The flat-out funniest thing I managed to see, on screen or in 3-D life, during this past week, one which was largely bereft of even the most forgiving smile? Robert Morley as Undershaft, the armament magnate and alienated patriarch of a household of idealistic children, among them Wendy Hiller’s ambivalent Salvation Army major, in Gabriel Pascal’s 1941 adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, is berating his son for having no idea what to do with his life and ambitions. After suggesting the arts, philosophy, the army, the navy, the church and the bar, and concluding, after the young man’s every rationalized rejection, that there's not much left but the stage, the son replies, "I do know the difference between right and wrong." Morley's eyes widen, he wheels his girth toward the boy and lets fly with a gloriously sarcastic and hilarious tirade straight out of Shaw:
“You don't say so! What? No capacity for business? No knowledge of law? No sympathy with art? No pretension to philosophy. Only a simple knowledge of the secret that has baffled all the lawyers, muddled all the men of business and ruined most of the artists-- the secret of right and wrong. Why, man, you're a genius! A master of masters! A god. And at 28 too.”
Shaw or no Shaw, Robert Morley is one of those actors I put in a very special category, the one occupied by the actors and actresses I will watch in absolutely anything, who crystallize the glories of whatever production we happen upon them in and raise the level of even the most tedious mediocrity for the time they’re on screen. An accomplished stage actor and playwright as well as one of Britain’s most recognizable and unique screen acting talents, Morley was in his share of stinkers, to be sure-- Around the World in 80 Days, anyone? Major Barbara was only his fourth film appearance, and lucky for us he still had the likes of Partners In Crime (1942), The Small Back Room (1949), The African Queen (1951), Beat the Devil (1953), The Good Die Young (1954), The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958), Oscar Wilde (1960), Those Magnificent Young Men and Their Flying Machines (1965), The Loved One (1965), Theater of Blood (1973), Great Expectations (1974), Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978) and Little Dorrit (1988) all waiting along his lifeline before he died in 1992. The haughty demeanor of some of his most memorable characters, his precise delivery of the most chewy lines, and the degree to which such a large man could internalize and project such delicacy across such a wide range of roles both silly and sublime—all of these would serve as the template, in my mind at least, for anyone who came after and tried to create the same kind of vivid character work in his prodigious shadow. Some succeeded, some didn’t, but none would be as memorable as Robert Morley.
Your favorite Robert Morley performance? Your favorite British character actor?