Project Chaplin: Dossier Florey

“My dear Maurice, I have just received your letter of the 23rd in which you ask me what I am working on at the moment. I will tell you, but only on condition that you reveal to nobody in Paris the content of this letter. Some months ago Charlie read me his script and after long conversations about the plot asked me to direct his film […] I have thought about it a lot, for the first time in his brilliant career Charlie asked another director to work with him, and that director was me, I who in 1915 queued outside the cinema to go and see Charlot […] Charlot is the owner of the studio and the producer of the film, we have somewhat different opinions, not only as regards the authenticity of the French elements of the film, but also about the way of framing a scene or lighting a set. We argue constantly. I have recoursed to all my diplomacy but I think I can consider myself a technician of the first class, having matured a certain experience and knowing how to get the framings I want, which are quite other than archaic. I think that from one moment to the next our collaboration might be brought to an end and for this reason I want the French press to know nothing”.

Between May and Autumn of 1946 Robert Florey worked as assistant director to Charlie Chaplin on his film Monsieur Verdoux. Among the materials from these months which we preserve are letters to his friend and confidant Maurice Bessy (editor of the review “Cinémonde”, collector, collaborator of Welles and Duvivier, man of the cinema…) with whom some years later Florey co-authored the book Monsieur Chaplin ou le rire dans la nuit.

No-one outside the most faithful – Reeves, Bergman, Totheroh and a few others –had until now been so close to Chaplin as to be able to witness and relate his moods, the bad tempers and the insecurity. Florey was conscious how exceptional was his position, to the extent that he made a stenographic record of the directions (and the imprecations) of Chaplin to his collaborators during one of the scenes they directed together. Yet the correspondence with Bessy and Florey’s scrapbook of designs, sketches and notes, presumably taken from the set, still reveal the old unconditional admiration of Florey for ‘Charlot’ or the ‘vieux Maître’ as he calls him.

We are in 1946, and perhaps for the first time Chaplin, who had incarnated his own times like none other before him (“as if the very rhythm of his body in movement represented that of the world”, Cocteau had said) felt a distance with cinema, with the language of cinema, with his times and with America. “Verdoux is the metamorphosis of Chaplin into his opposite” wrote Bazin. Florey’s eye recorded this metamorphisis.”

(Cecilia Cenciarelli)

Section curated by Cecilia Cenciarelli

In collaboration with Kevin Brownlow