Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Robert Florey, The French Expressionist

Robert Florey, if you are longing for a quick five minute education in the history of old-time movies, was the screenwriter of the original 
Frankenstein (1931, Boris Karloff), the director of the first Marx Brothers movie, The Cocoanuts (1929), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932, Bela Lugosi), This Way Please (1937, Fibber McGee and Molly), the first of fourteen Boston Blackie movies starring Chester Morris, The Face Behind the Mask (1941, Peter Lorre), Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948, Johnny Weissmuller), and directed hundreds of television programs including M SquadAlfred Hitchcock PresentsThe UntouchablesThe Twilight ZoneThe Outer LimitsThe Untouchables.... well, you've probably seen the name more times than you can remember.

During almost half a century in the movies, from 1916 to 1963, Robert Florey directed 65 features and 220 television films at most of the major studios from Paramount to Warner Brothers to Universal. His greatest success came in thrillers, yet he displayed his skill with many genres and renowned comedies. He was always known as an artist, gaining fame through his experimental shorts, beginning with The Life and Death of 9413 -- A Hollywood Extra, and his features remained distinctive for integrating European filmmaking styles into the Hollywood studio system. 

Author Brian Taves took advantage of numerous primary sources, including studio archives, interviews with associates, and access to all of Florey's personal papers. Thoroughly analyzing and locating Florey's films within the context of the times, relating them to such topics as the influence of expressionism and other techniques, the realm of the "B" film, the position of the contract director in the studio system, and the transition of movie talent to television are all covered within a single volume, Robert Florey: The French Expressionist

Back in 1981, When Taves began the book as a Master's thesis at the University of Southern California, Florey passed away a mere two years earlier. Most of the film community knew him for three mainstream pictures, Frankenstein (1931), The Cocoanuts (1929) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). Thanks to recent technology and the home video market, films such as God is My Co-Pilot (1945) and Lady Gangster (1942) have been re-explored by a community that craves not such social history captured on celluloid, but the artists behind the motion-pictures. Florey's avant-garde films made between 1927 and 1929 have emerged and are now more widely seen than in their own time. The last surviving print of Skyscraper Symphony (1929) was located at Gosfilmofond to receive acclaim at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Italy, followed by a DVD release in a National Film Preservation Board collection. The Love of Zero (1927), preserved but largely unseen in archival vaults, also received a DVD release, and both are now viewed alongside The Life and Death of 9413 -- A Hollywood Extra (1928), a staple of film study for decades. 

As Brian Taves remarks in the preface, "There is no longer any question of Florey's contribution to the emergence of American experimental filmmaking."

The book went out-of-print in 1995 and thanks to the dedicated hopefuls at Bear Manor Media, an expanded edition was recently published for a new generation to re-explore the works of Robert Florey. Over the years since writing the first book, Taves authored a number of articles and chapters in anthologies, filling in various gaps. A movie would become accessible and to include more extensive details with broader context adds more to the expanded edition. Print information that was not possible to be included in the book years ago in now incorporated. My copy arrived in the mail this week and I spent the good part of an hour reading trivial bits that I know now what to look out for the next time I watch Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). I haven't seen the film in more than 20 years so I think this October I'll be catching up on that classic.

For those who are attending the Mid Atlantic Nostalgia Convention this Septenber: Brian Taves will be among the guests. A limited number of copies of his book will be available on the Bear Manor Media table. Make sure to grab your copy and get it autographed during the weekend. Taking time to read the book from the front cover to the back cover, and a week or so reviewing some of his motion-pictures, will give you a deeper appreciation of the craft and the man behind the camera.