Robert Florey: The Marx Brothers’ First Director

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Today is the birthday of the French-American film director Robert Florey (1900-1979), best known today for having co-directed the Marx Brothers first film The Cocoanuts (1929).

Rehabilitating the reputations of the Marx Brothers’ early directors has become something of a pet cause of mine for two reasons. One is that, as a recent director of a revived Marx Brothers facsimile, I feel a certain sense of kinship. But more than that I ended up researching these guys several months for talks I gave and articles I wrote for Marxfest, and I learned that their long-standing reputations for being incompetent fools with no sense of humor (an impression created almost entirely by dismissive jokes made at their expense by Groucho in later interviews) were wholly unearned.

Florey is a case in point. He’d begun in Paris as an assistant director and actor working for Louis Feuillade. Florey had been directing since 1927, had worked for Fox Sunshine comedies, had been as assistant to Louis Gasnier and William Beaudine, and worked with Norma Talmadge, Ronald Colman, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. In later interviews, Groucho was dismissive of Florey, saying that he couldn’t speak English and didn’t get their humor. The truth was that Florey  understood his craft as well as anyone did at the time. Besides the Marx Brothers, the other major comedian he worked with was Charlie Chaplin, who made him associate director on Monsieur Verdoux (1947).

Throughout the 30s and 40s he made over dozen thrillers, horror films, mysteries, melodramas and gangster films, most of them B pictures. Among the best known are the expressionistic The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), shot by Karl Freund; Meet Boston Blackie (1941), and The Beast with Five Fingers (1946). From the mid ’50s through the mid ’60s he mostly directed for television. And the 70’s? Were mostly spent trying to counteract the damage done to his memory by Groucho’s disparaging interviews.

Read more about Florey’s difficulties in working with the Marx Brothers here.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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