Directed By: Robert Florey
Trivia: Impressed with how Manhattan looked at sunrise, director Florey shot this movie over three mornings
Odds are a few of you have never heard of Robert Florey, though you’re probably familiar with at least some of his work. Having grown up in Paris down the road from the famous studio of Georges Méliès, he eventually moved to America, where he wrote several books on Hollywood (one of which, Filmland, was a best seller in his native France). After serving as an assistant to filmmakers like King Vidor and Josef von Sternberg, Florey himself became a director (he was initially going to helm 1931’s Frankenstein, but was instead assigned to Murders in the Rue Morgue). Eventually, he made his way to television, directing episodes of The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
In 1929, around the time he was co-directing (with Joseph Santley) the Marx Brothers in their debut feature, The Cocoanuts, Florey took a stroll around Manhattan at sunrise, and was impressed by what he saw. So, over the course of three mornings, he shot Skyscraper Symphony, a 9-minute short that featured a number of New York’s tallest buildings.
The movie starts off quietly enough, with a minute or so of static shots. Then, all of a sudden, the camera starts to move, panning up and down, twisting and turning towards and away from the various structures. In fact, some of the shots in this middle sequence are downright jarring (at one point, the picture spins in several directions, and there are a number of sudden cuts). Things do calm down a bit by the finale, and we close on a shot of a crane, which is busy constructing yet another giant building.
Skyscraper Symphony played in art house theaters for a short while, and is considered an early example of Avant Garde cinema (for decades, the movie was believed lost until a copy was found in 1990, in, of all places, the film archives of the former Soviet Union). But in my opinion, it isn’t so much a cinematic revolution as it is a filmmaker exercising his creativity, hitting the streets of New York and showing us what he believed was worth seeing. Forget cast, crew, sets and props; Skyscraper Symphony is one man with a camera, proving that art isn’t always done by committee.