L’Age d’Or (1930): Making of Bunuel’s Success de Scandale

Late in 1929, on the strength of Un Chien Andalou, Buñuel and Dalí were commissioned to make another short film by Marie-Laurie and Charles de Noailles, owners of a private cinema on the Place des États-Unis and financial supporters of productions by Jacques Manuel, Man Ray and Pierre Chenal.

L’Age d’Or
L'Age d'Or.jpg

Poster for a 1970s re-release of L’Age d’Or

The new film was to be around the same length as Un Chien, only this time with sound. But by mid-1930, the film had grown segmentally to an hour’s duration.

Anxious that it was over twice as long as planned and at double the budget, Buñuel offered to trim the film, but Noailles gave him the go-ahead to continue the project.

Entitled L’Age d’Or, it was begun as second collaboration with Dalí, but, while working on the scenario, the two had a falling out.

Buñuel, who at the time had strong leftist sympathies, aimed at deliberate undermining of all bourgeois institutions, while Dalí, who eventually supported the Spanish fascist Francisco Franco and other figures of the European aristocracy, wanted merely to cause a scandal through the use of various scatological and anti-Catholic images.

The friction was exacerbated when, at a dinner party in Cadaqués, Buñuel tried to throttle Dalí’s girlfriend, Gala, the wife of Surrealist poet Paul Éluard. Afterwards, Dalí withdrew from te shooting of the film.

During production, Buñuel worked around his technical ignorance by shooting mostly in sequence and using every foot of film shot.

Buñuel invited friends and acquaintances to appear, for nothing, in the film–anyone who owned tuxedo or party frock got a part in the salon scene.

“A film called L’Age d’or, whose non-existent artistic quality is an insult to any kind of technical standard, combines, as a public spectacle, the most obscene, disgusting and tasteless incidents. Country, family, and religion are dragged through the mud.”

Richard Pierre Bodin’s review in Le Figaro, 7 December 1930.

L’Age d’Or was proclaimed by Dalí as a deliberate attack on Catholicism, which precipitated much bigger scandal than Un Chien Andalou.

One screening was taken over by members of the fascist League of Patriots and the Anti-Jewish Youth Group, who hurled purple ink at the screen and then vandalized the adjacent art gallery, destroying some valuable surrealist paintings.

The film was banned by the Parisian police in the name of public order. The de Noailles, both Catholics, were threatened with excommunication by The Vatican because of the film’s blasphemous final scene, which visually links Jesus Christ with the writings of the Marquis de Sade.

As a result, the couple decided in 1934 to withdraw all prints from circulation. L’Age d’Or was not seen again until 1979, after their deaths, though a print was smuggled to England for private viewing.

The furor was so great that the premiere of another film financed by the de Noailles, Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, had to be delayed for two years until outrage over L’Age d’Or had died down.

Moreover, Charles de Noailles was forced to withdraw his membership from the Jockey Club.

Succès de Scandale

Concurrent with the succès de scandale, Buñuel and the film’s leading lady, Lya Lys, received offers from MGM and traveled to Hollywood at the studio’s expense.

While in the US, Buñuel associated with other celebrity expatriates including Sergei Eisenstein, Von Sternberg, Jacques Feyder, Chaplin, and Bertolt Brecht. Buñuel was required by his loose-ended contract with MGM to “learn some good American technical skills.”

But, after being ushered off the first set he visited because the star, Garbo, did not welcome intruders, he decided to stay at home and only show up to collect his paycheck.

His only contribution to MGM was serving as extra in La Fruta Amarga, a Spanish-language remake of Min and Bill.

After months at the studio, he was asked to watch rushes of Lili Damita to gauge her Spanish accent. But he refused, sending a message to studio boss Irving Thalberg that he was there as a Frenchman, not a Spaniard, and he “didn’t have time to waste listening to one of the whores.”

He was back in Spain shortly thereafter.