexeieff

Une Nuit sur le Mont Chauve (Night on the Bare Mountain)

(with Clair Parker, his wife) (D.C.)

RUSSIA

Dziga Vertov

Three Songs of Lenin

(D.C.) (S.R. credits as Three Songs About Lenin)

U.S.

Joseph Berne

Dawn to Dawn

(written by Seymour Stern) (S.R.)

Lewis Jacobs

Synchronization

(done with Joseph Schillinger and Mary Ellen Bute) (S.R.)

Ralph Steiner

Pie in the Sky

(with Elia Kazan, Molly Day Thacher and Irving Lerner) (S.R.)

Orson Welles

The Hearts of Age

(D.E.J.) (DVD)

1935

MAJOR EVENTS

Rudy Burckhardt moves to the U.S. from Switzerland.

(S.R.)

Salvador Dali visits Hollywood and stays with Harpo Marx. The pair write a screenplay entitled “Giraffes on Horseback Salad.”

(D.E.J.)

Maya Deren earns a bachelor’s degree at New York University (NYU).

(D.E.J.)

A young Kenneth Anger appears in the film A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

(D.E.J.)

SIGNIFICANT FILMS

ENGLAND

Len Lye

Colour Box

(S.R.; D.C.; P.A.S.)

Kaleidoscope

(S.R.) (P.A.S. lists as 1936)

Jean Renoir

Toni

(D.C.)

FRANCE

Alexandre Alexeieff

La Belle au Bois Dormant

(with Clair Parker, his wife) (D.C.)

1936

MAJOR EVENTS

The Museum of Modern Art in NYC begins distributing a range of films, supplying them to theaters and screening series such as Amos and Marcia Vogel’s Cinema 16 in NYC and Frank Stauffacher’s Art in Cinema series in San Francisco.

(S.M.) (S.R. says MoMA began its distribution efforts in 1937.)

SIGNIFICANT FILMS

ENGLAND

Len Lye

Birth of a Robot (1935-36)

(D.C.) (S.R. credits as The Birth of the Robot and lists only as 1936)

Rainbow Dance

(S.R.; D.C.; P.A.S.)

Trade Tattoo

(P.A.S.)

FRANCE

Jean Renoir

Les Bas Fonds

(D.C.)

U.S.

Mary Ellen Bute

Rhythm in Light

(S.R.; D.C.; F.S.) (S.M. credits film to Bute, Ted Nemeth & Melville F. Webber)

Anitra’s Dance

(D.C.)

Synchrony No. 2

(S.R.)

Oskar Fischinger

Allegretto

(S.R.; D.C.; F.S.)

Basil Wright

Song of Ceylon

(S.M.)

Title credits film still from Rhythm in Light
Rhythm in Light

1937

MAJOR EVENTS

The Amateur Cinema League has two-hundred-fifty amateur-cinema clubs on its rolls.

(S.M.)

SIGNIFICANT FILMS

ENGLAND

Len Lye

Trade Tatoo

(S.R.)

FRANCE

Jean Renoir

La Grande Illusion

(D.C.)

U.S.

Roger Barlow, LeRoy Robbins, Harry Hay and Hy Hirsch

Even as You and I

(S.R.) (DVD)

1938

MAJOR EVENTS

Luis Bunuel is ordered back to Los Angeles to “work on a film about Spanish children being taken abroad to safety” and other movies about the Spanish Civil War.

(D.E.J.)

Maya Deren enrolls in the M.A. program in English at Smith College.

(D.E.J.)

SIGNIFICANT FILMS

U.S.

Mary Ellen Bute

Parabola

(S.R.) (DVD)

Douglass Crockwell

Fantasmagoria I

(S.R.) (D.C. just lists Fantasmagoria by its series, not individual films — see 1940)

Oskar Fischinger

Optical Poem (1937-8)

(for MGM; set to Liszt) (D.C.) (S.R. lists as just 1937) (DVD)

1939

SIGNIFICANT FILMS

ENGLAND

Len Lye

Swinging the Lambeth Walk

(S.R.; D.C.) (WATCH)

U.S.

Emlen Etting

Laureate

(S.R.)

Oskar Fischinger

An American March

(F.S.)

Harry Smith

Number 1

(S.R.)

Ralph Steiner & Willard Van Dyke

The City

(F.S.; S.M.)

Film still from Swinging the Lambeth Walk featuring abstract dots against striped background
Swinging the Lambeth Walk

REFERENCE KEY:

D.C: David Curtis. Experimental Cinema. New York: Dell Pub., 1978.
D.E.J.: David E. James. The Most Typical Avant-garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California, 2005.
F.S.: Frank Stauffacher. Art in cinema; a symposium on the avantgarde film. New York: Arno Press, 1968. (reprint from 1947)
J.S.: Jack Sargeant. Deathtripping: the Extreme Underground. Brooklyn: Soft Skull, 2008.  (Originally published: London: Creation, 1995.)
P.A.S.: P. Adams Sitney. Visionary Film: the American Avant-garde, 1943-2000. New York: Oxford UP, 2002.
S.M.: Scott MacDonald. Canyon Cinema: the Life and times of an Independent Film Distributor. Berkeley: University of California, 2008.
S.R.: Sheldon Renan. An Introduction to the American Underground Film. New York: Dutton, 1967.